Journalists preach balance but don’t usually practice it

Journalists preach balance but don’t usually practice it

Reporters are supposed to cover both sides of the story. Journalists trumpeted this principle in defending a recent story in the Harvard Crimson that sought to quote both sides about an immigration controversy.

But in the real world, this principle is often ignored. If a reporter doesn’t want to cover both sides of the story, she just pretends there aren’t really two sides to it, and then quotes only the side she likes. For example, a progressive Chicago Tribune reporter wrote a story discussing New York City’s immigration guidance, which threatens to impose $250,000 fines on people who use the term illegal alien instead of alternative terms like non-citizen.

To try to make New York’s harsh guidance seem justified, that reporter approvingly quoted a progressive law professor falsely stating that the the term “illegal alien isn’t a term that comes up in our laws.” That wrongly implied that illegal alien is not a valid legal term. In reality, the term illegal alien is found in our laws, as both conservative and libertarian critics of New York’s immigration guidance had publicly pointed out before the reporter wrote her story. A pro-immigration libertarian policy analyst recognized that the term illegal alien is used 31 times in federal laws. After these facts were brought to its attention, the Tribune not only refused to correct its story’s false impression that illegal alien is not a legal term, it reposted the inaccurate story a second time to add insult to injury.

Reporters often won’t quote the other side of the story, unless it would be obvious to their readers that there are two legitimate sides of the story and that the reporter utterly failed to seek comment from the other side. But if a reporter thinks readers won’t realize that there is a respectable other side to the story, she often won’t print it. Even if the reporter receives a thoughtful comment from the other side on an issue — such as an unsolicited email from me, back in the years when I was an experienced lawyer and think-tank scholar — she will often deliberately ignore it and refuse to acknowledge the existence of any such comments. That is especially true if the comment is logical and knowledgeable, and thus might persuade readers to disagree with the reporter’s take on the issue.

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This bias and one-sidedness is particularly true of reporters writing about schools or the educational system or about race or gender issues. Such reporters generally don’t want to print both sides of the story because that would undermine the progressive political message they seek to promote through their reporting. They want to change the world by changing readers’ minds, not print both sides of the story, which could actually reinforce a reader’s existing views.

Recently, there was controversy over whether the Harvard Crimson newspaper should have quoted federal immigration officials in a story about their activities. After the Harvard Crimson covered an “Abolish ICE” protest on campus in September, “fierce blowback came from student activists,” notes the Washington Post. The activists argued that the Crimson should not have contacted ICE for comment.

The Crimson had covered a rally calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The reporters contacted ICE for comment, but didn’t hear back.

College Democrats and other groups called on the Crimson to apologize for reaching out to ICE, claiming that asking it for comment is “virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.” The newspaper’s attempt to obtain the perspective of the agency in question “blatantly endangers undocumented students on our campus,” read the petition.

The Washington Post’s editorial board defended the Crimson‘s contacting ICE, saying that printing both sides of the issue is a matter of “journalistic principles.” Thus, the Post argued, failing to seek comment from ICE would have been a departure from “journalistic norms.”

Unfortunately, if “norm” means “normal,” that is untrue. As a matter of journalistic principle, newspapers should seek out both sides. But there is nothing abnormal about them failing to do so. One-sidedness is quite normal among journalists. I can attest to this from many years of personal experience, in dealing with The Post and other papers.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, I practiced education law for years. That included successfully representing students, school board members, and private colleges in First Amendment and discrimination cases. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of some of my clients in discrimination and federalism cases, and I successfully used lawsuits to challenge students’ discipline under the First Amendment. I also worked in the Education Department in two different administrations handling civil-rights issues.

But I’ve almost never been cited by The Post’s news reporters. They’ve published many stories over the years on issues I had litigated or written about. But Post reporters seldom quoted anyone on my side of the issue. They quoted me only twice, even though I have sent sent Post education reporters dozens of emails in response to campus controversies or lawsuits. My emails provided useful quotes for publication because they cited controlling legal authority related to the specific subjects raised by their reporting, such as free speech, discrimination, and sexual harassment. My emails discussed court rulings binding on the very colleges the reporters were writing about.

The Post’s news reporters didn’t quote me about these subjects, even though conservative Post opinion columnists have quoted me about them (such as George Will) or linked to my writings (such as the late Charles Krauthammer). It is not as if I am too politically extreme to cite. I may be somewhat conservative, but I am far closer to the political center than most people quoted by Washington Post education reporters, who are mostly staunch progressives.

My mainstream views are illustrated by the fact that one of The Post’s own editorials approvingly linked to one of my letters to the editor. It was one of many letters I have published in The Post’s opinion section. As the Post’s editorial board noted on June 13, 2007, citing my letter, “as a letter in the adjacent column points out, there are instances of far more serious crimes, even killings, whose perpetrators face less time behind bars than” two people who were jailed for years just for letting minors drink beer. The Post’s opinion section once paid me $40 for a column in its Closer to Home section that defended a museum’s artistic freedom.

Back when it was not as progressive as it it is today, The Post’s editorial board also agreed with a Supreme Court decision I litigated. I successfully represented a student athlete in that 2000 Supreme Court ruling. Today, that ruling is considered controversial, and the fact that I represented that student would be cited against my ever being confirmed to any Senate-confirmed position. But back then, even many moderate Democratic newspapers like The Post and the Seattle Times reluctantly agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision, which was authored by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

There were two exceptions where I actually was quoted by a Post reporter about education issues over the years. The first was when a Post reporter decided to write a hit piece about my cranky blog post, nitpicking about my daughter’s history textbook. I unintentionally made him aware of that blog post, by using “reply all” to send it to a large group of email users that turned out to include him.

(Progressive reporters who do like to quote conservatives, when it makes conservatives look bad, and thus makes progressives look good by comparison. For example, progressive education reporters will contact obscure, dim-witted, right-wing extremist groups deemed “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to see if they disagree with a progressive education policy. They will contact these obscure groups, rather than more knowledgeable conservative experts who are in the mainstream. The reporter does this in hopes of making any disagreement with progressive positions seem extreme or racist. When a mainstream conservative scholar hears about this through the grapevine, and emails the reporter a thoughtful critique opposing a progressive policy, the reporter simply ignores what that conservative has to say. That’s because quoting the scholar’s viewpoint wouldn’t be helpful to the progressive agenda, the way quoting a right-wing crank is).

Since The Post reporter was writing a story specifically about me and my blog post, failing to contact me for comment would have been too obviously biased to escape readers’ notice. So he contacted me for comment before writing it.

His draft story was initially very hostile to me. It became less hostile to me after the textbook publisher threatened to sue the reporter for libel, making the reporter more sympathetic to me. The published falsely cried “libel” when the reporter accurately told it that I did have a point about the textbook being wrong to claim that Roanoke is a “fast-growing city,” when it isn’t growing much. The reporter published not one but two articles about the history textbook and my blog post about it, which you can find here and here.

The second instance in which The Post quoted me was about whether Old Dominion University could punish a fraternity over a humorous banner telling moms to drop their freshman daughters off at the fraternity. Angry people claimed the banner somehow made light of sexual assault, even though the banner contained no hint of such a message. The Post reporter was not thrilled with my observation that the First Amendment protected the fraternity from being punished by the university. She probably only quoted me because she felt she had no choice but to do so.

She probably felt compelled to do so, because she believed that an opinion writer was already going to quote me elsewhere in The Post about the very same subject. First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh of UCLA Law School emailed me that he was going to publish an opinion piece about the fraternity banner at the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog. I passed that email along to the Post reporter. That piece would show Washington Post readers that there was an other side to the story of whether the fraternity should be punished. That would make it obvious to readers that there was another side to the story that the Post reporter needed to cover.

Ironically, Professor Volokh, who had planned to write about the controversy, became too busy to do so at the last minute. If she had known that would happen, the Post reporter could have gotten away with not quoting me, rather than printing my unsolicited email in full, as her news story did. But she didn’t know that at the time. As a result, she probably felt compelled to hold her nose and quote my politically-incorrect point that punishing the fraternity would have violated court rulings about the First Amendment. For example, I cited the court ruling saying that a fraternity couldn’t be punished for a racist, sexist skit, in Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University (1993).

But I was never quoted by The Post in its other stories, even when I had far more knowledge of the topic than anyone the reporter was quoting on the other side, and sent an email to those reporters prior to their story being published. In short, I was only quoted by Post reporters if they thought the failure to quote me was such a blatant omission that it would make the reporter look bad.

If you search The Post’s web site using my name, you will find it come up many times, almost always in the opinion section, but not in the news section. My name comes up either because I was cited by an opinion writer (such as law professors Jonathan Adler, David Bernstein, Eugene Kontorovich, or Eugene Volokh), or because my name appears in my letters to the editor about educational or legal issues.

But almost never does my name come up in any Washington Post news story. It is not because there were more knowledgeable people to quote. Many of the stories that did not quote me after I emailed the reporter instead quoted people on the other side who knew far less. For example, progressives were quoted about legal topics they had no expertise in, even when they never practiced law. By contrast, I was not quoted even about legal subjects on which I had published law review articles or scholarly publications.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for CNSNews.com and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”