Who watches the watchers?

Brian Williams from "NBC Nightly News" in 2010. Reuters photo by Phil McCarten.

Brian Williams from “NBC Nightly News” in 2010. Reuters photo by Phil McCarten.

People of my political persuasion have a long and well documented loathing of the media.

From our perspective, the media is populated by liberal activists who view journalism as a way to “change the world.” They choose stories and choose perspectives on those stories based on a pre-existing agenda that they bake into their coverage. They apply scrutiny to people they don’t like and don’t politically support and ignore oftentimes more egregious behavior from people they like and do politically support.

That impression is reinforced frequently. In 2008, NBC reporter Lee Cowan admitted that it was “hard to stay objective” while covering Sen. Barack Obama on the campaign trail.

Indeed, the conservative Media Research Center maintains a list of admissions of liberal bias from the media itself as a way of demonstrating this long suspected tendency.

This natural distrust is the entire reason that there was a market for Fox News Channel, which launched in 1996. While today it is viewed — rightly, in my opinion — as a conservative echo chamber, when it began, the notion of a news channel that was “fair and balanced” was refreshing to millions of Americans who were tired of being force fed liberal activists masquerading as unbiased purveyors of information.

The reality today, though, seems to be embracing compartmentalized bias. The rise of “partisan media,” particularly the dueling ideologies of channels like the aforementioned Fox News and MSNBC, have taken what was a long simmering suspicion of biased media and made a business plan out of it.

Partisan media aside, I myself have never been much of a media bias person. While there are outright yellow journalism outlets, there is still a strong strain of real reporting in a number of places.

I’ll give you an example. In my experience dealing with the media, both locally in Maine and nationally, I found mostly good, hardworking, fair-minded journalists doing their jobs.

In fact, I also found that what is often mistaken for bias is actually not bias at all, but the realization of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Conservatives do not trust the media, so they don’t talk to them. They don’t pitch stories, they don’t take reporters out for drinks, they don’t work with them in any way and, in fact, antagonize them.

The result is a system whereby the only connections reporters have are on the left. They get pitched by liberals and ignored by conservatives, and stories that appear one-sided as a result, which makes conservatives angrier, which compounds the problem.

Despite the visible rise of a la carte ideological journalism, the real problem with the media isn’t institutional bias, it is a lack of accountability.

The chief value of the media is as a watchdog, informing the public as to what is happening and exposing important things that the public needs to know to make rational decisions.

But, if I could borrow an oft-repeated aphorism, who is watching the watchers?

What happens when reporters behave irresponsibly and report things that aren’t true? What happens when a trusted reporter makes something up? What happens when reporting becomes little more than unverified gossip?

The answer is nothing. No system of accountability, outside internal, self-imposed rules, applies.

Certainly, somebody as visible and well known as Brian Williams can be held accountable by the sheer force of mass popular opinion and crowdsourced outrage. Yet, even after being caught making up stories that completely destroyed his professional credibility, he gets a slap on the wrist and a small suspension from the network.

But what about those less well known? Let’s move away from politics and look briefly at sports, specifically reporting on “deflategate.”

Virtually every reporter and on air personality at ESPN is guilty of shoddy, irresponsible reporting, and not a single one of them suffered consequences for their behavior.

Even if you think the Patriots did something wrong, the avalanche of facts the media got wrong is too numerous to quantify. At every turn, reporters irresponsibly spread misinformation that was deliberately manipulated to be sensational to help drive a narrative and generate clicks.

This destructive style of “reporting” is repeated in many sectors. The rise of online linkbait, coupled with perspective journalism at online places like Huffington Post and The Daily Caller, has flooded our system with junk information tailored to the audience it believes it can sell to.

And nowhere are these reporters held accountable. There are small media watchdogs, certainly, but there is no large infrastructure that exposes this type of sloppy journalism and holds it accountable. There is no “media for the media” so to speak.

At the end of the day, it is that, and not necessarily bias, that is the media’s real achilles heel.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.