Skip to content

Full Disclosure, Anita Dunn, and Fox News: A Fairness Proposal for Journalists

In the United States, we have several major news outlets. On television: ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox. There are also several national-ish newspapers (and a diminishing number of local ones): New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and smaller ones in Los Angeles and Chicago. On radio, there are networks for various hosts, but not many specific organs per se: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, are the best known hosts; the largest political network is PBS. The internet, as we all know, is all over the place.

On TV, by far the largest source of news for most people, all but Fox skews left politically, both fiscally and socially. For newspapers, all but the WSJ skew left, again both fiscally and socially. In radio, the opposite is true: most hosts skew right, except PBS, which is leftist. Everybody watches television, newspapers are more influential with so-called cultural elitists, and radio listeners are generally middle to lower class. Everybody is aware of these distinctions and divisions, they are common knowledge, and they have been in place for a long time.

Anita Dunn, whose “favorite political philosopher” is mass murder Mao Tse-Tung, is the White House communications director. She appeared on CNN last week to plaintively complain about its rival network Fox. She claimed that Fox was not a genuine news agency and that it instead appeared more like “the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party.”

Leave aside that Dunn’s, and therefore the Whitehouse’s, ploy paints her and her boss as whiney—to weep that you control all TV outlets but one is surely pathetic. Also ignore that her charge is largely true—by any measure, Fox is conservative. Focus instead on what information Dunn has provided about Fox by her statements—which is exactly none. Or none that was new, because everybody already knew the political stance of that network.

Of course, Fox struck back: it was one of their hosts who dug up the clip of Dunn (who quite literally chews her words) lovingly quoting old Mao. And now float stories that Dunn might soon retire to “pursue other opportunities.” This series of events were entirely predictable—and avoidable.

For consider the journalistic principle “Full Disclosure.” This mandates reporters admit to interests they have in stories they deliver. This includes financial ties, emotional ones, relative ones (as in nepotism), and so on. It helps the reader to know, for example, that the gentlemen being interviewed was once the reporter’s boss. Or that the journalist owns a substantial chunk of stock in the company under scrutiny. Or that he once worked on the politician’s campaign, perhaps as a speech writer.

The idea behind this policy is sound. It is not that reporters cannot be disinterested in their stories even though they have had past or current connections, or that they expect future ones, but that everybody is aware that humans are sometimes unable to quash their biases, or are sometimes unaware of them.

The full disclosure principle is medicine, for example, ensures that experiments, whenever possible, are blinded, meaning the experimenter has no idea of the specific treatment he is administering. And the Federal Trade Commission, frightened of bloggers (like your author: fear me!), has required that they disclose any and all financial ties they have with companies that produce any product the blogger discusses in any way on his web site, lest they face a hefty fine.

So why not require journalists to fully disclose their ties, especially in the political arena?

Thus, here is my proposal, which I offer in earnest: All reporters should be required to suffix a ‘D’ or ‘R’ after their names depending on which president they last voted for (or an ‘N’ in the rare case of no vote). So, next time Charlie Gibson (were he to unretire) interviews a vice-presidential candidate, the screen would show “Charlie Gibson (D)”. At the start of the CBS news, a graphic would announce, “News read by Katie Couric (D)”. And when Sean Hannity is quoted in the Times, we’d see an ‘R’. That goes for the Times writers themselves, of course: the byline provides plenty of space for their Ds.

This proposal returns a modicum of honesty to the reporting process. Journalists would no longer embarrass themselves by declaring their “independence.” These open and obvious lies have always diminished their authority, and have led to the querulous state in which we find ourselves. I suspect, too, that this requirement would lead to a decrease in opinion in reporters’ content, since they would be aware that readers can see their Ds.

I can find no reason not to implement this (voluntary) policy. Since the benefit of news stories is for the readers and not for the reporters, those reporters have no good excuse to avoid this new requirement.

If you agree with this proposal, please pass it on to as wide an audience as possible. We can make it happen.

Update As recommended by reader Harry G: this piece was written by me (R).

Update: Clarification The letter designator is not to distinguish which party the journalist is a member. For example, I am, and have been for a long time, an independent. The only party I ever joined was the Democrats. But I was much younger.

35 thoughts on “Full Disclosure, Anita Dunn, and Fox News: A Fairness Proposal for Journalists Leave a comment

  1. Disclosing their presidential vote would violate the “secret ballot” principle.

    While I accept this as a fact, the “journalists” have a different postion in our culture, and because they spew their venonem and affect the society, they should indeed have to announce their party affiliation, or vote, if you will….

    They want to be “fair” that will allow all reads to see from where they come.

  2. Harry G,

    True enough. I should have put that in there. Thanks.

    the Wizard & Speed,

    The secret ballot principle is fine for civilians.

    My proposal is voluntary, and it puts the burden of proof of disinterestedness where it belongs: on the reporter. A journalist can, of course, refuse to comply, but then he can be asked to explain his otherworldly ability to avoid bias.

  3. It wouldn’t matter to the “Harry G’s” of the world. They’re too willing to suspend reality and accept on faith, the belief in the impartiality of the so-called journalists of the democrat media. The so-called journalists would resist because they know it would reveal the biases ingrained in their “news” operations.

  4. Clinton B,

    No, no. Harry is an absolute sweetheart. He was rightly pointing out what I should have done, that I should have practiced what I preached.

  5. Clinton B

    You got me 100% wrong – No suspension of reality or acceptance on faith at all when it comes to media of any version. I just thought that Briggs idea was brilliant and was merely pointing out a small omission on his part, which he has, as ever, graciously corrected.

    Although here down under with voting compulsory and registration of voters against a particular party a foreign (alien?) concept, the idea would be portrayed as evil from the start. We are left to guess as to the biases. But that isn’t really an onerous task at all.

    PS you may ask how I knew that Briggs is an (R)?

    regards

  6. Disclosing their presidential vote would violate the “secret ballot” principle. Wouldn’t that be true of exit polls too? I’ve always understood the secret ballot principle to be that my vote is my secret and no-one else can reveal it. But I can if I wish because it’s mine.

  7. A journalist as well as a newspaper, magazine, blog, statistician, cable news outlet, scientist, physician, lawyer, politician and next door neighbor builds trust among his/her/its followers through his/her/its body of work not some broadly defined label. A reader/listener/viewer has an obligation to himself/herself to neither blindly believe nor give credence to a single instance of reporting from any source; rather place it in context of an entire body of work.
    .
    Being a responsible consumer of news and information requires thought, knowledge and respect for the process. And skepticism. Any less is no different from a four year old watching cartoons.

  8. Briggs, you said, “My proposal is voluntary, and it puts the burden of proof of disinterestedness where it belongs: on the reporter.”
    .
    I was confused by your statement, “All reporters should be required to suffix a ‘D’ or ‘R’ after their names … “

  9. Back in the dark ages of mid last century the Economist would put some sort of tag line about the background/leanings of each article’s author. “Algernon Lacey is a Maoist economist covering the Democratic Convention in Chicago” woud be a typical example. Also, as I recall they would run several articles about a topic written by those with differing backgrounds. Maybe they still do this, it has been a while since I’ve picked up a copy.

    Sure beats the sorry wordbeasting that passes for journalism, exp on TV.

    Tom Bakewell

  10. Speed,

    You’re right that readers and viewers—the buyers of news—should beware. My proposal doesn’t excuse civilian vigilance, but it would give reporters a new perspective.

  11. Why just the two main political parties or none? There are at least a couple of other political parties that garner enough votes to make them significant.

  12. LOL. That Mr. Harry G. is misread/misjudged based on his short statement makes this Anita Dunn shenanigan hilarious…

  13. This whole “secret ballot” is mostly nonsense. Party affiliation is a matter of public record. And even though one can clearly vote across party lines, your “best guess” of how someone voted on the strength is his or her party affiliation is probably pretty accurate.

    At my polling place, D’s are given one color of card, and R’s another, and you can pretty much tell where an election is headed just by looking at the stacks of (returned) cards. Altho sometimes the poll workers have big mouths—“You’re the first one!” or “Don’t get many of those around here!” so everyone in earshot has a pretty good idea of what will be going on behind the curtain. So much for “secrets.”

  14. In the UK the political stance of the major newspapers was and presumably still is well understood. I think that the issue is not that journalists and TV news reporters have political biases but that they deny having them. Here Fox is in danger of committing the same breach of integrity as the New York Times and the other major TV news outlets – by denying the obvious. I am not sure whether a (D), (R), (L), (S), etc., will do much for the readers and viewers but it might just mean that the journalists and reporters stop lying to themselves. (My view is that the only facts in the Boston Globe are the ball scores, and I cross-check those with the Boston Herald!)

    At the start of this great Republic, newspapers were founded expressly for the support of the political parties and politicians by those same parties and politicians. Everybody knew it but some (e.g. Jefferson) still pretended that they had clean hands. It is better that readers, viewers and listeners be skeptical until their trust is earned.

    Bernie (Skeptic, ~S)

  15. I like the idea, but it misses the big thing.

    For the news section of the newspaper, as opposed to the opinon section, bias is not as pronounced in the reporting of the news as it is in the organization. What is newsworthy? Is any piece of political gossip, an undiscovered scandal, or is it a irrelevant. The newsmakers have the power to choose which stories to spin and who may be embarrased. Is Van Jones a newsworthy character? The NYT didn’t think so, Fox did. Fox won. At one time, the NYT could contol the national agenda, but those days are past.

    Doug (N, non-partisan)

  16. Doug M,

    I classify myself as an N, or Bernie’s ‘~S’, ordinarily. But it isn’t especially helpful to have civilians label themselves. Just reporters (bloggers, FTC?).

    This is no less than we require of physicians when they give a talk on a drug or submit a paper. They are asked, “Do you have any interest in this product?” or words to that effect. If they do, their papers are not rejected, but the interest is stated. Everybody knows where they are.

    But they don’t ask readers for their interest.

    Katie,

    Amen, sister.

  17. I used to be registered non-partisan (a 3rd generation non-partisan), but the state did away that designation. Now I belong to the much wimpier “decline to state.”

  18. Great idea! Having reporters (and bloggers) designate their political leanings is brilliant.

    I have never lived in a state where you are required to register for a particular party, although in primary elections you do have to declare the party primary in which you will vote. It seems to me that even party affiliation for voters can be kept secret with electronic voting, now.

  19. And all of this is premised upon the presidential elections, right? That would be because the president makes the laws, apportions the money, ratifies the treaties and so forth, right?
    .
    Deep sigh.

  20. Schnoerkelman,

    No need for breathing exercises. The presidential suffix felt like the best distillation of the complex information. After all, you could have suffixes for each of your local congressmen, mayor and so on, state congressmen and senators, and on and on. Then you’d have John Doe (D,I,D,R,R,I,D,…D) and the thing would be useless.

    The presidential elections are usually the most contentious, and a person’s proclivities in them predict a lot of the variation of their opinions on other matters. Usually being the key word.

    Wouldn’t you agree?

  21. I grant you the simplicity of your method but feel that resulting tag is not of much value.
    Are the presidential elections really the most contentious? They certainly get the most coverage, though most of it reminds me the climate blogs with much heat and little light.
    .
    Is my vote for president a good predictor of my political views? In the last election I think there was a strong argument to vote against the Republican ticket based only upon the succession issue, Ms Palin, in my mind, not having enough experience to inherit the job. This, in spite of my initial inclination toward McCain (I live abroad and did not vote in the US elections because I feel I should be voting here, but that right is not granted to me).
    .
    I think one thing that has become very clear to me in the last few years is that there is no unbiased reporting. That seems to be simply the nature of the beast. Confirmation bias is what most of us use to decide what makes a good reporter and only diligent questioning and skepticism can provide us with a reasonably informed opinion.

  22. Carry it further. Politicians should put their nationality after their names. Thus Palin (US), McCain (Panama canal zone), Biden (US), Obama (?), and so on.

  23. Political parties have become mostly meaningless in the UK – they all seem to have the same policies, underneath all the spin.

    I’d be more interested in a requirement for all facts (especially figures) to have references, or clear disclaimers if they’re just opinions. If only we could add Wikipedia-style “citation needed” tags.

  24. My Darling Matt,

    You can claim to be nonpartisan, but I am not the only one who thinks you are a Republican. Don’t you think that readers, views and listeners can draw their own conclusions? Does Fox call themselves right wing? No, Fox calls itself a “news” channel. And they label themselves “fair and balanced.” What a joke!

    Your idea stinks. Well, at least, it’s an idea, not a rant. “You know, of course, that I still love you.”

  25. Candy dearest,

    No, they don’t admit it. Neither do the reporters at MSNBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, or NBC admit it. Is the “news” channel MSNBC “fair and balanced”? Nor (assuming your obvious answer to that) should they be required to be. But, asked about their biases, they should admit them. At the least, it’s the honorable thing to do.

    I do not claim to be nonpartisan, and never have. As Harry reminded me, I put my (by my rules) ‘R’ after my mine. I do claim not to be a Republican, and never have been. I have been, once, about twenty years ago, been a Democrat.

    If I am ever a candidate for political office, and a reporter interviews me, I will at least ask her, “Who did you vote for for president?” I will also ask her opinions on the matters she is asking me about.

    Fair’s fair.

  26. I suggested years ago that newspapers would be far better in quality if they consciously assigned conservative editors to liberal reporters and liberal editors to conservative reporters (and published the political leanings with each story). Alternatively, they should have warring stories side by side or allow “clarificationsand additions” to be published along with each major story. Knowing that the other side was going to point out the omissions and slanted versions of the facts would go a long way toward giving news consumers a better, more complete news story.

    And of course, a news outlet that truly did this would have a very strong marketing position.

  27. “Update As recommended by reader Harry G: this piece was written by me (R).

    Update: Clarification The letter designator is not to distinguish which party the journalist is a member. For example, I am, and have been for a long time, an independent. The only party I ever joined was the Democrats. But I was much younger.”

    Who did you vote for in the last 6 elections?

    We need to establish a trend.

    Stats are, after all, what you claim in your tag line.

  28. The Sailor,

    Good point. But recall the object is to identify with the piece. Since I haven’t been writing for the last six elections, it’s not that interesting. There were ‘D’s and ‘R’s in there.

  29. At Last! Someone who knows the meaning of “disinterested” and uses it correctly. This is truly the moment when the planet starts to cool, the oceans to recede. Couldn’t be more chuffed if Al Gore caught laryngitis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *