Now that my 44 years on daily newspapers have ended, I’m finally free to admit my biases.
I’m biased toward the facts. Toward compassion. Toward freedom. All basics of our business. All under attack by today’s Republicans.
We reporters pride ourselves on open minds. We’re fiercely independent. We defy sources and editors alike. We try to look past party labels to individuals’ merits. Some of my colleagues at the Cleveland Plain Dealer wouldn’t even vote in Ohio’s primary because of having to declare their parties. So I wasn’t surprised to see a 2017 study in ScienceAdvances showing little bias in our rates of response to news pitches from the two parties.
Still, the same study showed that journalists (not to be confused with media moguls) tilted left personally. It seems that liberals often become reporters, and maybe journalists become liberals.
During my career, mostly with the PD and Local 1 of The NewsGuild, I’ve watched inmates and spouses cry at a marriage seminar in prison. I’ve watched migrant workers uprooting trees that few U.S. citizens would lug.
I’ve interviewed people wounded by National Guardsmen at Kent State in 1970 when they were in college. I’ve interviewed one of the Little Rock Nine who desegregated Central High School in 1957. I’ve interviewed parents who lost Marine children in Iraq. One couple later lost their only other child to cancer, but gained a grandchild on Mother’s Day through surrogacy.
I’ve learned to empathize with people of all kinds, from Daniel Ellsberg to Geraldo Rivera, from a Palestinian refugee to Soviet Jewish ones. During Solidarity’s rise in Cold War Poland, a Holocaust refugee told me, “I hope blood runs in the streets of Poland.” I wrote, “Perhaps the cruelest trick of bigotry is to teach its victims to hate.”
I always wanted to write. At age 5, I was calling my scribbles a newspaper.
My parents were English majors. Dad’s law clients included a boosters’ club for Nelson Rockefeller. Mom observed the United Nations for the League of Women Voters, which champions non-partisan research. I grew up mildly liberal but not at all radical. I believed in facts, laws, empathy, and the Fourth Estate’s vital role in sharing them all.
I started my career four years after Watergate. By then, the typical town was down to one paper, which strove for balance, partly to justify its monopoly. If both sides were offended equally, we reporters figured we’d done our job right. At least once that I recall, the side I secretly favored was the more offended.
We spent hours checking the facts. Sometimes common wisdom proved false. It turned out, for instance, that cuts in the top tax rate haven’t correlated with growth, let alone paid for themselves.
Sometimes seemingly false things proved true. In the 1990s, an editor told me to write how Cleveland’s always erratic weather had grown even weirder in the past couple years. I wrote a story packed with data proving him wrong. He was a good sport and ran it. Eventually, though, the mounting data proved him right.
In my early years, our two political parties disagreed mostly about policies, not facts. And both lied at times, mostly about scandals. But soon the party of Honest Abe began to lie far more systematically about candidates and issues. “Voodoo economics,” “yellowcake uranium,” “weapons of mass destruction” (as opposed to the U.S.’s far deadlier arms), birtherism, “death panels,” widespread “voter fraud” and “rampant” immigrant crime have been just a few of the elephants’ false memories. Meanwhile, the falsifiers have denounced anyone standing by the facts, such as scientists, social scientists, and journalists.
Over my objections, many journalists responded to the denunciations by growing vague and defensive. They’d try to make the two parties sound equal instead of giving them equal scrutiny. They’d write “A-said, B-said” instead of “A falsified, B debunked.” They’d draw false equivalence between fringe advocates of violence on the left and high-ranking ones on the right. They’d use the term “extremists” for progressives hoping to stretch the age ranges for Medicare or free public education and for right-wingers caging children and imprisoning debtors.
They’d lead a story with “Republican So-and-So denounced climate change as a hoax.” A few paragraphs later, they’d say, “Democrat So-and-So called it real.” Then they’d give equal time to a rare scientific dissenter and one of the throng of supporters. At long last they’d cite temperatures, ice thicknesses, and other proof. All the while, they’d call climate change a “theory” without explaining that word’s scientific meaning: an explanation of the facts.
In 2004, after George W. Bush’s second narrow win, a Plain Dealer colleague called a meeting to talk about how liberal journalists should try to understand conservatives better. I said we should also try to understand liberals, who keep trying to understand their foes without reciprocation.
By then, fact-checking columns were analyzing political rhetoric play by play, but seldom adding up the score. It took a 2013 George Mason University study to find that Republicans were three times likelier than Democrats to make claims that the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact called “false” or “pants on fire.”
Now Donald Trump is accelerating his party’s plunge, fomenting violence by police and civilians, demanding jail for opponents, reaping foreign emoluments, insulting everyone from Mexicans to Gold Star parents to fellow Republicans, steering hush money, sacking watchdogs, seizing a church, subjecting peaceful protesters to attacks, plundering his so-called foundation, and calling journalists “enemies of the people” without the phrase’s original irony.
He has also spread myths ranging from inaugural downpours to oral disinfectants to murder by broadcaster. In the 17 months through May 29, he averaged 22 false or misleading claims per day, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker.
Some journalists have refused to circulate these claims, even with refutations. But most of us think presidential fictions are still news. even if the publicity inspires Trump’s flock.
We’re also leading more stories with the truth: not “So-and-So claimed...” but “So-and-So repeated the common falsehood...” Many even say “So-and-So lied.” But lies are conscious, and I’m not sure the Republicans know the truth anymore.
And we’re finally defending ourselves. My Local 1 of The Newspaper Guild printed T-shirts saying “Truth.” Cleveland’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists printed ones saying, “Friend of the People.”
Still, it’s hard to sell facts when roughly half the country won’t buy them. That’s part of why the number of editorial employees at American newspapers fell from more than 71,000 in 2008 to less than 35,000 in from 2008 through 2019, according to Pew. This year, during a pandemic aggravated by rejection of scientific facts, many more layoffs have followed, including mine.
Now I’m a freelancer, and I’m finally speaking up. Call me a militant moderate. I won’t just denounce extremists but their party, too. I won’t urge liberals to match the Republicans’ lies and hate, but I’ll urge all Americans to unite against the dividers.
Most pundits still champion bipartisanship and try to embody it by telling the parties, “Kids, I don’t care who started it.” But these kids aren’t wrestling over toys. They’re wrestling over democracy’s survival. And the Republicans have grown more partisan than ever, attacking bipartisan commissions, investigating independent investigators, barring testimony from the impeachment trial, anointing judges from the openly biased Federalist Society, closing urban polls and offering to hire 50,000 people to “watch” voters. If we ignore the parties’ differences today, we’re biased toward the middle. We’re refusing to swing the hose toward the fire.
Naturally, my words will be held against me and my trade. But Republicans condemn conciliatory words, too. It’s high time to speak up for the truth regardless. If we wait much longer, who will be left to write democracy’s obituary, and who will be free to read it?
Grant Segall is a national prizewinning journalist who spent 44 years on daily newspapers, mostly the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He has freelanced for The Washington Post, Time and other outlets and wrote John D. Rockefeller: Anointed with Oil for Oxford University Press. He tweets at @GrantSegall.