Is bias-free news coverage coming back into vogue?
After years in which news outlets became associated with one political slant or another, there are some signs that a course correction is under way in the media. So far, the shift is a subtle one.
Here's a news flash: Politically flavored reporting – as in conservatives prefer Fox News and liberals like MSNBC or CNN – may be undergoing a rethink, as networks and some news websites seek to expand their appeal or shore up ratings.
The changes so far are subtle, and some media watchers are skeptical they will amount to much. But signs are building that some major news outlets are taking steps to de-emphasize political overtones, reemphasize facts, and pay closer heed to the "fair and balanced" standard of journalism.
Among them are the Fox News Channel, where a "course correction" is reported to be under way aimed at moderating on-air content, and the liberal Huffington Post, which is featuring a greater diversity of voices since founder Arianna Huffington expanded her domain upon taking the helm of media giant AOL.
Reports of these changes coincide with a groundswell of grass-roots groups demanding greater accuracy and accountability from online and on-air media. Efforts in the mode of the Tampa Bay Times's PolitiFact and factcheck.org include Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, who is quietly seeding ventures devoted to rooting out disinformation in the media.
It is no surprise that these trends are emerging simultaneously, media watchers say. Media outlets need to appeal to a broader audience to reverse sagging ratings, and to do that they must respond to audience demand for greater credibility.
There is a fundamental urge in human nature to seek out "the reliable," says communications professor Leonard Shyles of Villanova University in Philadelphia. "You want to know that when you put your trust in something you spend your valuable time with, that in the end, there is something you can trust."
A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center found that Americans' trust in the media was at its lowest level in nine of 12 core areas, such as accuracy and freedom from bias, since the center began its media survey in 1985.
But "once you get to the point of saying, 'everything is false,' you cannot live that way," says Professor Shyles. He sees the efforts to restore trustworthiness in the media as "a resurfacing of the primal urge that led to the creation of the fourth estate concept in the mid-20th century.
"We want that reliable proxy for ourselves" in tackling corruption and gathering important information, he says.
Reports that Fox chairman and chief executive officer Roger Ailes is seeking a "course correction" at Fox News Channel have appeared in media outlets such as Newsweek, New York magazine, and a recent post on PolitiFact.com. The cable channel did not respond to multiple Monitor e-mail, voice mail, and pager requests for comment, but in the past its representatives rejected suggestions that Fox news broadcasts are anything but impartial and nonpartisan.
Fox's commentators across the political spectrum, however, say on-air talent is being directed to stop talking over guests and to marshal facts to defend their positions. "There have been attempts to change the tone and factual content of the Fox shows," says journalism professor Mark Tatge of DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., who has appeared many times on Fox programs as an unpaid guest. Those orders "have come directly from the producers," he says. Mr. Tatge believes Fox News Channel still showcases "a very one-sided debate where one side is given more favorable advantage, and they don't really want to allow for two sides to every argument." But, he acknowledges, there is "a slight move on the meter."
The departure from the channel last year of archconservative Glenn Beck is also evidence that Fox is trying to distance itself from extreme political rhetoric, according to various news reports.
Some Fox viewers appear to have noticed. John Fredericks, a Virginia radio talk-show host, says he has turned Fox off. In the past, he says, he counted on the channel for reliably conservative slants, but no more. "I go to CNN now," he says with a laugh, "because at least there I know I will get both sides and I can just decide for myself."
Republican strategist David Johnson, who worked on Bob Dole's 1988 presidential campaign, reports hearing similar comments at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. "There was a lot of grumbling about Fox," he says. "Its target audience of angry middle-class voters is mad at Fox because they think it is becoming part of the mainstream media that they don't like."
The notion that Fox is tempering its tone makes some of its critics laugh out loud. Fox may well be evenhanded in directing tough questions to all Republican presidential candidates, but "that's to be expected because this is the GOP primary," says Ari Rabin-Havt, executive vice president of Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog group, and a co-author of "The Fox Effect."
ColorOfChange, a national African-American political advocacy group, is currently calling on Fox to fire business commentator Eric Bolling for what it deems derogatory slurs against prominent African-Americans, from President Obama to Rep. Maxine Waters (D) of California. Mr. Bolling said on the air after the death of singer Whitney Houston that Ms. Waters needed to step away from her "crack pipe," says Rashad Robinson, the group's executive director.
Bolling apologized for remarks he made about Mr. Obama last summer, says Mr. Robinson, adding, "They seem to think it is enough to simply apologize for bigotry and continued racial slurs."
Because Fox News Channel's ratings declined as much as 15 percent over the past year, it's logical, even inevitable, for Fox to pursue a broader audience, says media pundit Paul Levinson of Fordham University in New York and author of "New New Media." "This is just what happens with media organizations over the long haul," he says. "When they first arrive they stake out positions, but then they want to be as successful as possible and last as long as possible, and they start to veer more toward the center," which is where the largest audience gathers.
Keith Olbermann's departure from MSNBC last year is just such an example, notes Mr. Levinson. The channel's coverage still tilts liberal, he says, but "nobody is as far left as Olbermann."
Over at the Huffington Post, considered a left-of-center website, an adjustment appears to be under way as well, says political scientist William Rosenberg at Drexel University in Philadelphia. A social media commentator who recently addressed one of his classes said the site has "widened its scope" by tapping more guest bloggers, Professor Rosenberg reports.
Changes at Fox might be attributed to a realization that the most conservative part of the Republican Party has been splintering. That demographic has been an important one to Fox, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. "As the Republican Party has begun to squabble and fall apart into smaller and smaller divides, it makes sense that Fox has been pushed to reach out to a more moderate, larger audience," he says.
Activists fed up with the media are the real accelerants in this broader culture of correction, says Craigslist's Mr. Newmark in a phone interview. "The press is the immune system of a democracy," he says. "Trust is the new black." America needs a robust press to keep public figures honest, he says, "and we need them not to make matters worse." He is working with the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation, among others, to help bring attention to the issue. "What I will do is lend my name to these efforts,... and I will plan to help with modest funding," he says.
Newmark's aha moment came last June, he says, while watching Fox's Chris Wallace interview Comedy Central's Jon Stewart about the problem of reporters not challenging their sources over misstatements. "Stewart has done some of the most constructive criticism of this problem," he says, "and he's also pretty funny about it." Newmark had been considering his philanthropic interests, and says he decided to help join citizen journalists with media professionals to tackle this problem of "how do we make truth matter again?"
This inflection point for Newmark points to Comedy Central's influence on the next generation's perspective on the news media. "You have Jon Stewart assigning himself the role of ombudsman for Fox, hammering on Mr. Beck night after night," says Mr. Thompson, "and then you have Stephen Colbert basically doing a parody of Bill O'Reilly." Comedy Central's influence goes far beyond the actual audience for these shows, Thompson notes, and Fox's Mr. Ailes "has to have paid attention to that."