Is today's mainstream media fair and balanced, or do its practitioners put their fat thumbs on the liberal side of the political scale—and then fight to keep it there?
Turner Catledge (1901-1983) joined the New York Times in 1929 as a beat reporter; he retired 40 years later after serving as the paper's managing editor, executive editor, and the company's vice president. For many years he was, as the subtitle of his 1971 autobiography revealed, "the man who ran the world's most powerful newspaper."
A lifelong Democrat who believed in keeping his political leanings out of hard news stories, Catledge made no bones about his personal ideological bent: "I am a Democrat, both by tradition and conviction," he wrote in his memoir. "I am a Democrat for the same reason the Pope is a Catholic—I was born one and subsequent developments persuaded me to remain one. I've scratched the Democratic ticket only once and felt terribly unclean when I did." Turner Catledge, My Life and The Times: By the Man Who Ran the World's Most Powerful Newspaper (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 66.
In reading his memoir this week, I was taken aback by an observation that he made over a half century ago: he wrote that during his final years as editor in the late 1960s, the Times "began to have a new sort of problem in our political coverage. The war in Vietnam, growing racial tensions, and other factors had radicalized many talented young journalists. Some didn't want to work for the Times, with its demands of objective reporting, and some who did come to work for us often chafed at our requirements [of objectivity in reporting]. They wanted a journalism of commitment, and resented those of us who seemed to hold them back. They were a new generation, and we editors could no longer take it for granted that they were devoted to the ideal of objectivity and impartiality." Catledge, 213.
Instead of correcting this defect, journalism schools and the media hierarchy over the last half century have encouraged it. What is the result? A recent Gallup poll (February 2023) showed that respect for the press has cratered to such a degree that a solid majority of Americans now believe that news organizations exist not just to skew the news ideologically—they exist to deliberately mislead the public.
America's journalism schools and the mainstream press should heed Turner Catledge's warning from long ago.