Stefan Hard / Staff File Photo
Berlin voter Michael Stridsberg stands to ask a question, town report in hand, during Berlin’s town meeting in 2011.
During a recent conversation with a friend who is very media savvy, he said something I really hate to hear: “Every reporter has some kind of bias.”
I could’ve hopped up on the soap box and argued for objectivity, public trust and “the truth” based on facts. But I didn’t. He was not talking about outright bias that affects how news is covered. He was not talking about abuses of power, manipulation or strong-arming.
He was talking about how real-life experiences — death, divorce, abuse, bankruptcy, addiction — leave an impression on all of us and shape our attitudes toward those experiences when we brush up against them in everyday life.
He’s right, of course. Journalists have lives, too. There are issues that make us all bristle; there are issues that enrage and provoke us; and there are those issues we just avoid at all costs if we can.
I’d be a fool to argue that even the most die-hard journalist is not swayed by life’s successes and failures.
We are trained (and constantly reminded) to do our best to rise above the currents of opinion to remain as objective as possible serving as the eyes and ears of the public. Watchdogs should not be watching for “gotcha moments” based on vendettas and agendas. We need to do our jobs better than that. As journalists, it is up to us to call out those not working for the public good.
That process, of course, also is somewhat subjective. I hear a lot that if you are the target of a newspaper inquiry, you feel victimized by the newsgathering process. Facts are elusive and often take persistence to dig out from tough spots. That dogged pursuit can be uncomfortable for sources. But that, too, is the nature of our job.
The other side of our challenge is what makes being a journalist even important. It comes down to this: People tell you what they want to tell you. They rarely tell you the whole story, and they usually leave out pieces of information that could make them look foolish.
In other words, spin.
Reporters and editors muck through lies and exaggerations all day long, trying to get at the facts that move us as close to the truth as possible. We are often deliberately deceived and misled. No matter the source, there is a bias. Even the most sincere sources tell stories with an emphasis, which makes the process of finding facts subjective.
Some organizations hire public relations firms to spin messages for them. These are experts in the art of manipulating information, public opinion and outcomes, usually in the favor of clients. Without successes, clients will go to another firm that can do their bidding better.
Newsrooms across the country regularly deal with spin doctors. A seasoned journalist’s first question upon receiving a call from one is: What’s the angle being played here?
Any credible newsgathering process starts with sorting agendas, incentives and bull.
In the last few months, The Times Argus has had some unusual dealings with flacks from one firm who have clearly been trying to use the newspaper’s reach for leverage. These were not “frontal assaults” to get information out to the public. These were under-the-radar, shady tactics.
One was an aggressive attempt to place a controversial letter to the editor into the paper that was manipulated and edited by the spin doctors but with an employee’s name signed to it. Fortunately, we didn’t fall for the ploy. The letter, if published, could have affected a very high-profile vote.
Then, this week, on the eve of next week’s town meeting, a representative of this same local spin shop sought information about how a central Vermont town might be conducting a particular vote — by ballot or voice vote?
Without much prodding, the intent was made clear: The firm had a client who wanted to stack the town meeting deck by being the “louder” voice vote. The spinmeisters simply wanted to sway one vote in one particular town and declare victory for their client. That means, in these days leading up to town meeting, sending out a specific, orchestrated rallying cry to voters who may or may not care about the actual outcome. The verdict on whether the spin is successful won’t be determined until March 5.
Town meeting is the ultimate spin season, because appropriations, budgets, bonds and more are at stake. Everyone wants a piece of the taxpayers’ pie, even if it means manipulating the democratic process to get it.
Town meeting loses its quaintness when democracy loses out to the schemes of spin doctors and their apparent disdain for allowing a process to run its natural course.
And now my bias shows.
Lobbying has its place — I know this. Spin is a natural adversary for journalists. But when special interests prey upon apathy, and thrive on it, the process feels less democratic and more liked a stuffed ballot box.
Our job is to preserve the public trust. It is your job as voters to know the issues and get out and vote so that your constitutional right is not trampled upon by spin doctors who get paid plenty not to care what you think.
Steven Pappas is editor of The Times Argus.MORE IN Central Vermont
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