David Harsanyi

David Harsanyi

Former Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi, now a nationally-syndicated columnist and editor at The Federalist, may have offered a sneak peek at what happens in the Denver Post newsroom that might explain why conservatives believe that some journalists are ideologically biased.  Here’s what Harsanyi had to say in the National Review Online:

For a number of years I worked as a metro columnist at a bustling city newspaper. For a time, my cubicle was located next to the investigation desk of the paper, where, unlike those assigned to more modest beats, reporters were allowed to take deep dives into weighty issues — often for months, even years.

This was the prestige position. The spot where reputations were made. The place where Pulitzers could be won (and almost were). More than any of those piddling advantages, though, it was the place where journalists could mete out some much-needed “justice.” And I soon noticed that nearly every angle this crack team chased down was propelled by . . . let’s call them poetic truths. Things that liberals know are true even if they can’t necessarily prove them.

In one case, the team set out to detail the existence of widespread corruption within the state’s judicial system, even though that’s not what the dearth of evidence suggested. Naturally, my neighbors turned to a time-honored tradition among journalists: They found a zealous advocacy group to do the work for them. And as my colleagues turned into stenographers, the phone conversations wafting toward my workspace began to lack any skepticism and increasingly featured pronouns journalists should never use, such as “we” and “us.” They had big plans. Once all leads had been exhausted, the story was whittled down to a single case of false identity that had been reported earlier in another paper. Still, their gut told them the system was rotten. They intimated as much in the piece. It’s what the kids call “truthiness.”

Alas, today’s journalism sounds a lot like my old cubicle.

To the best of our knowledge, Harsanyi has never worked at another city paper as a metro columnist, other than his stint at The Denver Post.  The reporting described by Harsanyi is especially dangerous.  The busy, the innocent, and the unengaged will read said “truthiness” and the slant in the piece and take away exactly what journalists want them to – that there is a bad guy and good guy in a scenario.

Here’s the problem.  Rarely are issues that are worthy of news coverage so neat as to have just two sides to a story.  Let’s take the issue of a corrupt judicial system.  It’s not just the system vs. the criminals, but there are also victims of crimes to consider. So, which side is good and which side is bad?  Does making the judicial system a bad guy marginalize victims?  Or, how about another issue – is the debate over fracking the environmentalists vs. the energy industry and is the energy industry the Goliath to the environmentalists David?  Hardly.  When journalists oversimplify issues into good guy vs. bad guy or David vs. Goliath, they miss the truly interesting parts of the stories, which are typically far more complex than a simple black and white rendition of an issue.

Maintaining journalistic integrity and a healthy sense of skepticism is a lonely proposition and having collaborators on a story like the “zealous advocacy group” described above must be tempting. But, portraying, even subtly, the story as good vs. evil ignores the complexity of real life.  But, as Harsanyi writes in his article, “never let a good story get bogged down by facts”.

We’d argue that the best stories convey the complex facts.

Photo credit: The Federalist