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We're Not Stenographers



The North Coast Journal does slow journalism. (That's not my coinage, but I love the image.) Like slow food, slow journalism is nurtured along, given some time, given some thought. Slow journalists seek out the highest quality ingredients -- facts, not spin -- and we arrange our words carefully, for maximum reading enjoyment, like a beautifully plated dinner. Daily newspapers and television often can't afford such luxuries. Sometimes they have to toss news nuggets into a paper bag and shove them through a take-out window.

Because the Journal is an alternative weekly and aims to deliver intelligent, nuanced articles, in many ways we're more like a magazine than a daily newspaper. Our writers dig for facts and are encouraged to reach conclusions about what they have learned. There's a long and robust tradition of this kind of reporting in American journalism.

I'm bringing this up now, in election season, because of the spinners. Spinners twist facts. They spin out deft distortions, and try to use the press to dupe the public. A spinner is best served by the fast-food journalists, those on tight deadlines who must quickly grab a quote from one side, a quote from the other, then write that up and run off to the next crisis.

Because spinners thrive in this environment, they try to pretend it's the only model for good journalism. Just quote both sides, they say. Give each equal space. Anything else is "bias."

I'm hearing from some of the spinners and their victims these days, telling me the Journal is biased. The spinners want to spread that perception -- they're repeating it, and some folks are swallowing it. It's gotten to the point that recently, one woman told me that Democrats were buying votes, and then she gaped in disbelief when I replied, "Get me the proof, and we'll print it." She suggested that even if I tried, our publisher, Judy Hodgson, wouldn't let me.

So, in case anyone is else is buying that particular piece of spin, go get your money back. The Journal is absolutely, unequivocally committed to printing what truth we can uncover, and that includes criminal activity by any and all political parties. [Yes, we'll print it. -- Judy Hodgson.]

Beyond that, well, there's a huge difference between bias and discernment.

Bias comes from a closed mind. It's knee-jerk, unfair and ignores the facts. Discernment comes from an open mind. It probes deeply, and is unafraid of reaching thoughtful conclusions based on the evidence. The spinners don't like that reaching conclusions part, because they're afraid of being caught. As an alternative weekly, the Journal may be a little more transparent in laying out our conclusions, but reaching conclusions is part of what every good journalist must do every day, just in deciding which articles to write and which to ignore, which are worth 200 words and which 2,000.

Say you're telling me the moon is made of green cheese. As a journalist, I know enough about the natural world to decide that is too ridiculous to even quote. So I ignore you. That's not bias. That's discernment.

Say you're a county administrator, and you're asking the board of supervisors to invest $100,000 to fly to the moon to harvest green cheese. I devote 90 percent of my article to outlining the science and evidence that demonstrates what a bizarre idea this is, and 10 percent to your most coherent green cheese babble. In this hypothetical, you do get quoted because you're in a position of power and public money is at stake. But you don't get equal space, because you're clearly nuts. That's not bias. That's discernment.

And really, as a reader, which do you want? Do you want articles that explain how things really work, who is saying what behind the scenes, what the subtext might be? Why one idea is sound and another perilous? Who profits and who loses? Or do you want an artificial "balance," where all ideas, all political parties, all economic proposals, get equal space and respect, all mindlessly spread before you as if by a good stenographer?

When I was teaching news writing, I used to lecture on the difference between stenography and journalism. Stenographers just write down who said what, without thinking about what they're hearing. Good journalists don't.

At the Journal, we strive to never, ever, be biased. But we refuse to take refuge in an artificial "balance" that passes no judgment and engages no brain cells. We will call a lie a lie, a crime a crime, an absurdity and absurdity, whether it's committed by a Republican or a Democrat, a DINO or a Green. Once we have gathered enough information, we will write articles with a point of view, based on everything we have learned.

That's not bias. That's discernment.

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