Some journalists will do anything to win one of the Pulitzer Prizes scheduled for announcement this year on April 16. The Associated Press has 243 news bureaus and lots of writers, but in the past 45 years the AP has won only four Pulitzers for articles. Even in their own home the writers have no bragging rights: AP during those 45 years has won 22 Pulitzers for photos.
From the AP perspective, Something Must Be Done. So what if AP traditionally performed the useful role of getting out lots of stories quickly? The way to win awards is to give more "perspective," which typically means a move from reporting the news to propagandizing for liberal views. And AP is heading in that direction.
AP senior managing editor Michael Oreskes recently sent a memo to 3,000 AP staffers announcing "The New Distinctiveness." He wrote, "AP wins when news breaks, but after an hour or two we're often replaced by a piece of content from someone else who has executed something more thoughtful or more innovative." He wants writers to follow up breaking news with more perspective-which means they'll scratch their heads instead of pounding the pavement and working the phones to break the next story.
Oreskes wrote that the AP is also "going to be pushing hard on journalism with voice, with context, with more interpretation." He said AP will enter the business of "putting the dots together, adding two plus two and saying it equals four." Or three. Or five. He wants "Thematic Thinking. We're going to be much more aggressive in identifying themes off the news-angles the world is thinking about-and digging deeper." He wants AP to be "refining our thinking and slightly resequencing our journalistic DNA."
The statement by Oreskes made official what was already becoming apparent. WORLD is a member of the Associated Press, so last summer three interns and I began every weekday by reading a half-dozen stories on controversial political, economic, and social issues. We asked: Are they balanced enough to put on Worldmag.com? Or-because of their bias, their superficiality, or both-can we use them only as straw with which to construct our own bricks?
A list of the lowlights would be long, and I will mention only a few. First, AP reports during those months were highly tilted in favor of same-sex marriage: AP regularly connected battles for racial equality with those for redefining marriage. Conservatives received treatment like that of segregationists 50 years ago: One AP reporter on June 21 called conservative legislators "the last hurdle" to be jumped and didn't balance that with the view that they could also be considered "the last defense" against societal breakdown.
The AP reports were not balanced, and it would be silly to expect them to be when mainstream journalists see opponents of homosexuality as defenders of social cancer. No one sees the need to balance news of a new anti-cancer drug with statements by pro-cancer proponents. But AP's liberal bias on political and economic questions was also evident. AP often tells the story of person A, who has a problem, and person B, the bureaucrat or politician who purports to have a solution. AP typically forgets about person C, the one paying taxes so that the politician can get credit for sending aid to person A.
In 1883 Yale professor William Graham Sumner called person C "the forgotten man." In July 2011, AP covered Minnesota's brief government shutdown by noting, "Poor families are scrambling after the state stopped child care subsidies. ... Minnesota's most vulnerable residents and about 22,000 laid-off state employees began feeling the effects on Friday." True enough, but in 1,200 words the AP reporter didn't bother to ask a Mr. C, the forgotten man, what he thought about paying for all the programs.
Another AP story from the July 4 weekend told us, "California college students are bracing for higher tuition bills and fewer courses and campus services under a new state budget that once again slashes spending on higher education." The state budget inflicted "the latest blow" on California higher education, which has already seen "deep cuts" that have "eroded" instructional quality. The reporter did not mention taxpayers' death by a thousand cuts, and the way tens of thousands of Californians have moved to Texas, Idaho, or other states.
Month after month we saw these types of stories. A typical story, "Broken Budgets, Struggling Schools," quoted 10 teachers, administrators, or union executives decrying budget trends, and no one-no taxpayer, no conservative legislator-providing a different perspective.
The interns and I saw AP reporters exuberantly praising the politically and environmentally correct: For example, a plan to install solar panels on the White House meant "returning the power of the sun to the pinnacle of prominence." AP's adjectives indicated its position on abortion: A June 26 story complained about South Dakota's "new restrictive state law" on abortion that imposed "stringent counseling requirements." (A different perspective could have noted "a new protective state law" requiring "thorough" or "comprehensive" counseling requirements.)
AP's stories leading up to the temporary resolution of the federal debt limit debate were of the sky-is-falling genre. A July 15 story began, "Horror stories are flying about the damage that might be wreaked should Congress and President Barack Obama fail to cut a deal by the Aug. 2 deadline to increase America's borrowing limit. Nearly every American is in harm's way, either directly or indirectly." A July 17 story led with more drumbeating: "Time is running out for Washington to raise the country's borrowing limit and avoid a default. Wall Street isn't panicking yet. But if the unthinkable happens, a default could strike financial markets like an earthquake."
AP's basic assumptions were readily evident: The federal government should be involved in every problem that arises. For example, AP reporters did not question the assumption that Washington should be deciding the sugar content of cereal and saying, in essence, "Silly rabbit, Trix aren't for kids." AP could have asked whether a Congress debating trillion-dollar deficits and authorizing funds for three wars should be debating whether 8 or 10 grams of sugar per serving makes a cereal grrrreat.
In February 2011, I interviewed Tom Kent, AP's deputy managing editor and standards editor, and asked him about studies showing that conservatives are rare in major mainstream news organizations and conservative Christians nowhere in sight. Kent responded, "I don't see this as an issue because we don't focus on it. There are people whom I've worked with for 20, 30 years, and I don't know how they vote. That would not be useful information for me to know."
Kent is an honorable man, but it seems to me that the lack of discussion indicates this should be an issue: When an organization includes a diversity of views, people know it.
A report that will not win a Pulitzer Prize is the one about iPhone production in China that NPR aired in January on its show, This American Life. Last month the program painfully announced that it is retracting Mike Daisey's juicy tale of armed guards at a plant with child labor, workers having a secret union meeting at Starbucks, and so on.
An NPR correspondent who lives in Shanghai, Rob Schmitz, had blown the whistle on the fiction after hearing details that contradicted his extensive experience. He then found Daisey's translator, learned that the most striking encounters never took place, confronted Daisey, and heard him admit regarding his work, "It's not journalism, it's theater."
Daisey has been telling his tale in "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," an acclaimed one-man theatrical show. Schmitz said Daisey's false report "resonated with people because it was a simple message. ... iPhones are made by children, Apple bad. ... Sign a petition, and now you're good." The reality, he added, is more complicated: Grueling work, but a step upward for the workers, who have options because many Chinese factory towns have a labor shortage.
That's the way it often is on questions involving "social justice." Conservatives sometimes mock the impulse, but it's the application that needs to be critiqued. In the age of social media, signing an online petition or consuming a particular product are cheap secular grace.