This again? That’s the Groundhog Day feeling I had earlier this summer reading “Boring News Cycle Deals Blow to Partisan Media” on Axios.
The article noted that web traffic has declined for news organizations. To us at MoJo, it seems a good sign that people can finally back off the frantic doomscrolling of the Trump era. But Axios treated the story in the way that conventional political journalism treats most issues—by adding a partisan frame. They examined traffic data for 24 news sites that they categorized as “far right,” “right-leaning,” “mainstream,” “left-leaning,” and “far left.”
The article didn’t specify how these were defined or which sites were placed in which group, but a few were called out by name: Mother Jones in the “far left” group, and on the “far right,” the disinformation hub Newsmax. Fox News was categorized as “right-leaning.”
Where to even begin? The apples-to-oranges comparison of rigorous reporting vs. partisan opinion-mongering? The classification of Fox as “right-leaning”? (That squishy moderate Tucker Carlson!) Or just the fundamental have-we-not-learned-anything lameness of this kind of framing?
Political scientists call this moving the Overton Window—redefining the spectrum of political debate accepted as legitimate. If never-Trump Republicans are the left, what, reader, are you? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’d love to know what you make of this in the prompt at the bottom of this post.
I had that “this again?” reaction because every few months we at Mother Jones find ourselves trotted out when someone wants to make a point about “partisan” news—usually without bothering to look at our actual work. We’ve written about how Facebook deployed this rationale to suppress the reach of our reporting, even as the platform boosted right-wing sites. There’s also a chart of “news bias” that goes around every so often—and is now offered up for school curriculums—that was originally compiled by a Colorado patent lawyer who made her own assessments of where news organizations fell on the political spectrum. The Media Bias Chart now uses a more complex methodology, paying people (whose background is not disclosed) to rate articles on a left-to-right spectrum. But the results are still puzzling. For example, the avowedly conservative (but anti-Trump) site The Bulwark is rated as “skews left.”
Back to that Axios article, whose authors, Sara Fischer and Neal Rothschild, say they made their assessment “in consultation with news bias ranking service NewsGuard.” NewsGuard, originally co-launched by veteran media entrepreneur Steve Brill, assesses news sites’ trustworthiness, giving a green check mark to those that adhere to “basic standards of credibility and transparency” and a red exclamation mark to sites that do not. It also labels sites politically. Mother Jones is categorized as “left-leaning” and bears a green check mark. Newsmax is “conservative” and has a red flag for publishing “false and unsubstantiated” claims.
So why the change from NewsGuard’s “left-leaning” classification to Axios’ “far left”? I asked the Axios reporters, and they emailed: “Our categorizations of publishers are based on the point of view of the outlet, not the standard of journalism…We also used our own analysis for the groupings—as they are necessarily subjective, we can understand and respect if you disagree with the classifications.”
“Necessarily subjective” assessments? In other words, this analysis of bias in the news is based on just…bias?
Fischer and Rothschild are solid journalists (Fischer’s Media Trends newsletter is a great industry tracker) and I don’t mean to pick on them. The problem is with the conventional wisdom Axios and so many other DC-focused outlets adopt—an approach that reflexively situates every argument and every voice on a two-dimensional right-to-left spectrum. That’s how climate change and voting rights were framed as partisan issues. It’s how Trump’s republic-threatening corruption was positioned as a mere counterpart to But Her Emails.
At Mother Jones, we don’t play that game of false equivalence. Instead we do our best to report out the facts and tell them as we see them. “Your mother says she loves you? Check it out,” goes an old adage, and I can’t count the number of times my prior beliefs and received frameworks have told me something must be true, only to have my reporting (and our crack fact-checkers) show me I was wrong.
But no amount of fact-checking can eliminate the perspective that each of us brings to the stories we tell. As journalists, we are actors in the world, and the choices we make—to publish, not to publish, to elevate this voice or that—have an impact. The job is to be intentional about the kind of impact we seek, not to pretend it doesn’t exist. At MoJo, the impact we seek is more justice, fewer abuses of power, and a public equipped to take part in democracy.
Back in July, on the occasion of Donald Rumsfeld’s death, our colleague David Corn recalled when many left-leaning journalists cheered the war in Iraq: “It was a lonely time in Washington for those of us who questioned the wisdom, legality, morality, or strategic necessity of invading Iraq…The war was coming. Being strong after 9/11 meant saddling up with Bush. As Frank Foer, a former editor of the New Republic and Iraq War supporter, said…‘It felt like something needed to be done.’”
The same, of course, could have been said for the war in Afghanistan, only more so: Pundits from left to right cheered the invasion, and few journalists reported critically on the absence of a plan for what was to come after. It was a failure driven in no small part by the fear of being viewed as “far left”—a.k.a. having a point of view that departed from the conventional wisdom.
David made no bones about where he stood, because he believed, as did all of us at MoJo, that hide his point of view, or to pretend not to have one about one of the gravest decisions our leaders could make, would have been a cop-out. That made his reporting, which unearthed lies that our leaders were telling, more credible. And if standing up for the facts and being honest about perspective makes Mother Jones “far left,” Axios, then so be it.
What do you think? We’d love to hear from MoJo readers on this because none of the work we do would be possible without people like you who value our reporting and our voice. Would you use labels like “far left” to describe our mission-driven journalism? How would you describe this reporting compared to other news you follow? How do you describe your own views?