Wednesday, April 15, 2009

No Tea For Me

To my conservative friends:

I'd like to join you for tea this afternoon. I'd love to dress up in my revolutionary regalia -- white breeches, white stockings, black tricorn hat, blue regimental coat -- and kindly, colorfully, positively petition my government to please spend my tax money wisely. No put-downs. No partisan bashing. I could carry a handwritten parchment sign: "No taxation without representation!" During a lull or two, I could answer a few historical questions from inquiring peers.

You know it would draw attention and quite a few pictures, possibly a TV camera or two. That's the problem.

When you go to work in journalism, you're expected to check your political beliefs at the door. Not everybody does, but everybody wants you to because of bias -- real or accused. At most media outlets, employees are rightly not allowed to campaign for any political candidate. For issue rallies, things aren't as clear-cut. But generally, if the rally has a political edge, it's frowned upon.

Here's the scenario I want to avoid: I go to a Tea Party. My image gets picked up by a camera. My bosses see it, or somebody else sees it and tells them about it. Others find out the guy in the tricorn is a producer at the number one TV station in Tucson. It hits Twitter, blogs and boards. Some crow about a member of the mainstream media (which they abbreviate as MSM) on "our side." Others seethe about a producer "engaged in a right-wing hissy fit." Charges of bias fly around. My station is put in an embarrassing position, having to explain why a newsroom employee is boldly taking sides. I'm put out on the street to find a job in this rotten economy -- all for a few moments of free speech.

It's sometimes painful having to neuter yourself politically. Despite what you've heard, journalists are citizens too, and they are still entitled to speak for themselves as well as tell other people's stories. However, in hyperpartisan America, where the center doesn't hold and the left and the right won't admit when they're wrong, even the slightest appearance of ideology off the job can come back to bite you.

The ultimate irony is this: experience tells me people really don't care if their news is biased, as long as it's biased their way. Cable, the Internet and talk radio all give us a huge selection of material slanted just the way we like. Objectivity is yesterday's news. Every other journalist needs it except the ones we pay attention to.

I know of at least one local TV news department where anchors and reporters are encouraged to have attitude and show it on the air. It's tabloid and over the top, but at least they don't have to hide behind a standard of objectivity -- one that viewers don't believe anymore, no matter how hard the folks in the newsroom try.

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