Over the past few years there has been an interesting and, particularly for old-schoolers, troubling trend in journalism commentary.
Back in the day, the ideal for most of us in the newspaper business was that we should provide a platform with a diversity of views that fairly represented opinion within our communities. At the highest moral end, this meant service to the people of one's community who could see themselves and their views (within reason) reflected in the newspaper as if it were a mirror. At the low end, it could be criticized as mere commercial pandering.
This vision was the subject of continued debate, as it should be. Some of it was over what the nature of the market's worldview was or how it changed. Others disagreed with the entire principle and felt that the proper role of a newspaper was not to listen and reflect to what their community believes; it was actually to tell people what their opinions should be.
But all through those debates over what the appropriate balance might be, whether this commentator or that one was reflective of this or that point of view and exactly where the newspaper should position itself in terms of its editorial worldview, one principle was clear: never, ever, confuse your opinions or your loyalties with that of a political party.
You might, in other words, decide that your overall worldview might be libertarian, socialist, liberal/progressive, conservative, environmental, or whatever. But you never, ever wanted to allow yourself to fall into the role of shill for one political party or another. This applied to the newspaper as a corporate entity and to the individuals who worked there. Reporters, editors, and commentators alike were not to hold party memberships and vigorously policed themselves and each other regarding this taboo.
As a commentator or columnist one might, of course, express delight that this party or that one advanced a certain position. But if the Tortoise Party was to earn praise, it would not be because I agreed with it, it would be because it, on this point at least, agreed with me and/or the broader intellectual constituency with which I identified. And, typically, I would find something soon after to criticize about the Tortoise Party just to make sure I reinforced in the minds of my readers that my loyalty was to them and my ideas and not to any "powers that be." Only I dictated my opinion, and I'd walk over hot coals before I'd find myself repeating someone else's "talking points" or otherwise being unable to defend myself from the accusation of being a shill, or party hack.
None of us were perfect at this and there were times when we all failed. The vast majority of today's professional journalists and a few amateurs still aim for this. And while the best pros may express a bias to one worldview or another in their Twitter chats, for instance, they work hard to make sure that doesn't distort the balance and fairness of the work they produce.
But the taboo is lessening and more, it seems, have slid from the memory of this aspiration. No one should be surprised that certain commentators are more inclined to favour the policy proposals of one party over another. That is what it is. Yet in the recent provincial election where I live—one in which the vast majority of journalists distinguished themselves in a hard-fought campaign—there were a handful of examples indicating the erosion of this principle. Two or three, I suppose, but two or three too many who nakedly exchanged their roles as independent commentators for the cloaks of out and out campaigners.
The defence for this is that commentators are entitled to their opinion. Of course they are. But those who are paid to serve independently should vigorously guard the perception that the opinion they are expressing is, indeed, their opinion and not one fed to them by others or otherwise predetermined by histories or connections or agendas.
Unless this trend is nipped in the bud, others will simply be encouraged to do the same and in the end there will be few, if any, independent voices to speak for the majority of the population which, if it wants to hear the talking points of the Tortoise Party, Hare Party, or the Baby Bunny Party, can just go to their website.