Is Rachel Maddow An Unbiased Journalist?

Is Rachel Maddow An Unbiased Journalist?

Kurt Cagle 06/10/2021
Is Rachel Maddow An Unbiased Journalist?

Journalistic objectivity requires that a journalist do not take a side of an argument.

A journalist must only report facts and not mention a personal position toward facts.

Before answering the main question, I think it’s worth answering the question “What do you mean by unbiased journalist”?

I’ve been a journalist and blogger for the better part of three decades now. One thing that I’ve learned over that time is that what we consider news is very subjective. Is a story worth covering? Is it newsworthy? A news item can be a straight recitation of the “perceived” facts of an event, but these are, by themselves, fairly dull. A journalist brings context to a story - why it should be important to the reader or viewer, what are the implications for the story, and significantly, what audience is intended to be reached.

As an online journalist, I get paid both by the number of articles I write as well as by the number of views that I get, which usually ranges between 5000 and 10,000 articles. Occasionally I hit it out of the park and get into hundreds of thousands of hits, and eat very well that month, but I’m in exactly the same kind of ratings game as Rachel Maddow, if not quite at her audience level.

In reportage, there is a constant struggle between trying to remain unbiased and popularity. A truly unbiased reporter places no value judgment on the actions or implications, performs no analysis on the topic at hand, and views all points of view as being equally valid.

However, in reality, not all viewpoints are equally valid. The perspective of a serial rapist may be both fascinating and disturbing, but presenting it as a valid perspective is irresponsible. Why? Because journalism has a validating effect - it legitimizes perspectives on the basis of the authority of the journalist and their parent publishers/broadcasters. Indeed, most times, when I hear “but this journalist is biased”, it typically means that the journalist is presenting (and hence legitimizing) a viewpoint different from that of the reader/viewer.

Thus, one of the other metrics that becomes as important is the degree of accuracy of both the reported facts and the interpretations given by the journalist. When you misrepresent the facts (i.e., lie about them) you are in essence creating propaganda, and working on the assumption that your facts will drown out what actually happened. This would be like saying that a given person made a statement in complete contradiction to what they did say.

Now, the problem with news of any sort is that no one is truly omniscient - no journalist can always hope to be there when a newsworthy event occurs, so there’s always a certain degree of fabrication that occurs when most stories are written. A conscientious journalist makes sure to get as many different perspectives as possible in that case in order to create a consensus view of what actually took place, and when possible provides indicators specifying how trustworthy that interpretation is. In other words, a good reporter must also be a good analyst and researcher (one reason many reporters often retire as historians).

When a journalist fails to create a documentable chain of authority, fails to diversify their sources, or worse, plain out lies, then, in an ideal world, they’d be stripped of their soapbox. However, in practice, there are always people and organizations that will pay good money to not only reach a certain audience but in particular to legitimize a particular viewpoint as being trustworthy, regardless of whether it is or not. This is why advertisers love celebrity endorsements, why journalists often get access to events and products that most people don’t without paying for it, and why you-tubers can always get their hands on pre-releases of games or similar products in exchange for doing play-throughs.

Now, with all that as context, I admire Rachel Maddow a great deal as a journalist. She is a Pulitzer recipient and has been granted both the Edward R Murrow Award and the Walter Cronkite Award for Journalism, so her peers in general also recognize that fact. She is also a gifted storyteller, able to weave together the disparate pieces of an emerging series of events into a single cohesive narrative, but she does so with the facts that are known to her, and those assertions are astonishingly well researched. She also has a PhD in History, meaning that she has a historian’s perspective for the news that many of her more blow-dried contemporaries don’t.

She has (and will admit that she has) a liberal bias in her reportage, yet for all of that, she was not afraid to be critical of Barack Obama or Democrats when they did something that was both newsworthy and unethical. She has, because of the amount of research that she’s done, been meticulous about connecting the dots about the involvement of Donal Trump in an intricate web of dubious dealings, among them, his involvement with Russian (and Saudi Arabian and Israeli) oligarchs that may have made him a compromised asset. Not surprisingly, fans of Trump have dutifully done everything in their power to tar Maddow and delegitimize her as a journalistic authority.

Most recently, The Rachel Maddow show took a dip in ratings (a fairly small one, not the disastrous slide that Fox and other propaganda channels have claimed) after Attorney General William Barr claimed that the Mueller report cleared Trump of any wrong-doing - after only releasing a four-page gloss of the report. Significantly, no doubt after copies of the report have made their way through the back channels to key representatives, the tone of the administration has shifted to one of attempting to bury the report. Rachel, not surprisingly, has seen a resurgence in ratings as a consequence … even without the report itself having been made public yet.

This is another mark of a great journalist. Journalism is a risky profession, as Jamal Khashoggi found out when he was tortured and murdered at the behest of a Saudi prince. I have no doubt that Maddow regularly receives death threats, and not all from extremist crazies. Talking truth to power is dangerous, but is one of the reasons that Freedom of the Press is one of the most protected rights in the Bill of Rights.

My expectation is that, when the dust finally settles, and the historians are writing the colorful story of the presidency of Donald Trump, those same historians will place Rachel Maddow in a role similar to that of Edward R. Murrow to Senator Joseph McCarthy or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to Richard Nixon: by her diligence, bravery and persistence, she’ll have brought down a powerful rogue politician, not because they were biased, but because they were dedicated to the idea that one of the key roles of the press is to act as a watchdog on the abuse of power.

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Kurt Cagle

Tech Expert

Kurt is the founder and CEO of Semantical, LLC, a consulting company focusing on enterprise data hubs, metadata management, semantics, and NoSQL systems. He has developed large scale information and data governance strategies for Fortune 500 companies in the health care/insurance sector, media and entertainment, publishing, financial services and logistics arenas, as well as for government agencies in the defense and insurance sector (including the Affordable Care Act). Kurt holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. 

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