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Journalists shouldn't be cheerleaders

It's hardly a shocker that Norman Mailer could show up at a place like Cambridge, Mass., and win big applause with a speech attacking President Bush. After all, employees of Harvard University gave more money to John Kerry's presidential campaign than people who work anywhere else (except the University of California). What made the standing ovation for the novelist so disappointing, though, was that it came from a great big pack of journalists.

Claims of media bias were a major theme during this past election year _ from Dan Rather's doctored documents questioning Bush's military service to a convention of minority journalists loudly cheering Kerry when he addressed them in August. But conservatives who want proof of their longstanding claims that the mainstream media harbor a liberal bias could do worse than ordering the audio recordings of the Cambridge conference that are on sale from its sponsor, Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism.

They would hear laughter and applause from reporters after Mailer said he wished he "was young enough to thrash" Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and scattered applause when he claimed that it was not Jesus but "the devil who speaks to George Bush every night."

Admittedly, some of the attendees were academics, publicists and students, so it's hard to say who was laughing at which remark. But the thousand-member audience was dominated by freelance writers and editors and reporters from nearly every major paper in the country. None of the dozen people who stood up to question Mailer challenged any of his political assertions. And only a few failed to stand and applaud at the end of a speech that had characterized Bush as "lord of the quagmire" in Iraq.

"I'm a newspaperman _ these people don't seem to understand what their role in society is," said Jack Hart, managing editor of the Portland Oregonian, which cosponsored the conference along with the Boston Globe and the Poynter Institute (which owns the St. Petersburg Times and Governing magazine, where I work). "It makes me very uncomfortable."

With good reason. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a widely touted study in June that found that the audience for news is increasingly fragmenting along partisan lines. In other words, large numbers of readers and viewers are turning to media outlets that reinforce their previously held convictions, and tuning out those in which they detect a disagreeable bias.

Major news outlets routinely have their reports and credibility questioned nowadays because of perceptions of bias. Just before the election, stories in the New York Times and on CBS stating that tons of explosives were missing in Iraq were loudly dismissed in some quarters with the taunt that these "liberal" outlets were trying to turn voters against Bush. The same held true when the Los Angeles Times reported on Arnold Schwarzenegger's past sexual aggression in the days leading up to California's gubernatorial recall last year.

The level of public distrust evoked by partisan leanings _ real or perceived _ did not stop the reporters at the Nieman conference from applauding frequent left-leaning sentiments. Although most of the sessions were dedicated to nuts-and-bolts instruction on journalism, such as interviewing techniques and tips on how to create a sense of place, Mailer was far from the only speaker to touch directly on politics. Seymour Hersh, the author and investigative reporter for the New Yorker, gave a talk that equaled Mailer's in its anti-Bush venom.

"I was surprised when Hersh used his keynote address to give us his rewrite of Fahrenheit 9/11," said Rick Whittle, a military reporter with the Dallas Morning News.

Attendees also heard criticism of Bush's stem cell research policy and the growth on his watch of both the federal deficit and international disapproval of the United States. If ever a word was spoken from a conference podium that was positive about Bush or any Republican policy _ or even one that noted in neutral tones that the president had just been re-elected by a majority of the American electorate _ it must have been at a session I missed.

In conversation, numerous individual reporters expressed unease that the conference was marked by partisan speeches that were so openly and warmly received. Invoking the sadly diminished dictum of "no cheering in the press box," Dane Huffman, an assistant sports editor at the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer, said, "When I'm at a game, even with my son, I don't applaud or cheer."

But collectively, it was as if a great liberal id had been conjured and unleashed. "You get a gathering like this and there are shared . . . assumptions," said Paul Janensch, who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University, "but they're not assumptions shared throughout the country or even in South Boston."

Bob Giles, head of the Nieman Foundation, said that inviting openly political speakers was "an experiment" that will have to be reviewed. He conceded that the conference could have done a better job of showcasing "more of a perspective from the red states." Giles also said he wished reporters hadn't been so vocal in their approval of the blue point of view, but he and Mark Kramer, the lead organizer of the conference, emphasized that they thought it would be useful for a gathering of reporters to hear openly political speeches, due to the partisan tenor of our time.

That's debatable. Those of us who cover politics and government are exposed to enough political rancor without encountering it at professional conferences.

The striking thing about the current partisan divide is that, while it's not as deep as earlier rifts in the country, such as those caused by the civil rights movement and Vietnam, it's much more constant. Politicians from the two parties are unable to cooperate on even the smallest legislative matters. The growing enmity in Washington and state capitols is reflected in a hundred angry talk radio programs and thousands of bitter blogs in which the object is not enlightenment of the subject but destruction of the opponent.

Increasingly, it's difficult for the average American to tell supposedly objective or balanced mainstream reports from the vast army of opinion mongers. In a recent Washington Post article about interest groups opening up publications and broadcast channels to produce their own take on the news (without advertising their sponsorship), Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association said, "We have as much right to be at the table delivering news and information to the American public as anyone else does."

Straight news outlets have an even tougher job in trying to convince anyone that their reports should be distinguished from such open propaganda efforts when their own reporters willingly reveal their political leanings at a public forum. If mainstream journalists hope to preserve not just the trust but the simple attention of readers and viewers, we have to remember just what, as Hart says, our role in society is.

There's no question that reporters should be questioning Bush's version of the truth and that the profession in general should challenge his administration's bent toward secrecy. But the least we can do, when someone makes a speech either bashing or lauding Bush or any other politician, is to sit on our hands.

Alan Greenblatt, a staff writer at Governing magazine, has written about media bias and partisanship for Congressional Quarterly.