Why News Organizations and Opinion Pages Need More Independent Voices

Written by: Eugene Steuerle

A recent New York Times article laid bare the dilemma for any organization that wants its news to be informative and not just entertaining. Some at NBC News, which wants to maintain a “nonpartisan” standing, believe it has become tainted with the “embrace of progressive politics” by its sister station, MSNBC. This infiltration of partisan influences limits what useful information citizens receive even when news stations don’t resort to fabrication. I am not trying to pick on MSNBC. Fox “News” Network goes even further afield when it defines itself as an entertainment, not a news, outlet by admitting that statements made on its former top-rated primetime program, Tucker Carlson Tonight, cannot reasonably be interpreted as facts.”

Some news outlets may believe bipartisanship gets around this problem for their editorial and opinion coverage. However, bipartisan efforts define people and issues in a binary way: Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, for one side or the other. Unfortunately—or, I should say, fortunately—that is an unrealistic view of the dynamism of both people and issues. And where are the independents?

Most voters today define themselves as independents even when they vote mainly for one party or the other. As I write often, there are legitimate conservative and progressive principles, so defining ourselves as a conservative or progressive, much less Republican or Democrat, can quickly put blinders on us. Political parties organize around interest groups; they seldom consistently follow any set of principles. Even if they forego making up “alternative facts,” they hide information that may harm their interest groups or weaken their chance of acquiring power.

It’s not just that independents may go unrepresented. Bipartisan efforts seldom give any of us, partisan or not, the information we need to decide issues.

Suppose one political party favors and the other opposes a bill. Using their best debaters, one will tell us that passage of a bill will work wonders, the other that only disaster lies in its wake.

Yet most issues entail multiple degrees of complexity. A spending bill may be good, but there may be more efficient ways to achieve the objective. A bill that only cuts taxes means higher deficits and that someone will pay down the road. Or, however good the intention, no agency could administer the proposed law.

Of course, none of us are entirely “independent,” whatever that means, or come to issues without some bias. Defining oneself as independent usually means we attempt to develop our thoughts using objective standards, not partisan party labels.

In broadcast news, some agent will sometimes call a researcher like myself to discuss an issue, but only on one side of a two-way debate. If the researcher wants to explain a problem in a more nuanced way, the agent often will find someone else. After all, controversy sells. One colleague of mine suggests a somewhat misleading response: indicate strong support for one side, then say what you want later. 

One personal case in which I was rejected after an initial request dealt with capital gains taxes. Capital gains are undertaxed relative to many other forms of income, but in our current system they are voluntary taxes collected only when people sell their assets. I couldn’t discuss a higher tax rate on capital gains without explaining how it would affect the amount of voluntary sales.

By contrast, one of my most successful appearances occurred when I was invited to join a discussion with an advocate for and one against some particular change. Regardless of anything I would say, my presence tempered the claims stated by the other two participants.

Almost by definition, a three-person format avoids the limitations of a binary “for-versus-against” debate.

As viewers and readers pay more attention to partisan outlets and social media, the most insidious effect may be the decline in highly professional reporters providing us with good information.

I certainly don’t know enough to solve the problem of fair-minded news outlets losing audiences. Still, more independent voices may provide some reprieve, as many can be cheaply acquired. I learned a lot when writing for years for Thomas F. Field, the founder of Tax Analysts. Looking to give the reporters reliable information on tax issues, he initially failed to raise enough money to survive. Among his solutions was to create a publication that invited some of the most brilliant tax lawyers and other professionals to submit articles. He got free reporting and analysis; they got attention, and then he got more subscribers. There’s a lesson here somewhere.

In sum, one avenue to temper partisanship and tribalism is to give more voice to independent thinkers in ways that even bipartisan efforts cannot achieve.

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