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Editorial: The 'unhealthy obsession' goes both ways

A survey released last month shows more than half of Americans feel the media is biased. The media received a better grade than it has in recent years, according to the 20th annual State of the First Amendment survey, which comes from the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

The survey showed that 53 percent of Americans who participated said the media reports with some bias. That's quite a bit better than in 2015, when 76 percent viewed American media as biased. In 2014, the number was 59 percent.

Partisanship—whether real or perceived—in the news business is not a new phenomenon.

In 2011, University of Wisconsin professor James Baughman wrote a paper on journalism ethics and said 18th and 19th century editors "sought to convert the doubters, recover the wavering and hold the committed." He wrote that one journalist of that era explained candidly that "the power of the press consists not in its logic or eloquence, but in its ability to manufacture facts, or give coloring to facts that have occurred."

Key phrase: Manufacture facts.

Sound familiar?

Baughman wrote that in 2011, before the contentious 2016 election campaign. And he wrote it about an era that ended a century ago.

What became of that era?

Broadcasters came into the mix and eventually were bound to fairness standards. Newspapers steered toward the middle as a way to please a wider audience and advertisers. Cable and satellite television came along.

Then, the internet was invented, and thousands of partisan analysts rose up, like soldiers growing from the dragon's teeth sown by Cadmus.

And like those mythological soldiers, these analysts can be fierce and quite partisan—not too unlike those newspaper editors of an earlier time.

So history repeats itself. Don't be so shocked, and don't buy all of the rhetoric that comes from hyperpartisan sources. Too often, they seem more intent on throwing the press off the trail than on focusing on front-burner issues.

An example: A conversation U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., had with an MSNBC news team last week.

"There is an unhealthy obsession with all things Russian and all things the last election," he said. "It is an unhealthy obsession when 90 percent of a newscast is focused on that when there are plenty of other things going on."

We contend that the "unhealthy obsession" goes both ways.

Full disclosure for the sake of this editorial about bias: The Herald's overall opinion stance will lean right more often than not. But when it comes to attacks on our industry and this growing phenomenon of "fake news" and message-mongering, we cannot join the right-side forces that are perpetuating it.

This editorial first appeared in the Grand Forks Herald July 27th.

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