Partisanship, reporting, and teaching

Interesting little “controversy” in the blogosphere yesterday where some Washington Post reporters felt the need to anonymously criticize Ezra Klein as an “absolute partisan.”  This just goes to show the reporters are A) really stupid; or B) don’t actually read Klein.  Ezra mounts a stirring (and quite sensible defense) that really resonated with me because it is actually similar to the way I think about my teaching.  First, Ezra:

Journalism has set up a dichotomy between “objectivity” and “partisanship.” And the thing to be, of course, is objective. Neutral. Without opinion or bias. My view — and people can argue over this — is that this was an economic decision that eventually attained the aura of an ethical judgment. Tim Lee lays out the case here, and the basic upshot is that hiding opinions and conclusions made newspapers more profitable, but that’s not the same as making for the best news coverage. And if you believe that, then you’re more willing, as I am, to try out different forms of news coverage. Which is why what I want to talk about isn’t objectivity. It’s objectivity’s supposed opposite: partisanship…

What I can do is explain why I think what I think about the policies Republicans offer, the policies the Democrats offer, and which will do more good for people out in the real world. People can disagree with these judgments, of course. But trying to figure out how legislation will affect people and then arguing in favor of the policies likely to have a positive impact is not, I imagine, a type of partisanship most people would find very alien. To say you’re a partisan of good things rather than bad things isn’t to say you’re much of a partisan at all. And to explain why you think some things are good and some things are bad, well, that’s just being transparent. And journalists are supposed to like transparency.

The Post’s Greg Sargent does an even better job defending Ezra, but this is the most relevant part for my take:

Is the problem that these blogs are “partisan”? Nope. While the authors of these blogs are open about preferring one outcome or another in politics, they aren’t simply driven by a desire for one party to succeed at all costs. Rather, they are rooting for particular policy outcomes or are, by their own lights, pushing to elevate the discourse. Ezra repeatedly criticized the Dem leadership throughout the health care fight. Weigel sometimes defended Sarah Palin and Tea Partiers when he thought they’d been wronged. This blog regularly whacks Dems when they cravenly sell out their own principles.

Now, my turn.  I have no interest in indoctrinating my students as Democrats.  Yet, I’m not going to pretend I don’t have a point of view when I do.  My interests are what I perceive to be good policy outcomes– based on actually understanding public policy.  And, I readily admit that my personal preferences are influenced by my first principles of equity, tolerance, efficiency, and a belief that we’re much less in control of our actions and fortune than most people think (i.e., empathy).  Do these values align more closely with what the Democratic party favors?  You bet.  And as Ezra points out, the Republican party has become an institution wholly uninterested in good policy outcomes from any objective policy analysis perspective.   My students know my perspective, rather than it subtly influencing what I say while pretending to be without a perspective.  That said, when it comes to plain old political analysis, e.g., who’s going to win an election, what’s going on with legislation, what’s a smart move for a Congressional leader, it is actually quite easy to do without any partisan bias.  The people who portray all these non-policy related matters in purely partisan terms are your genuine hacks.

What I want from my students is opinions based on knowledge and understanding, not just a parroting of talking points– whether they came from Sean Hannity or Keith Olberman.  I’m always going to disagree with a number of my students in that I believe in a higher-tax, more expansive government than they do; but it is actually quite easy to take that as a given and have reasonable debates and discussions from there.  I think it comes down to knowing when “agreeing to disagree” makes sense because it is simply based on subjective normative values versus the times when it doesn’t, as everybody is not entitled to their own facts.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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