Bias in journalism is a hot topic right now. With the rise of The Huffington Post (and blogs in general) and the fall of, well, most every form of print journalism, the value of the “unbiased” reporter is coming into question. Although I might argue that nominally bias-free journalism is more a recent fluke than the norm, something that only really existed during the period following World War 2 and began its slow erosion with the dawn of the infotainment age in the 1980’s, when massive deregulation reintroduced the creep of corporate priorities into reporting. For the first half of the 20th century, newspapers were famously beholden to the agendas of their robber-baron owners or political backers.
“Soft” journalism, that is journalism that covers existentially inconsequential subjects like food, wine, sports, travel and that general catch-all “lifestyle” has always been held to different standards of objectivity than journalism which covers the more (again, existentially) meaningful issues of nation and state. You’re already writing about organic wine and triple cream cheeses, it’s not like you’re trading in state secrets. And I think that’s a fair distinction to make and the trade off is that most of the great journalistic writing stylists come from the sports and lifestyle world, where the lack of procedural rigor frees the writer to actually, well, write.
In wine journalism there’s a sacrosanct rule that no wine writer, especially a wine critic, should accept complimentary gifts or travel accommodations from any winery or wine trade organization in exchange for any form of written coverage. And yet many writers eagerly accept such complimentary travel. And who can blame them? It’s perhaps the only perk available to the emerging wine writer. Even in my limited career as a wine writer I’ve had to turn down numerous offers of free wine and (believe it or not) a whirlwind trip to Spain–though to be fair I rejected the Spain trip because it was very short notice and wildly inconvenient.
Although I do agree that wine CRITICS, meaning those who engage in the wildly anachronistic practice of pretending to be able to comparatively rate wines in any meaningful way, shouldn’t accept complimentary travel or other gifts so as to maintain the pretense of impartiality–thousands of dollars in advertising revenue notwithstanding–I think that all other writers should grab that free plane ticket and gorge themselves on gratis foie gras whenever possible.
In the end, I believe that for 99% of journalism, writers with a secondary vested interested–either personal, professional, or otherwise–are more effective at meaningfully communicating a story than the so-called “unbiased” writers of conventional 20th century journalism. Whether you pay for your own trip to Burgundy or not, any wine writer who has been to Burgundy will be more effective at communicating the world of Burgundy wine than a writer who hasn’t. And any intelligent human is able to easily recognize and appropriately contextualize the salesmanship of his host on such a trip against the simple experiential “being there-ness” of being there.
Does the fact that I sell wine for a living affect what I write about it in the wine world? Of course it does. But I think that’s a far better bias than the unattached journalist who is affected by that odd motivation to see one’s name in print. When I write about a wine because I want to communicate its story so as to effectively sell it, I do just that. I have a clear motive that any reasonably intelligent person can understand but that in no way affects how I write. Nor does it affect the factual information I provide, but merely the context in which I choose to provide it, the spin. When one writes about a wine to secure a byline in an increasingly dwindling number of mainstream wine publications, one is cravenly attempting to secure a position of perceived meaning amongst an increasingly irrelevant demographic: those who read mainstream wine publications with any seriousness. It produces reportage with the intellectual rigor of a remedial Kindergarten class and as incurious as most monkeys not named George. In such writing, mole hills become mountains and a fundamental misrepresentation of basic wine labeling laws becomes a conspiracy.
Because at least the bias of the avowed partisan is clear and the consumer can draw his own conclusion. Fred Franzia, owner of Bronco Wine Company and producer of Charles Shaw, might believe that any wine over $10 a bottle is a scam and Two Buck Chuck Enthusiasts may agree with him, but nobody serious about wine loses any sleep over his assertion, while perhaps valuing the substance of his point: that price and quality correlate in wine about as often as hot-ness and craziness don’t correlate in women; in short, rarely.
But the bias of the alleged impartial observer is cloaked under a cowl of “journalistic integrity.” But in the 21st century, journalism’s integrity is about as sound as a New Orleans levee. And I think it was journalism’s slow re-corruption by corporate interest that helped fuel the rise of alternative web-based media where, although bias exists, it exists openly and as one small part of a huge plurality of biases.
We’re all looking for a bias to call our own and, as long as one stays mindful of the facts, the Internet has created a wonderful chorus of journalistic bias that is rich, rewarding and, unlike traditional media, truly democratic.