X
Story Stream
recent articles

His name was John S. Carroll and he was old school all the way. I mean that in the best sense of the word. John believed that journalists, out of fealty to their craft and respect for their fellow human beings, were obliged to strive for fairness and objectivity even while covering the most difficult and emotional public policy issues.

On this date in 2003, he sent a pointed memo to the section editors of the Los Angeles Times informing them that the paper had fallen short of that standard -- and must do better. I wrote about this incident in the first months of Donald Trump's presidency, perhaps hoping to nudge my brothers and sisters in the Fourth Estate to keep their wits about them. I can't say that my columns on this topic, or John Carroll's blunt admonishment to his own staff, were heeded, either in the news media writ large or even at his old papers. Quite the contrary, actually. But I will keep trying.

* * *

John Carroll passed away in 2015, so I can't project how he would have felt about the singular challenge President Trump's behavior poses to journalism's traditional rules of the road. The son of a venerated journalist Wallace Carroll, John had covered the Vietnam War for the Baltimore Sun and the White House for the New York Times before becoming an editor. At a succession of newspapers -- the Philadelphia Inquirer, Lexington Herald-Leader, The Sun and, finally, in Los Angeles -- he became the most respected and acclaimed editor of his generation.

On this date in 2003, however, John was displeased by a piece in his own newspaper. The subject line to his memo simply said "credibility/abortion." In it, he wrote bluntly to his top lieutenants about the blatant political bias on this topic that had manifested itself in a front page L.A. Times article. "I'm concerned about the perception -- and the occasional reality -- that the Times is a liberal, ‘politically correct' newspaper," he began. "Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. We did so today."

Carroll then pointed out specific examples revealing the bias of the writer and the editors who handled the article about anti-abortion legislation, including characterizing one component of a bill in the Texas legislature as requiring "so-called counseling of patients."

In one sense, this memo seems quaint, a relic from another era. The myriad cheap shots taken before sunrise each day in our nation's newspapers and on cable news shows today would make that 2003 L.A. Times story a shining example of impartiality.

In all our time together, John Carroll and I never discussed his own views -- or mine -- on the array of topics that the Catholic bishops call "life" issues: abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and war. That said, if I had to guess, I would have pegged him as pro-choice on abortion. Yet John would have considered that irrelevant to how the issue should be covered by honest reporters and editors. He was also comfortable with the idea that he could disagree with people without questioning their motives or intellect. Most importantly, he thought it imperative for democracy that in one-newspaper cities, readers who were liberal, conservative, or moderate could all consider their newspaper an honest broker that didn't sneer at their views or values.

"The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage," he wrote.

"I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate," he added. "A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same."

And that's your quote of the week. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Comment
Show comments Hide Comments