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Journalism's confession: Playing the right

It's so true that freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose -- and so our brush here with terminal illness is occasionally truly liberating for America's newsrooms. This week, in fact, it seems that journalists are rushing to admit something -- openly in one case, tacitly in another -- something that's been true ever since the Nixon-Agnew era, but was rarely talked about.

This uncomfortable truth? That to accomodate the perceived notion that the news media warps things so far to the left, journalists have been playing Twister to bend over backwards to accomodate conservatives -- and tying ourselves in knots.

Exhibit A: The New York Times admits that it's easier to get on one of the most coveted pieces of real estate in American journalism, a slot on its letters-to-the-editor page, if you are a conservative. Here is what Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, said in a recent online chat:

The best kind of letter is relatively short (under 150 words), clearly written, strongly opinionated and direct. It doesn't contain personal invective aimed at the writer or subject of an article. And it's well written. I'll be honest: Because of the nature of our readers, letter writers who defend Republican, conservative or right-wing positions on many topics have a higher shot at being published.

Exhibit B: Cynthia Tucker -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has long been the kind of contrarian voice that we journalists allegedly worship -- is being moved up and out of her slot in what local observers say is part of a seemingly futile bid to woo back consevative suburban readers:

It's safe to say, however, that for the first time in generations, the state's leading editorial page finally will have abandoned its mission as a progressive voice in favor of a carefully constructed mirage of "balance" — designed not to tell the truth, whether it's unpopular or not, as much as to mollify conservative readers.

That could be because efforts at balance come across as what they are — a bit patronizing. But it's also because the practice of journalism is an essentially liberal exercise in the classical sense of the word: It places faith in the ability of people to form their opinions based on facts and reasoning rather than on preconceptions and prejudice. Meanwhile, the South's brand of conservatism — the brand that has taken over much of the Republican Party — is essentially reactionary: Any narrative, no matter how factual, that challenges a set worldview is seen as a threat from outsiders to be battled, no matter how high the cost.

Journalists should only have one great mission in our career. It is not the quest for something called balance. It is the search for the truth. Period. No matter how uncomfortable that makes some people. Cynthia Tucker knows that, and now she's paying a price.

Ironically, the arrival of the Internet should have been a liberating effect. The unlimited electrons of cyberspace gives plenty of room for the naysayers to have their naysay, in a comments section or on a competing blog.

Instead, it looks like the chaos caused by the implosion of the business model for news has had the opposite effect -- a futile search to give Americans what we think they want to hear and maybe what they think they want to hear, and not what they need to hear. That's not serving balance. That's not serving anybody.