In his own Wall Street Journal, columnist
Robert Bartley made an interesting case that the days of objective
journalism are numbered.

Mira Levitan

“It’s simply not true,” he wrote July 28, “that journalists
conspire to slant the news in favor of their friends and causes.
Yet it’s also true that in claiming ‘objectivity’ the press often
sees itself as a perfect arbiter of ultimate truth. This is a
pretension beyond human capacity.”

I’ve often thought of journalism as trying to look into a
frosted glass and trying to figure out what’s going on. We know
what we see will be skewed in some way, because of the structure of
the glass and the refractive nature of the substance inside. But
good journalists report what they can see and do their best to get
a better picture of what’s going on inside, clearing away some of
the frost in the process.

Of course one can never be perfectly objective, but it is
something to strive for.

Bartley distinguishes between “objectivity” – extensive
reporting uninfluenced by personal passions and biases – and
“fairness” – giving all sides and viewpoints a fair shake when
putting together the story. He argues that since perfect
objectivity is impossible, journalists should forget it and just
focus on being “fair.”

But there are problems with fairness. Here’s fairness taken to
an extreme: Instead of sending reporters into Iraq for the second
Persian Gulf war, the major media simply attend U.S. military
briefings in Qatar and get response quotes from the Iraqi
information minister. The Americans get their say, then the Iraqis
(or vice versa), and thus the coverage is “fair.”

That’s the oversimplified problem with “fairness.” A real
example is the media’s treatment of the red scare of the 1950s:
Report Sen. Joe McCarthy’s accusations, then ask the accused if
they’re Soviet spies. McCarthy says “yes,” they say “we’re not.”
It’s “fair,” but is it fair?

The beginning of the end, in fact, was when Edward R. Murrow on
CBS’s “See it Now” rather “unfairly” showed McCarthy for the evil
man he was.

The problem is that fairness, or “both sides,” is too often an
excuse for poor reporting.

The networks seem to have taken Bartley’s advice to an extreme.
Rather than striving to present a story completely, their practice
quite often is to do a brief intro story and then have talking
heads sound off. It’s fair, I guess, but its benefits are
limited.

Here’s part of a transcript from a Jan. 24, 2003, CNN show, “Showdown:
Iraq” with Wolf Blitzer. One of the talking heads Blitzer
interviewed was a conservative radio talk-show host, Armstrong Williams, who was qualified to
discuss the matter because of his extensive knowledge of foreign
affairs and defense issues (I’m kidding). Asked whether he thought
the expected war in Iraq was a war for oil, as some peaceniks had
charged, Williams responded:

“Wolf, I go back to the last 12 years and this cat and mouse
game with Saddam Hussein. I mean listen, the United States is not
the only country that believes that Saddam Hussein is trying to
develop weapons of mass destruction, even the Soviets and the
Chinese believe this, and I eventually believe they will come
around to our position.”

One can only hope that CNN was fair and gave equal time to the
Soviets.

The death last week of former Arkansas Gov. Sidney McMath brings
back the issue of the Southern power structure. As reported by The
New York Times, McMath was in a pretty exclusive club of
progressive Southern Democrats during his two terms from 1949 to
1953. He worked to abolish the whites-only Democratic primary and
fought to make sure the first black applicant to the state medical
school was admitted. He fought Strom Thurmond when the latter
started the segregationist Dixiecrat movement in 1948.

McMath was defeated for reelection after a scandal broke
alleging corruption in the awarding of state road contracts. Three
aides were indicted for crimes, all acquitted. From the Times: “For
years, he (McMath) had worked for public electric power in rural
areas and had alienated the private power company that had
dominated Arkansas politics for years. The investigative commission
included a number of men with ties to that company.”

This kind of stuff still continues, the most recent example
being Republican Saxby Chambliss’ campaign last year to unseat Sen.
Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who the Southern establishment charged with a
lack of patriotism (though he lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam).
The charges stuck and Cleland went down.

Meizlish can be reached at
“mailto:meizlish@umich.edu”>meizlish@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

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