Sunday, February 6, 2011

It's Easier to Admit to Something If It's True

It may seem strange, with so many significant world events to be commented on, and after such a long absence from writing here, that I would return with what is, to be sure, a trivial concern. I have thoughts about what’s happening in Egypt right now, thoughts about the new Republican House whose members assured us their sole focus would be jobs and then as one of their first actions proceeded to try to re-define rape, thoughts about the horrific events in Tucson a few weeks ago. But one of two things has held me back. Either what I had to say wasn’t really blog-length (I could say it in a couple of sentences or it would take a longer essay than I had time to write or, likely, than you would choose to read), or someone else had already said pretty much what I wanted to say, and I could simply link to that piece from my Facebook page (those of you who “like” that page may have noticed an increase in such traffic over the last few weeks).

So here goes with a blog-sized issue, in the hopes that it will help me break my blogger’s block.

One blog/website I check not infrequently is called Ethics Alarms. I read (or at least skim) virtually all of these posts, agree with many if not most, and link to a few, both in my Curmudgeon Central persona and, less frequently, as myself. The blog is written by a guy named Jack Marshall, a Virginia-based ethicist and lawyer (and stage director!), who appears to mean it when he says his blog “attempt[s] to be bold without being reckless,” and that it is “dedicated to starting discussions, not ending them, despite the tone of certitude that often invades its commentary.” This attitude jibes well with the stated goals of my own blog: “You won't agree with me all the time... or at least I hope not. If all you can bring to the table is unsubstantiated opinion, please don't feel compelled to prove it, but I'd love to hear from you if you can offer an intelligent perspective that differs from my own.”

Anyway… Mr. Marshall recently posted an essay praising Marvin Kalb for “confronting the most prestigious and perhaps the most egregious of left-biased media, the New York Times, with the truth it routinely denies.” While I certainly agree with Marshall’s general point, that news is news and opinion is opinion, and the latter should not insinuate itself into the former (at least without an acknowledgment that it is doing so), there is much about the piece that is puzzling.

We begin with the opening salvo, an assertion that the “so-called mainstream media have an obvious leftward political bias,” for which “the evidence is overwhelming.” That is an arguable case, but I’d suggest that such bias, should it exist, is hardly “obvious.” It is true that a considerable majority of reporters self-identify (or are registered) as Democrats. This could, of course, be taken as evidence of a cabal: that only like-minded true believers can work in the MSM. Of course, it could just as easily be argued that journalists are well-educated and curious folks who are likely to be the best-informed demographic in the country about current events, and that smart and well-informed people tend to lean to the left. More to the point, while no one can completely eliminate his/her own perceptions or lived experience, it certainly is possible to minimize those subjective impulses (cue the Sonia Sotomayor references). As I’ve said repeatedly, I can direct a Brecht play without being a Communist or a Racine play without being a monarchist.

Moreover, with the increasing corporatization of the media, news coverage in general is trending to the right. I freely grant that my experience may be idiosyncratic, but in all the hoopla generated by the Tea Party’s protests against Obama-care in particular, I literally never heard anyone in the Corporate Media point out that the health-care bill will, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, reduce the deficit by a couple of hundred billion dollars… a fair amount of money in my neighborhood. But I heard a lot of Republican hand-wringers, suddenly, miraculously even, worried about the deficit. Everything the inane Sarah Palin utters is breathlessly recounted on the evening news, more often than not without rebuttal of even her most egregious factual errors. Need I continue?

The particular target of concern here, the New York Times, principally through the sloth (or mendacity) of Judith Miller, who unquestioningly parroted Bush administration talking points as if they were undisputed fact, became one of the primary cheerleaders for the Iraq war, and, like the Bush administration itself, never took responsibility for its role in a trillion-dollar debacle which failed to uncover any of those WMD it would be a “slam dunk” to find. The Times subsequently sat for months on a story about warrantless wiretaps (a clear violation of the 4th amendment) until after President Bush was safely re-elected. These are not the actions of a radical left-wing institution. This is not to say that the Times doesn’t make some decisions that could legitimately be described as left-leaning. But they’re an equal-opportunity incompetent. They’re lazy, they’re more interested in having access to power than in speaking truth to it, and they’re oftentimes more interested in the “sexy” story than in the truth. But they’re not “the most egregious of left-biased media.” And, despite their manifold flaws, they’re still better at journalism than virtually anyone else in the arena.

Marshall’s claim that MSM “supposedly objective reporters are openly adversarial to conservatives while covering news events” is supported but a link to a nearly two-year-old piece he wrote himself (I presume) describing a single incident in which a CNN reporter I’ve never heard of (Susan Roesgen, anyone?) said a couple of stupid things on the air. In the absence of a video or even a transcript of Roesgen’s alleged transgressions, I can’t assess the events except through Marshall’s descriptions. (N.B., I am not suggesting that Mr. Marshall is misrepresenting facts, or that he couldn’t have supplied other examples.)

Certainly decrying a rally as “anti-CNN” is dumb, but declaring the event unfit for “family viewing” might well have been a reaction against the language employed (as in, shall we say, citations from the Anglo-Saxon) rather than content. And while it might seem petulant to observe that the Tea Party movement was largely a product of the proselytizing of Fox News, the fact remains that that’s an objectively true statement. Moreover, were I in the position of interviewing such protesters, I suspect that I’d want to know why they were describing the President of the United States as a “fascist,” if they really thought they were benefiting their cause by doing so, and indeed if they had other than a visceral rationale for their allegations. I would “cut off” such a protester if he wasn’t making any sense—not because I didn’t want to have his ideas on air, but because I might hope to find someone better able to articulate a rational reason for the demonstration. And, of course, I might have been granted only a very small window of air time. If this is the best available example of MSM reporters’ contempt for conservatives, in other words, I’m pretty much unimpressed.

And then, Marshall’s essay gets really strange: “Fox News, which was launched to counter balance this tendency [towards a left-leaning media], has at least been relatively open about its conservative slant: ‘fair and balanced’ was always intended to convey Fox’s efforts to balance the scales, not to suggest the Fox News by itself was balanced.” In what universe? True, Fox News was, in its origins, intended to do exactly what is described here: to balance a perceived slant in media coverage. I actually used to watch some Fox programming in the network’s early days, and I continued to watch Fox News Watch throughout its first incarnation, when Eric Burns moderated (very well, I might add) and the likes of Neal Gabler were given the opportunity to engage in actual discussion with the Cal Thomases and Jim Pinkertons or the world. But even as the corporate media has drifted rightward in recent years, Fox has steadfastly moved even further to the right into, frankly, loonyville.

Fox, in other words, lurches far more to the right than MSNBC, the New York Times, or NPR veer to the left. Those latter organizations may, from time to time, interpret the news through their own political lens, but they don’t simply fabricate stories about death panels or Sharia law. In England, two of the three most widely-respected newspapers are the Guardian and the Telegraph. Everyone knows the former leans left and the latter leans right. But both try as best they can to get the facts straight, and I’ve linked to both of them in blog pieces over the last few months. It is possible, in other words, to be a legitimate news organization and still have a political point of view. But Fox News doesn’t live on that planet.

That network’s complete disregard for anything approaching coverage that is either fair or balanced is quite obvious to any reasonably informed person who watches for five minutes or glances at their website. The recent headline that “Obama Botches Bible Verse at Prayer Breakfast” because the President quoted accurately from the New International Version instead of apparently the only Fox-approved translation, the King James Version, is merely one among dozens of examples of Fox’s desire to cast Mr. Obama in a bad light, facts be damned.

The only real question is whether Fox News is an arm of the Republican Party or the other way around. I know that, you know that, Mr. Marshall knows that. But I see no evidence that the Fox viewership knows that. Turn on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, and chances are you won’t go an entire episode without hearing a phrase like “for those of us on the left.” But show me any evidence at all that Fox’s equivalent talking heads are ever that forthright about their political positioning. Bill O’Reilly’s catch-phrase isn’t “And now, from our side”; it’s about his “No-Spin Zone,” which, of course, is all about spin, just, well, his spin. I see literally no one at Fox, either on air or in management, who is “relatively open about its conservative slant.” A self-image as being unlike the allegedly leftie other guys, sure. But overtly conservative? Nope. Maybe those confirmations (admissions?) are there and I missed them… I’d really like to be proved wrong about this.

Next on Mr. Marshall’s menu is an indictment of the MSM because of its “repeated tardiness in covering legitimate ‘conservative news stories’ like the New Black Panthers controversy, and the ACORN ‘sting.’” Seriously? The “New Black Panthers” is a tiny, completely impotent, and not terribly smart gaggle of fringies (good article from Newsweek here), and investigation of them was deemed, well, not worth the bother by Attorney General Holder. No one other than the hacks at the Washington Times who manufactured the “controversy” could believe the NBPP poses any kind of threat to free and fair elections anywhere. No one, that is, except Fox News. Well, actually, they don’t believe it, either, but they’re willing to pretend that they do because of their need for ideological red meat.

The ACORN “sting” consisted of significantly edited footage, quite intentionally misrepresenting what actually happened. (My blog piece on the topic from last April is here.) This, of course, didn’t stop Fox News from beating the drum to destroy ACORN, just as they were to do subsequently when another tape deceptively edited by the despicable Andrew Breitbart purported to show Shirley Sherrod (remember her?) admitting to racial bias, whereas the unedited footage showed precisely the opposite. Fox, of course, both their commentators and their alleged reporters, screamed for President Obama to fire Sherrod. When the administration cravenly did so without bothering to find out the facts first, Fox went apoplectic again because Mr. Obama did precisely what they themselves had demanded that he do.

In other words, while there may be “legitimate ‘conservative news stories’” the MSM hasn’t covered, the two examples cited by Mr. Marshall don’t qualify, and the current-events reference to “the similar Planned Parenthood videotapes,” another Breitbart-edited hatchet job, doesn’t look like it’s going to be much of a story, either, largely because (who’da thunk it?) the unedited tape tells a very different story than the edited version. I know, I know, next I’ll tell you that ice is slippery. This non-coverage isn’t because the media is leftist; it’s because they’re sometimes competent, and they’re becoming increasingly less interested in being pawns in a sleazy propagandist’s latest ploy. (Sidebar: honestly, who would trust Andrew Breitbart if he said that ice cream tastes good?)

Finally, we come to the conclusion of Mr. Marshall’s essay, in which he cites Mr. Kalb’s observation that “there’s more analysis dipping into commentary and the editorial side of reporting than a straight hard news story.” To be honest, I’m not sure what that means. Reporting isn’t a Joe Friday “just the facts, ma’am” phenomenon. Ever. Every reporter, every editor (and I’ve been both, though not professionally) makes myriad choices about what facts are relevant and what aren’t. When two “facts” seem to be in disagreement, which gets rhetorically privileged? “X, but Y” or “Y, but X”?

Moreover, as I tell my students all the time, the nature of analysis is simultaneously objective and subjective: that is, there is as much difference between analysis and opinion as there is between analysis and purely objective reporting (as if the latter were indeed possible). This is a distinction I expect the dimmest of my Theatre Appreciation students to understand: I have no interest in your opinion, in whether or even why you liked or didn’t like something. Tell me what you saw, and, if you want an A, tell me what it might have meant. My classroom employs all three approaches: there are objective facts, there is analysis (“this seems to have happened because of that”), there is (occasionally, always clearly identified) opinion. It strikes me that reporting is remarkably similar in this regard: reporters and professors alike should be careful to distinguish between personal opinion (even professional opinion) and objectivity, but it’s frankly unreasonable to suggest that every statement be parsed and modified into meaninglessness. This positioning of analysis between the objective and the subjective doesn’t seem too difficult a concept to expect a professional journalist (Mr. Kalb, or a NYT reporter) to be able to comprehend.

I don’t want a reporter to tell me what to think about an issue, but I do expect a reporter to know more about an issue than I do, and to provide me with the relevant information. What qualifies as “relevant” in this formulation is ultimately at his or her discretion: I’m not an economist or a Middle East expert or a lawyer, or (usually) possessed of whatever particular professional insight might be most useful to understanding a specific issue. I am not, or at least I try not to be, a disjunctive thinker: there are shades of meaning in every useful commentary. I will agree with this politician most of the time but not always, and so on. But if I’m not going to simply agree with what my political party (religious leader, favorite commentator…) tells me, I need answers to certain very real questions: What does this mean? What is its context? How does it change the status quo?

As Times editor Bill Keller says in a part of the interview not quoted in Marshall’s blog entry:
I don’t mind analysis in the news pages; in fact, I encourage it every day. The discipline of objectivity or impartiality is something that is drilled into American reporters from their first day on the job….

It’s an aspiration, and reporters and editors bring their own beliefs to their jobs, and… just as judges are expected to set their personal prejudices aside in judging a case, reporters and editors are expected to lay their personal prejudices aside in assessing the facts of a news story….

They [readers] don’t get my opinion. If we’re going to write a piece on a particular political figure, then supplying some context to his remarks or his activities is a service to readers, I think.
Forgive me if I don’t go running after my torches and pitchforks at the audacity of those comments.

If the Times is actually editorializing under the guise of news reporting, that’s a bad thing. I really can’t comment on that assertion because, while I read the occasional Times article on line, it’s been quite a few years since it was my principal source of news, and while I haven’t seen any real evidence to support the claim, it night be true. If the charge is true, the Times wouldn’t be the only news source to do so, and I feel confident that they’re not as bad as some (Cough. Cough. Fox. Cough.). But while Mr. Kalb (and hence Mr. Marshall) may have a point, I find it interesting that the bleeding of opinion into news is never overtly linked to liberal bias: the closest Kalb comes is suggesting that “many conservatives” regard the Times as “left-wing.” And Keller’s responses are about as untroubling as it is possible to be.

Mr. Kalb’s questioning, then, seems rather more tepid than intrepid. He may have “visibly upset” Mr. Keller, as Mr. Marshall claims, but nothing like that is apparent in the audio tape. I’m afraid I’m not ready to lionize Kalb or to demonize Keller. Rather, I’m reminded of the television ad for The Nation, which claims that journal exhibits “that well-known liberal bias you won’t find anywhere else.” Think about what’s implicit in that claim…

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