Tuesday, November 18, 2003

I've often written about how little the establishment media does to inform us, due in large part the unwillingness of many journalists, especially prestigious ones, to sacrifice their most prized commodity for truly revealing story: that most prized commodity being access. (What exactly is the point of such great access if you're not going to use it?) I've also written on the difference between objectivity and neutrality in journalism, two principles who are commonly, but falsely, equated.

Briefly, an objective report is one that fairly reflects the reality of the situation. A neutral report is one that gives equal weight to both or all sides of the issue. Objectivity is not always neutral.

This conundrum is often talked about by reporters who covered the wars in the Balkans. Most independent groups have established that about 90 percent of the atrocities in the Balkan wars were committed by Serb forces. This overwhelming preponderence was well-known by independent observers even during the fog of that war.

Yet, when journalists tried to OBJECTIVELY reflect this reality, many were told by their editors that is was not NEUTRAL. Thus, many of these reporters were compelled to actively search out cases of alleged malfeasance, no matter how small by comparison, by Bosnian forces. That way, a neutral balance (think a scale) would be maintained. Even though it did not fairly reflect who was doing most of the bad stuff.

The Clinton administration used this same tack to avoid taking any decisions about that war. "The massacres are terrible," you heard almost daily, "but atrocities are being committed on both sides." Some war crimes were committed by Tutsi rebels in Rwanda but taken in totality, how do they stack up against the nearly 1 million murdered by Hutu extremists in the genocide? Should Tutsi war criminals be punished? Of course. Should Tutsi war crimes be put on the same footing as the genocide? Absolutely not.

Think of it this way. A neutral report would give equal weight to the attacks on civil liberties by Attorney General Ashcroft and the human rights' situation in Saddam's Iraq. As odious as I find both the Patriot Act and the attorney general, I don't think an objective report would equate them with Iraq under Saddam. I vigorously condemn the war on civil liberties, but there is no objective comparison here. Contrary to what the slogan of Fox News [sic] implies, balanced is not always synonymous with fair.

I concede that this puts journalists and editors in a difficult situation. If a fair report effectively blames one political side, that side will accuse the journalist of bias or of conducting an anti-[insert party or ideology] witchhunt. It's even tougher when said target is conservative, since the "liberal media" canard has been repeated so often, it's now unquestioningly accepted as fact even by many moderates. Still it's worth noting that a hatchet job is not any more objective than being assiduously neutral.

Maybe if these moderates were exposed to some of the left-wing or progressive arguments that aren't covered, they'd feel differently, but that's exactly why the "liberal media" charge misses the point. Individual journalists may be liberal, but the institutions they work for (their employers) are first and foremost establishment. The more corporate the organization, the more establishment it will be.

All this came to my mind again this morning while I was listening to an NPR report on the energy policy conceived in secret by the Republicans. (As an aside, it's worth noting that the same Republicans who, rightly I might add, slammed the secrecy of Mrs. Clinton's health care deliberations are taking the exact same closed-door approach with something as critically important as energy policy)

The NPR report included sound bites from Republican legislators defending the plan and sound bites from Democratic legislators attacking it. Both groups said exactly what you expected them to say. But rather than analyzing the various statements and assertions, the NPR reporter simply concluded by summarizing what the politicians said and noting how the pundits think the vote might turn out. Taken as a whole, the report was neutral, impartial... and thoroughly un-informative. (And it's even more damning if you consider that, in my opinion, NPR is the BEST domestic news broadcast organization. Though it's worth noting that the Gingrich Republicans attacked NPR funding when they came to power, so perhaps the public broadcaster has been cowed into de-fanging itself?).

And this formulaic equation governs how politics and government is generally covered today by the establishment media. Give x seconds or column issues to quote the standard liberal. Give the same number to quote the standard conservative. Throw in a sports' analogy by a yapping head. Have the journalist re-state said positions. The end.

This is less informative reporting than a summary service for the politicians.

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