How come media objectivity is suddenly a bad thing?

How come media objectivity is suddenly a bad thing?

How come media objectivity is suddenly a bad thing?

Policy made plain.
Nov. 8 2001 3:49 PM

Osama Done Told Me

So how come media objectivity is suddenly a bad thing?

 

Conservative press critics are in another tizzy about objectivity and balance in American journalism. Only this time their complaint isn't the lack of these fine qualities. Their complaint is that there's way too much of the darned stuff. When complaining about it, they don't call it objectivity or balance: They call it neutrality. But it amounts to the same thing. It means an effort to report the facts without developing—or at least without revealing—an opinion about them.

Advertisement

On most days of the week and most subjects, the critics believe that this task is easy to do, highly desirable, and deplorably bungled by the mainstream press. On the subject of Osama Bin Laden (and the current festivities in general), however, the critics are against neutrality and in favor of bias, which on this occasion they call patriotism. They jump on any suggestion that a journalistic outlet or individual journalist might be reluctant to express or act on an opinion: The opinion is that Bin Laden is evil and that at least the broad outlines of the U.S. campaign against him are wise beyond dispute.

Virtually everyone in mainstream journalism does in fact share this opinion, which adds a further irony to the press critics' new gripe. The traditional conservative media critique has no difficulty with the question of motive: Journalists bend the news in a liberal direction because they're liberals. But in the current situation, pro-Osama sentiments are just not a plausible motive. The notion that journalists covertly sympathize with a mass murderer who may well be targeting journalists specifically is too far-fetched even for radio talk shows. So the new gripe doesn't blame ulterior motives. It blames journalistic standards themselves. Journalists are accused of upholding the very standard—neutrality, balance, objectivity, lack of bias, whatever—that they usually are accused of betraying.

It's a bum rap, of course. No one who watches, reads, or listens could have any doubt that the American media are flagrantly biased. They are pro-America and anti-Bin Laden. On a few occasions when media outlets have allowed neutral, objective standards of newsworthiness to trump overt support for the cause—for example, on the issue of broadcasting Bin Laden's propaganda tapes—the journalists have backed down quickly when criticized.

ABC News president David Westin will be licking his wounds and Rush Limbaugh's boots for months after saying that objectivity requires him to have no opinion about whether the Pentagon was a legitimate target. At CNN, meanwhile, they're officially encouraged to remind viewers of how many people died Sept. 11 whenever they report on civilian casualties caused by U.S. bombing in Afghanistan. This is not objectivity or balance. It is pure pro-American bias. No one watching CNN needs to be informed of what happened Sept. 11. And there is no parallel requirement that references to the fatalities on Sept. 11 be balanced with reminders that the United States is killing innocent civilians every day in Afghanistan.

But there's nothing wrong with the media being biased in favor of the United States, against Osama Bin Laden, in favor of freedom, against terrorism, in favor of the Pentagon (as a building, not as a set of policies), and against crashing a plane full of people into it. Whether patriotism alone justifies a degree of media bias is a tricky question: During Vietnam, media skepticism served the country better than unquestioning support would have. But the current situation is an easier case. Though there's lots of room for argument over sub-issues, the basic justice of America's cause is beyond serious dispute. That it's wrong to hijack a plane and crash it into the Pentagon is closer to being a fact than an opinion. The problem with the conservatives' complaints is, first, their insistence against all evidence that the media are being insufficiently biased, and second, their clinging to simple-minded or even fatuous notions about objectivity and media bias that their own current complaints disprove.

The difference between fact and opinion is not a bright line: It is a spectrum. At one end you have "2 + 2 = 4," and on the other you have "Social Security should be privatized" (although undoubtedly there are people eager to insist that even the former is just an opinion or that the latter is an incontrovertible fact). In between are most of the issues involved in controversies over media bias. Where you choose to draw your line on that spectrum is not merely a question of judgment on which reasonable people can disagree: It is to some degree a question of taste on which they can all be equally right.

This is not the familiar point that objectivity is impossible because objective reality is an ever-receding mirage or because human beings can never purge themselves of bias. These things may or may not be true, but a newspaper or TV reporter can still try to perceive and convey the facts as neutrally as possible. The point here is that even where objectivity, balance, and all those good things are possible, they're not always wanted—even by those who preach about them the most.

There is nothing inherently contradictory or hypocritical about Rush Limbaugh objecting to media bias in some cases while demanding it in others. Most of us would agree that "terrorism is bad" and "the United States is good" are permissible, indeed admirable biases. It would be nice if the conservative press critics would agree that even justifiable biases don't justify abandoning all skepticism. It would be even nicer if they would agree that their own position is complex and those who think differently may not be morons or traitors.