I haven’t writing much lately and see no inspiration on the horizon. I went back to the early days of this blog thinking I’d be a tad embarrassed at things written back then, but I am not. This is a November 2006 piece, three months into blogging, that still resonates. If the comment section comes through with the article, that too is a good thing.
The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people. (Justice Hugo L. Black)
I just fired up my computer this morning and encountered a new error message. A program that I did not know existed was not functioning properly, it said. It would have be shut down. It did shut it down, I assume, and the computer seems to be working fine without it.
Ah – a metaphor! That’s a problem with my thinking – everything can mean something else. It’s not necessarily wrong-headed thinking. It’s just annoying to people for whom metaphors convey little information. But I sat down to write about Ed Kemmick’s Sunday City Lights piece defending against press bias, so it seemed appropriate. A left wing analysis of the American press invariably rests on the assumption that there are background, or memory-resident programs running in the minds of all publishers, editors and reporters.
It’s not meant as an insult but is often taken as one. A left analysis of the press attempts to eliminate the need prejudice on the part of reporters as an explanation for bad reporting. This is a far cry from those on the right who say that there is a liberal bias, and that it is deliberate. A left analysis attempts to explain bias as a natural byproduct of ownership, advertising, sensitivity to critics, and source of information.
- The American media (and this analysis applies on big and small scale, News Corporation and Lee Enterprises), is owned by corporations who tend to be conservative. Overwhelmingly.
- The American media depends for sustenance on advertisers who tend to be conservative. Overwhelmingly. (Don’t believe that? Try getting Air America on the air anywhere, even Missoula. Even though there is a market niche larger than many of the splintered right wing segments, there are not enough advertisers willing to sponsor left-of-center programming.)
- The American media stands in the proverbial mighty wind of right wing flak about supposed liberal bias. They react defensively.
- The American media gets its information, to a very large degree, from ‘inside’ government and corporate sources, and depends on favorable treatment of those sources for continued access.
That’s a left-wing analysis. I think it stands up well to criticism because it lets ordinary people off the hook. Yes, you have integrity, work your craft, and do much good work. But no, you can’t see the forest for the trees.
Kemmick is a tree in the forest. He judges the integrity of the profession as a whole based on his own.
It seems like a hundred years ago that I was a reporter in Anaconda, and back then the only accusations of bias thrown at me had nothing to do with politics. In Anaconda, where it seemed that everybody was related to everybody else, or at least had known one another all their lives, reporting on matters of public interest was rarely simple.
I would be accused of writing a story so as to favor some faction whose existence I was unaware of, or of taking sides in a feud stretching back generations between people I didn’t know. In that town, where everybody was in one camp or another on all important debates, the idea that I was truly an outsider with no bones to pick was inconceivable.
Funny he should mention Anaconda, as in Anaconda company. Who would say that the Montana press was unbiased when that company owned most of the major outlets, back before Kemmick’s time. Did reporters have less integrity back then? It must have been hard for a journalist back in those days to punch out copy, knowing that inevitably it would be vetted by an editor with an eye on the publisher who was enforcing the will of the owner.
The journalist internalizes the conflict, it becomes memory-resident. Only rarely does the conflict peskily rise to the surface. That’s a left analysis, which Kemmick dismisses:
It’s more difficult to deal with the current pervasive belief that nobody in what is known as the mainstream media can be trusted. We are accused of masquerading as unbiased reporters while promoting a left-wing agenda – unless the critic happens to lean toward the left, in which case we are written off as servants of the status quo, lackeys promoting the interests of the powers-that-be.
Journalists get annoyed by left wing criticism of the press. Criticism from the right is generally anecdotal, and each anecdote can be refuted. Rightish criticism says that editors and publishers must be left-wing liberals, which simply doesn’t stand up in the light of day. But the leftish ragging accuses reporters of being lackeys, though unknowingly. It attempts to expose the memory-resident programs in operation. It’s personal.
Ben Bagdikian summed up the problem of media nicely back in 1982, when large-scale consolidation was just underway:
The new owning corporations of our media generally insist that they do not interfere in the editorial product. All they do is appoint the publisher, the editor, the business manager and determine the budget. If I wanted control of public information, that is all I would want. I would not want to decide on every story every day or say “yes” or “no” to every manuscript that came over the transom. I would rather appoint leaders who understand clearly who hired them and who can fire them, who pays their salaries and decides on their stock options. I would then leave it to them.
That’s a big treatment of the subject, and in the end, Kemmick’s City Lights piece doesn’t do it any justice. He falls back inside the gates of the city, and defends the question that was not asked.
Any thinking person will have beliefs and opinions, but a good reporter will bend over backward to prevent those beliefs and opinions from slanting a story. That is much different from failing to acknowledge those beliefs, or simply giving into them and becoming a partisan hack. Good reporters, trained in skepticism and objectivity, can still serve an important public function.
It’s all about the individual reporter and how he carries on his craft. There’s no larger questions to be answered.
What I mean by objectivity is that the reporter stays out of what he writes, not that he slavishly presents two “sides” to every story. If we report that a petroleum geologist has located oil in a formation 150 million years old, we are not obligated to tack on a disclaimer saying, “Many people, however, believe that the Earth is only a few thousand years old.”
What I mean by being fair and objective is presenting facts without comment and conveying the words and thoughts of other people as they would want them to be conveyed. That is not an easy thing to do, but I think we should continue to demand that reporters at least try.
Reporting then is nothing more than he-said-she-said. Critics on the left call this stenography.
When the government wanted us to go to war in Iraq, they said alot of stuff. It was all duly reported, without editorial bias. When that stuff turned out to be false, we were stuck with a decimated country and hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, and a press that appeared to be comprised of lackeys. But never did they fail to report on what he and she said (except for that odd case of the Downing Street memo). They only failed to analyze, failed to suspect lies, shelved intuition and did not confront power. They went along, and hid behind the mask of objectivity.
And that, in the end, summarizes the problem the left has with the media: They use objectivity as an excuse to avoid probing for truth. In the end, as with Iraq, they fail us miserably. But they do so while honoring the hallowed traditions of journalism.
If paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people, they aren’t doing their job, and should be replaced. The question answered in Kemmick’s piece is not the question asked. It’s not about reporting both sides and walking away. It’s about how to build an accountable media.