Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The Liberal Veil

Don Elkins, media emperor of Arkansas Tonight had an excellent post titled "More on Media Bias, Part Three," with his thoughts on liberal bias in the media. It's good stuff, but I think it also makes very, very plain Elkins' own bias and disproves his point. Let's take a look.
Chicago used to serve as home to a long-venerated group of low-paid, overworked journalists known as employees of the City News Bureau. The exploits of those reporters have served as the basis for several movies and works of fiction romanticizing the wheeling and dealing lives of journalists mid-century and before.

Those of us who worked with personnel from that group, before it closed its doors forever, rememeber a motto, a quote of sorts, always repeated by long-time Chicago area reporters. The City News Bureau's motto?

"If your mother says she loves you, check it out!"

I think that illustrates something about reporters and the American media in general. We are skeptics by nature and skeptics by training. It behooves us to believe no one. We need more than one source for our stories, for our chronicle of history. We also possess a natural, and inculcated tendency to question authority. Just imagine, if you earned your living questioning authority -- police, presidents, congressmen, senators, generals and leaders of the corporate world. A journalist's very function is to simply ask questions. If we get lucky, we also find answers.
Good point. But do you question all authority? Your own editors and peers? We'll come back to this later.
As such, many of us have a difficult time with any person, or group of people, who claim a lock on "absolute truth." I might even go so far as to say most journalists don't believe in "absolute truth" in much the same way judges and referees don't believe in it (or else find it very, very rare.) After all, when you have a job directive requiring you to get "both sides" of the story, and being human, fall victim to the frailty of all those who can't claim Solomon's wisdom, you may begin to realize in most cases, "both sides" have valid points. In fact, one might call that the spirit of objectivity and moderation -- the middle road. Do we always believe the president? Does he never lie? Does he always speak the truth? Nixon did not. Clinton did not. Bush admittedly did not, though we have no concrete evidence of any malice aforethought for his transgressions of truth (see "UN" and "yellowcake".) Stories, and more importantly truth, often don't make one party an exclusive home.
He's right about the second part, on truth, though I cringe at the "both side" construction. Few issues boil down to such a simple dichotomy. It's much more the case that issues have many sides.

The "absolute truth" part is a bit stickier. Does this extend to reporting from the bastions of newspaper reporting like the New York Times and the Washington Post? Or the major broadcast news networks? Are these sources questioned and called to task too?

There are some absolute truths, although I think Elkins isn't talking science but politics, religion, culture, etc. A lot of bad reporting happens because the desire to avoid "absolutes" leads to treating bad science with more respect than it deserves, or because the reporter simply doesn't have enough science knowledge to recognise bad science when confronted with it.
However, some highly organized and motivated groups of human beings do claim an exclusive lock on that "truth." Just consider these claims, "The Holy Bible is the literal word of God." "There is only one God, and that God is Allah." "Might makes right." We have the one true church, one true creed, one true political platform or agenda, and so on and so forth.
Two religious claims, both fundamentalist, and one militaristic political claim, often found in religious claims. So, it's religious bias?

What about political claims? That government must take money from some to help others? That one of the government's duties is to hinder some to help others? That the use of force is always wrong? That multilateral action is always better than unilateral action? Do these get examined as well, or just passed along?
Now, don't take this too far. I'm not implying anything. Any of these groups may actually have a lock on the truth in an absoute form. I'm but a simple-minded journalist, and as such, would always like to have two impartial sources, or more depending on the nature of the story, to verify those claims as fact. That's just the nature of my work. Everyone is equal in my notepad or camera, I'm equally skeptical of all politicians, attorneys and religious leaders, anyone who stakes a claim to money or power over other human beings. Heck, we as journalists will often subject our colleagues to the same standards (see "Jayson Blair" et. al.) we apply to those "in power."
Ahhhh, but Jayson Blair had warnings put out on him for a while and his editor, Howell Raines, refused to look into them until sources outside the paper confronted the Times and forced him to. The handling of similar incidents at other papers shows that papers tend to treat these things as isolated incidents rather than endemic or systemic, because they tend to view their peers throught that lense of "impartial and unbiased, basically honest."
So, let's take it farther...

"If your president says he'll keep you safe from terror if you re-elect him, check it out!"

"If John Kerry says the President will do terrible things to America, and you should kick him out of the White House, check it out!"

"If Pat Robertson says God has told him George Bush will win in November, check it out!"

You can see the problems with this, but we still approach the questions and propositions the same way, regardless of who is trying to sell us an idea or a so-called "fact."

Yep. Check it out.
His examples, examined a bit deeper, hint at something. The first one implies Bush so let's call it Bush. The first and last examples, then are Republicans making claims of action. The second, about a Democrat, is a claim of a Republican claim of action. All three make derogatory statements about Republicans. The sole Democrat is presented neutrally.
It doesn't work the same way for "pundits." Rush Limbaugh knows he's right, and beats up on the opposition, it's what turns on his audience. Listening to his show is still interesting, but not as entertaining as he'd have all of us believe. People consider him an "avenging angel" -- someone who is so confident of his own rightness that he fears no one, brooks no conversation, and instead turns into a heckler, a man who hectors the unfortunate, or scarier still, intentionally liberal, hence wrong, members of society. He doesn't really conduct a conversation like Terry Gross does on NPR.
He's comparing two very different things. Limbaugh has never had a "conversational" show; it's a monologue with interruptions from callers. Also, the media are different. Rush is on commercial AM radio and must always break for commercials, promos, station IDs, etc. Gross's show is an explicit interview. She gets an unbroken, lengthy time with her guests. Rush exists to propound a point a view; Gross exists to elicit reponses from others.

Rush is always upfront about his political bias. It's what his show is. He never denies doing what he does. Gross, on the other hand, pretends to neutrality, non-bias and objectivity. She claims no politics, but it informs her questions and assumptions.

Who is more honest? I know exactly where Rush is coming from. Can Gross be taken at the same face value?

Notice again the religious imagery in this paragraph.
If CBN or Fox gives me a news story, I usually smell the scent of someone trying to sell me something, either ideology or whatever, but still trying to convince me to buy into their line of reasoning. When I smell "sales" in something, I apply that City News question to it. And, yes, I'll do the same to MSNBC and CNN and the New York Times and the Washington Post. Remember, just because you see it in print (in any paper) doesn't mean it's true -- from the New York Times to the Washington Times.
Look at how he divided this. But notice that he accused CBN and Fox, then threw off the "and them too" for the "other side." What does that tell you?
One other thing, if you are familiar with organizations which claim to hold "the truth" or "the way" or claim "to have the best intentions of the people" in mind, infinitely self-righteous, crusading and self-certain groups, you will most often also find those same groups very opposed to anyone who questions their claims. In some circles, questioning said "right" is known as heresy, disloyalty, or, if you enjoy reading the works of Ann Coulter(sp?) "treason."
All his examples point to the religious, conservative or Republican side. Does he not have any examples that come from a liberal point of view? Would he actually say that some of the usual suspects are liberal? I can find a lot of this attitude he writes of here in many organisations and academics from the journalism trade and the political left.

By his own construction, he's accusing the Right. I'd love to see him turn this analysis on the Left, if he thought he could. Are there any "infinitely selfrighteous, crusading and self-certain groups" like, say, environmentalists, America's leading newspaper editors, journalism watch-dogs, etc?
So, by the very nature of the job I perform as a person who questions authority, with or without due respect (that part is up to me as a human being and free American) I will be seen as heretic, disloyal, or treasonous.
Only by those you question. If you are even-handed, impartial and fair then the accusation will come from all sides. Is that the case, or do you get approving nods from some quarters and brickbats from others?
Oh yes, I forgot to add liberal. Oddly enough, in my business, we tend to follow a rule about how we describe people in reports, especially when it comes to race, religion, or politics. We understand to call them (usually) as they would call themselves. Are you black,African American, person of color, hispanic, latino, latina, asian, irish American,whatever.

Do we still deserve any appellation, liberal or conservative, if we espouse neither description? Can we maintain moderate or objective? Sure, we can and we do. However, that is again heresy to some in certain orthodoxies.
So, why is "conservative" such a common appelation in reporting and "liberal" so uncommon? When was the last time Senator Kennedy was called "liberal" in a news story? Or certain advocacy groups referred to as "liberal?" The labels are applied, and not even-handedly.
My question to you is, can anyone win in the stereotyping name game? We even do it to one another in this business. Is Fox News really "fair and balanced" with a different point of view from which to approach stories, or does the network take daily marching orders from Chief Roger Ailes, the pontiff of orthodoxy?
And again, the finger points at the Right.
Is the opposite of liberal always conservative? Or is it simply "moderate" or "neutral" or "objective" -- do we in the media simply gain the appelation "liberal" because we violate the rule of those who have a divine directive to lead by simply asking questions and not following an agenda? Or do we get it because we aren't "conservative?"
It's what questions are asked and to whom. How ardently are they asked? Why, in a country of vast and differing politics, do the evening newscasts of the major three networks all resemble each other so much? Why did all the networks, cable news and network news shows, and their reporters and editors, and all the major newspapers (except the Wall Street Journal), and all the journalism think-tanks and commentators, and Democratic politicians and pundits, react almost identically to the appearance of FOX News Channel?

I agree with don that reporters try to be skeptical and questioning but, like a camera, they can only see where they are pointed. I would argue that personal politics and the cultures of colleges and newsrooms create a framing device through which reporters learn to see. Most aren't aware of it and some deny it exists. Stepping back from and dismantling prejudices and assumptions is what reporters are supposedly trained in, but I would argue that most colleges and newsroom nerely equip reporters with a new, particular set of assumptions.

Most reporting these days isn't "this is what happened," where we can reach our own conclusions about what to do from the facts presented to us, based on our own politics and assumptions. It's presented as "Something's wrong and here's what it is," which comes built in with poltics and assumptions from the person constructing the story. Simple reporting requires the reporter to learn to efface themselves. Narratives or "stories about people and their problems" allow a lot of room for reporters to insert, consciously or otherwise, their own language and assumptions.

I've learned from writing this blog that "just the facts" writing gets really boring, really fast. It's hard to write that way, over and over again. I think I understand why so many old-time reporters had the "Great American Novel" in their desks. Editors used to beat the narratives, flourishes and opinions out of their reporters' writing. All that pent-up creativity had to go somewhere. It explains why so many of those novels were bad, too. Balancing a life of lean, spare reporting would lead too many to ornate and over-heated writing in compensation.

One last example. Reporters approach companies, as Elkins notes above, with an almost reflexive distrust. It's not-quite-assumed that a company is dishonest to at least some degree with its customers. Look at the number of "On Your Side" and "Investigative" reporters. The underlying assumption is that capitalism, with its accumulation of wealth and power, tends to corrupt. If customers aren't careful, they can get ripped off with over-inflated prices and shoddy service and worthless products.

So why is government not treated the same way? Why is the assumption that if government needs more money, it must have a good reason? Why do reporters not automatically side with taxpayers and question what's going on? Why are budgets, revenues, programs, services, etc. uncritically accepted?

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