There was NBC's Andrea Mitchell a while back, huffily saying that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had treated President Barack Obama "like a schoolboy" in disagreeing publicly about enemy-surrounded, tiny Israel giving up borders providing it with a crucial buffer zone in event of war. Check out Internet videos. In dutifully and inescapably speaking on behalf of the survival of his country's 7 million people, Netanyahu was subdued, polite and deferential. Mitchell's was a fairly mild transgression. Her spouting off about a possible speck of dust landing on His Majesty was not just oblivious to substance, however, but the kind of spin you too frequently get from hard-news reporters. Some stray from their role as conveyers of current-events information to take on the work of editorial writers or columnists, interjecting their opinions amid cheers from more and more colleagues contending objectivity is impossible and the search for truth paramount.
Well, yes, pure objectivity may be an unreachable ideal in the formulation of news accounts that require some degree of non-verifiable interpretation to make them coherent. But getting to Truth of the "Big T" kind is a tougher goal, can easily end up as a resort to bias and, when reporters abandon the criteria of balance and fairness, can cheat news consumers of a chance to weigh matters themselves.
The ethics codes of top news organizations still call for impartiality, and there are -- or at least were -- realizable rules of the game, such as giving other sides of the argument in a story focusing on the explication of some clearly controversial issue. Do those who want to say this is nonsense also want to call it nonsense to give the defense a chance to call its own witnesses in legal cases where law enforcement officials are satisfied the accused is guilty? I'd suggest that when you are a chief supplier of news to the people of a self-governing society, in certain stories you have a responsibility not wholly unlike a court to avoid one-sided favoritism. If labeled as such, commentary is fine, fooling no one as somehow shorn of intervening attitudes, a valuable, dialectical way of seeking out meaning, provoking thought, moving toward answers -- and providing me paychecks. Long may opinion writing live, then, but not in the guise of reporting the public sees as having different objectives. "The Media Elite," a 1980s book that surveyed the politics, psychology and products of 238 news gatherers at 10 top media organizations, announced to great notice that most were left of center, that their politics were the way they saw reality and that, when they inserted their views in stories, they believed they were just telling it like it is.Some people have quarreled with the book, saying, for instance, that it itself was biased (although it refrained from using that word to describe reporters) and the sample too small. And yet a number of national surveys before and since have come up with the same conclusions, and as someone who has spent 45 years in the company of reporters, I can promise you most have a liberal world view that can get reflected in their copy. It doesn't follow that there is no such thing as conservative bias in reporting even as reporters of all political persuasions are, in my view, generally honest and dedicated to the common good. Surveys do show they have less and less credibility, though some of this has to do with apolitical issues, such as blaming the messenger for the message. Such matters have been on my mind more lately as I take on a second job that includes work with the Centennial Institute on a project concerning news in the 21st century, including such topics as the rise of the Internet, media bias and maintaining free speech. I will also be teaching part of a Colorado Christian University course dealing in part with media literacy and learning how to judge unreliability in news content. What's dismaying, in looking for examples to talk about, is finding a great many of them.
Jay Ambrose was formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver. He is now a syndicated columnist living in Colorado, as well as a Centennial Institute Fellow and co-director of our project on News in the 21st Century.