“I think journalists should have the right to express their opinions on the topics they cover. More importantly, I think readers have a right to know what those opinions are. Frankly, I’d like to know sooner rather than later just how insane some of these people at CNN and Fox News are. To stop them from giving me that information is just another way to lie to me.”
Arrington is right, of course. The pose that journalists are politically objective is almost always a fraud, and efforts by organizations like The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle to prevent their reporters from doing things like attending political rallies for politicians they admire or expressing strong opinions on social websites have nothing to do with preserving journalistic objectivity, but rather with preserving the illusion of journalistic objectivity. “All this bullshit about objectivity in journalism is just a trick journalists use to try to gain credibility, and the public eats it up,” Arrington says.
But Arrington is also wrong. He presumes that bias is literally impossible for human beings to overcome, so even aspiring to report objectively is futile and pointless. On the contrary, it is necessary and essential, just as it is for juries, judges or sports referees. Arrington claims that a reporter’s biases are “baked into every story,” as if journalists are incapable of recognizing their biases and reviewing each story by asking, questions like,
- “Is this fair to all participants? Would they feel it is fair?”
- “Are my language, tone, and ordering of facts slanted?”
- Have I presented all relevant facts with appropriate emphasis?
- “Am I allowing readers to make up their own minds?”
- “Do I feel so strongly about this topic that I should let someone else write the report?”
- “Would I write this story differently if I were biased the other way?”
Journalism is a profession, and professionals have to deal with such impediments to professional competence as bias. Good journalists do ask themselves these questions, and can substantially overcome the taint of their own biases.
Like Arrington, however, the public doesn’t believe that, and there are good reasons for their skepticism. Everyone knows that the news media is made up of far more liberals than conservatives and far more Democrats and Republicans, and that the results are obvious…except to biased media observers. The majority of journalists do not work to overcome their biases. There are journalists one can trust, but it is nearly impossible to determine which ones. Arrington says, “Reveal your biases, and we’ll decide if you can be trusted.” Really? How? I know which reporters are trustworthy when they report on subjects in which I have some expertise or that I have researched myself, but with most other stories, there is no way to know what facts are being withheld, colored, manipulated or distorted.
The Washington Post and other media outlets forbid partisan displays (one veteran Post editor has refused to vote for decades, as if not voting somehow changes who he would like to vote for) because it really believes that its reporters are not biased, but also that cynical readers will believe they are if the reporters’ private opinions are known. Thus the opinions must be kept secret, so readers won’t erroneously lose faith in the news. Arrington, in contrast, wants all reporters’ opinions known, so we know what the biases are, and the reporters know we know, and will therefore (he thinks) have to show us they can be trusted. The Post is deluded: some, many, most or all of its reporters are biased. Arrington is deluded as well. There is no way, after telling Israel’s Jews to “go back where they came from,” that Helen Thomas will ever or should ever be trusted to report objectively on Middle East matters. It isn’t that she doesn’t have a right to her opinions; it’s that we would have to be idiots to trust someone having that opinion to be capable of objectivity or even competent reporting. It’s isn’t that Nasr can’t choose to admire terrorists; she certainly can. I just think admiring terrorists disqualifies a network news editor from having the responsibility of overseeing stories and features about terrorism. Yes, maybe a dog-fighting enthusiast could run PETA brilliantly, but somehow I doubt anyone will give him a chance.
At a gut level, most of us recognize that biases greatly affect our opinions, actions and objectivity. Journalists, the good ones, are better at controlling their biases than most, but because so many high-placed journalists are not able to control them (or refuse to try), the only reasonable assumption is that a journalist with a bias is an untrustworthy journalist. With Arrington’s plan, there is no such thing as objective journalism, even if the reporter is really trying to be objective, because nobody will believe him.
Is that still better than what we have now, a largely biased group of journalists pretending to be objective when they aren’t? Under one system, we may be getting the truth but we won’t believe it; under the other, we’re being lied to, but we’re not sure by who.
Neither advances the mission of journalism, which is to convey the news in an objective and enlightening way to permit a civically engaged citizenry to make informed decisions about their lives, communities, nation and government.
I don’t think we can get there from here.