Friday, October 27, 2006

Balanced Reporting Until Death

This letter I found while surfing through the search engine of the NYTimes, which I do occasionally.

It was published on October 1, 2006 and deals with a media issue - balance in reporting.

To the Editor:

In his review of Frank Rich's "Greatest Story Every Sold" (Sept. 17), Ian Buruma wrote that "someone reporting on the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 would not have added 'balance' by quoting Joseph Goebbels."

In fact, American journalists reporting from Germany in the 1930's worried about providing balance in news stories about German Jews. A 1935 journalism textbook actually used "the Jewish persecution by the German Nazi government" to illustrate the need for "both sides in a controversial matter" to be "given a chance to have their position stated." Balance was necessary, the text explained, because the story is about a struggle "between rival groups, each of which is strong in its own right, and each of which is anxious to get as much propaganda across to newspaper readers as is possible."

Laurel Leff

West Hartford, Conn.

The writer teaches journalism at Northeastern University and is the author of "Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper."

How simplistic smart people can be.

And here is a major part of that book review of Frank Rich's book, THE GREATEST STORY EVER SOLD, The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina, 341 pp., The Penguin Press:-

What is fascinating about the era of George W. Bush, however, is that the spinmeisters, fake news reporters, photo-op creators, disinformation experts, intelligence manipulators, fictional heroes and public relations men posing as commentators operate in a world where virtual reality has already threatened to eclipse empirical investigation.

Remember that White House aide, quoted by Rich in his introduction, who said that a “judicious study of discernible reality” is “not the way the world really works anymore”? For him, the “reality-based community” of newspapers and broadcasters is old hat, out of touch, even contemptible in “an empire” where “we create our own reality.” This kind of official arrogance is not new, of course, although it is perhaps more common in dictatorships than in democracies. What is disturbing is the way it matches so much else going on in the world: postmodern debunking of objective truth, bloggers and talk radio blowhards driving the media, news organizations being taken over by entertainment corporations and the profusion of ever more sophisticated means to doctor reality.

Rich’s subject is the creation of false reality. “The Greatest Story Ever Sold” is not about policies, or geopolitical analysis. The pros and cons of removing Saddam Hussein by force, the consequences of American military intervention in the Middle East and the threat of Islamist extremism are given scant attention...

...Yet — and this is where Rich is particularly acute — most serious papers published the White House claims on their front pages, and buried any doubts in small news items at the back. Political weeklies with a liberal pedigree, like The New Republic, fell in line with the neoconservative Weekly Standard, stating that the president would be guilty of “surrender in the war on international terrorism” should he fail to make an effort to topple Saddam Hussein. Bob Woodward, the scourge of the Nixon administration, wrote “Bush at War,” a book that seemed to take everything his White House sources told him at face value...the press, by and large, took the bait.

How could this have happened? How could some of the best, most fact-checked, most reputable news organizations in the English-speaking world have been so gullible? How can one explain the temporary paralysis of skepticism? This is perhaps the most painful question raised by Rich’s book, since his own newspaper was clearly implicated. An air of intimidation, which hung over the United States like a noxious vapor after 9/11, is part of the explanation. Susan Sontag became a national hate figure just for saying that United States foreign policy might have had something to do with violent anti-Americanism. When John Ashcroft declared to the Senate that people who challenged his highly questionable policies “give ammunition to America’s enemies,” he was simply echoing the ranters and ravers of talk radio. But they are poisonous buffoons. He was the attorney general. No wonder that the mainstream press, after being continuously accused of “liberal bias,” preferred to keep its head down.

Newspaper editors should not have to feel the need to prove their patriotism, or their absence of bias. Their job is to publish what they believe to be true, based on evidence and good judgment. As Rich points out, such journals as The Nation and The New York Review of Books were quicker to see through government shenanigans than the mainstream press. And reporters from Knight Ridder got the story about intelligence fixing right, before The New York Times caught on. “At Knight Ridder,” Rich says, “there was a clearer institutional grasp of the big picture.”

Intimidation is only part of the story, however. The changing nature of gathering and publishing information has made mainstream journalists unusually defensive. That more people than ever are now able to express their views, on radio shows and Web sites, is perhaps a form of democracy, but it has undermined the authority of editors, whose expertise was meant to act as a filter against nonsense or prejudice. And the deliberate confusion, on television, of news and entertainment has done further damage.

The Republicans, being more populist than the Democrats, have exploited this new climate with far greater finesse. Accusing the media of bias is an act of remarkable chutzpah for an administration that pitches its messages straight at radio talk show hosts and public relations men. Rich gives many examples. One of the more arresting ones is of Dick Cheney appearing on a TV show with Armstrong Williams, a fake journalist on the government payroll, to complain about bias in the press. Something has gone askew when one of the most trusted critics of the Bush administration is Jon Stewart, host of a superb comedy program. It was on his “Daily Show” that Rob Corddry, an actor playing a reporter, lamented that he couldn’t keep up with the government, which had created “a whole new category of fake news — infoganda.” Rich is right: “The more real journalism fumbled its job, the easier it was for such government infoganda to fill the vacuum.”

THERE may be one other reason for the fumbling: the conventional methods of American journalism, marked by an obsession with access and quotes. A good reporter for an American paper must get sources who sound authoritative and quotes that show both sides of a story. His or her own expertise is almost irrelevant. If the opinions of columnists count for too much in the American press, the intelligence of reporters is institutionally underused. The problem is that there are not always two sides to a story. Someone reporting on the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 would not have added “balance” by quoting Joseph Goebbels. And besides, as Judith Miller found out, what is the good of quotes if they are based on false information?

Bob Woodward, one of Rich’s chief bĂȘtes noires, has more access in Washington than any journalist, but the weakness of his work is that he never seems to be better than his sources. As Rich rightly observes, “reporters who did not have Woodward’s or Miller’s top-level access within the administration not only got the Iraq story right but got it into newspapers early by seeking out what John Walcott, the Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief, called ‘the blue collar’ sources further down the hierarchy.” This used to be Woodward’s modus operandi, too, in his better days. Fearing the loss of access at the top and overrating the importance of quotes from powerful people, as well as an unjustified terror of being accused of liberal bias, have crippled the press at a time when it is needed more than ever. Frank Rich is an excellent product of that press, and if it ever recovers its high reputation, it will be partly thanks to one man who couldn’t take it anymore.

Ian Buruma is the Henry Luce professor at Bard College. His latest book is “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.”

A very interesting insight into journalism.

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