Saturday, July 26, 2008

Media must redouble its commitment to fairness

(Originally published 7/26/08)

The media is meant to tell the story. Not be the story.

But now it is, as the line of objectivity has become increasingly blurred during this presidential campaign.

It’s been especially obvious over the last two weeks: As dozens of journalists have scrambled for their places on Barack Obama’s Amazing Incredible Tour of Europe and the Middle East, literally two journalists – one reporter and one photographer – met John McCain as he arrived in New Hampshire Monday.

But which would you rather cover: One candidate’s highly anticipated overseas trip, or your 3,947th town hall meeting? So some of this is understandable.

Or is it? When McCain traveled to Iraq in March, the networks produced only four full-length stories during evening news programs: NBC had three, ABC had one. CBS devoted only 31 words over 10 seconds to the trip over the whole week.

Enter media bias.

Journalists are human beings. They have opinions and a life experience that shape them. They have value systems, just like everyone else. And they take these things with them to the newsroom, to interviews, on assignment and on set.

But there’s something else at work. Journalists are also Americans. They’re voters (well, many of them, anyway). They’re taxpayers. They send their kids to public schools and have concerns about American foreign policy and domestic issues like healthcare. Why should they be immune from the excitement of this history-making election? How is it fair to expect them to remain stoic, just because journalism is their craft?

As I have said here before, everyone has bias. That’s a simple fact. What sets journalists apart is their ability – and commitment – to recognize their personal leanings and account for them when telling a story, so the story is as fair and accurate as possible.

Obama is plowing new ground in American politics, as the media is doing in covering him. But the media’s commitment to fairness is falling by the wayside.
Journalists could help themselves by not engaging in analysis. I’m sure the intent is to provide factual information that grounds the analysis. But the practice falls far short of the ideal. CNN frequently puts its reporters into this no-win situation. Predictably (and in Candy Crowley’s case, unapologetically), they can’t provide facts without opinion.

The media can also take advantage of natural opportunities for parity. The New York Times blew one such opportunity this week when it rejected an op-ed piece by McCain responding to an Obama piece about Iraq. Opinion page editor David Shipley told McCain staff that he wouldn’t accept the piece as written, but he suggested that McCain pen a response “that mirrors Sen. Obama’s piece.”

Micromanagement, anyone?

Yes, the Times endorsed McCain in the primary. Yes, the Times’ “standard procedure” is to “go back and forth with an author on his or her submission.” And yes, the Times has published at least seven such pieces by McCain since 1996.

(By the way, Shipley was President Clinton’s senior speechwriter from 1995 to 1997.)

I wonder: How many of those previous seven did the Times kick back to McCain?

If members of the media can’t find their center and stop being the news, they might as well not bother reporting it.

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