Bias and Opposition

In an article about former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, Patrick Smith claims, “the only way an American journalist can be a good American is to be a good journalist.” The assumption behind this, that journalism rises above biases such as nationalism, made me think of two things. The first is something James Fallows recounts in Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. The second is the astonishingly fine journalism I’ve been reading in the old The Stars and Stripes newspaper from World War One.

Fallows tells of a panel at Montclair State College in 1987 featuring Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings. They were asked if they would warn American troops if they discovered, in the course of their reporting, that those troops were about to be ambushed. Jennings said he would; Wallace turned and spoke to him:

“You’re a reporter. Granted you’re an American”–at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. “I’m a bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American you would not have covered that story.” (13)

Jennings backed down. The bias of citizenship has to be put aside in favor of the disinterested nature (as Jennings, Wallace and, I assume, Smith see it) of good journalism.

What they don’t seem to understand, and what led the military men on that panel in New Jersey to view the journalists with contempt, is that the pose of neutral observer is always a fiction–and it can be a dangerous one (as in this instance). We are biased–by nature, by family, by country. And more. We warp the news when we attempt an objective stance much more than we would if we admitted our biases and inclinations out front. Our readers can’t trust us, can’t see why we have made the decisions behind our stories, the choices that all journalists must make in the writing.

There is no such thing as impartiality. And there should be no pretense to it.

Reading The Stars and Stripes, I have new respect for Alexander Woollcott, who wrote about the lives of the men at the front, talking with them, learning their experiences as deeply as any of today’s “embedded” journalists. I also suspect that part of the vigor of the paper’s stories is the responsibility of Harold Ross, who shared editorial duties. Very little of today’s journalism has the vigor of The Stars and Stripes, not to mention the fine writing. The biases of the paper and the writers are clear to anyone; nothing, in that regard, is suspect.

Smith sets out a hierarchy: good journalism makes one a good American, but not the other way around. The reality isn’t quite so simple. There is no journalism that transcends biases, none that is “good” in some objective light. All of it reflects the perspective of the writer, her or his editors, the venue and, yes, even the nation. Each decision a writer makes–even in what story to cover or what assignment to take–reflects bias. So do the choices of  interviewees and what incidents to favor.

The problem that journalists face is similar to one some attempt to foist upon professors, demanding that they deal only with “content,” not with biased ideas about society or whatnot. They want teachers to pretend to objectivity in a way that, our observations of the profession of journalism this last decade have shown, will only lower teachers even further in the esteem of the nation.

At the end of his article, Smith provides a concise description of the John Dewey and Walter Lippmann debate of the 1920s. His takeaway from that, however, is a little bit of a stretch–to me, at least. Coming down on Dewey’s side (as do I), he claims that journalists should always be in opposition to the powerful. He writes:

The press can either report on the elite’s doings or join in them. For my money, and I bet a dollar of it for [E. J.] Dionne’s and James Risen’s too, the posture of the journalist in the face of power must by definition be adversarial. The moment a reporter or editor assumes the Lippmann position, the job description changes from journalist to clerk.

Questioning, yes. And hard-nosed, unwilling to be deflected by those who also have their own agendas. But adversarial? I don’t think either Ross or Woollcott would ever have thought of himself as a clerk. One doesn’t have to be either antagonist or shill to produce good journalism. On the other hand, both shills and antagonists have written fine journalistic pieces.

I want to agree with Smith, for I do think many of today’s journalists have joined the elite, becoming stenographers (as Stephen Colbert once described them) instead of reporters. Thing is, a stenographer is about as unbiased and objective as one can be, in dealing with words.

We can’t be both neutral and in opposition. Smith, in this article for Salon, at least, doesn’t deal with that contradiction. Few do, either in journalism or in academia.

3 thoughts on “Bias and Opposition

  1. In this debate, I think I have to side with Dewey. The problem with the “everybody’s biased” statement is that it’s a mere fact that provides no aspirational goals. If everybody’s biased, then nothing you do is wrong or right, it’s just an expression of your bias. Objectivity advocates say, yes, everybody is biased, which is why we need objectivity to pressure them into overcoming their biases. You shouldn’t pretend to be impartial, but you should try to be it. Adversarial advocates say, the most powerful biases lean toward the status quo, and the guise of neutrality tends to give more power to those who already have it. Journalists (and professors, too) need to be adversarial, to question the status quo (including their own assumptions, too). You can be both neutral and in opposition, if you perceive the adversarial stance as a more effective means to discover the neutral truth than the objectivity stance is.

    • Dewey wasn’t really writing about bias, but about knowledge… as Smith does point out. And, like you, Smith and I (though we may disagree on many things) both come down on Dewey’s side.

      You are right, however, that some people use “everybody’s biased” as a cop-out. The response, as you say, should not be to pretend to objectivity (for that is impossible) but, and here’s where I disagree with you, one should admit to and examine one’s own bias… and make that bias a part of one’s presentation (being biased does not mean one is wrong). Also, one should listen to others, in conjunction with examining one’s own biases, no matter if they be shills or antagonists. That may not lead to discovery of a chimeral “neutral truth” but it can lead us closer to understanding our own natures and the nature of the world.

  2. I am not sure if the following observations extend the dilemma and paradox that you are identifying or go in a completely different direction.

    On the one hand, in order to appear “fair and balanced,” the “objective” or ostensibly politically unaffiliated media now feel compelled to illustrate both sides of any argument–regardless of the relative merits of the two sides. There is often no indication whatsoever of what the “truth” seems to be or even where the greater degree of truth seems to lie.

    On the other hand, among the more openly politically affiliated media, there is often only a very transparent pretense to being “fair and balanced” and, instead, a very obvious tilting toward one ideological extreme or the other: that is, ideological assumptions predetermine the meaning of a story, rather than the “facts” of a story determining its meaning.

    Journalists complain that they are being replaced by the legions of unqualified reporters and commentators that have been spawned by the Internet, but many of them have embraced the very approaches that they are criticizing.

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