Pounding the press over too much bias — and objectivity

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The long, contentious election campaign may have revealed a citizenry deeply divided on the issues and candidates, but Americans seem to be fairly united when it comes to declaring one sure loser: the press.

With the election over, politicians, pundits and ordinary citizens have joined in a rougher-than-usual critique of the coverage. Complaints and accusations have been flying. In the minds of many, the press was guilty of bias, sloppiness, irrelevance, even pure calumny. The press, of course, supplied the microphone for the chorus of complaints.

Certainly there were some regrettable moments, journalistically speaking. Among the criticisms: focus on process, poll-arization of the coverage (the “horse race”), wall-to-wall punditry, trivialities trumping substance, limited network coverage of the political conventions, an endless video loop of the “Dean Scream,” and “truth-squading” of political ads that was so single-mindedly even-handed that it was meaningless.

The 2004 election coverage had all of that and more.

And though a lot of the criticism is deserved, the press as an institution delivered a remarkably comprehensive and detailed account of a complex and sometimes vitriolic campaign. That wasn’t easy to do because campaign staffs are increasingly effective at manipulating the message and average Americans are increasingly vocal about perceived flaws in coverage.

Campaign operatives for both parties have become quite sophisticated in managing to stay on message, denying access and keeping everyone dizzy with spin. Both sides swamp reporters and newsrooms with telephone calls, press releases and e-mails on a 24-hour cycle.

In fact, the candidates and their staffs have been so good at maneuvering the press that a valid question arises as to whether the press is always a neutral observer or is sometimes an unwilling or unwitting tool of the campaigns.

That, in turn, may be one of the reasons for charges of bias in the media. Another reason, of course, is the well-rehearsed fact that liberal-minded reporters and editors do outnumber their conservative colleagues in the nation’s newsrooms. But that does not necessarily translate into liberal articles or overall coverage. Whether the perception is a function of reality or something other than that hardly matters anymore, however. A September Gallup poll found that 48% of Americans think the press is too liberal, compared to 15% who think it is too conservative.

Ironically, another major criticism of the press is the flip side of bias, the leaning-over-backward efforts by most journalists to be “objective.”

“One of the greatest shortcomings of campaign coverage is the reluctance — the failure — of reporters to challenge partisans, even when the reporters know the partisans are contradicting known facts or distorting the record,” media critic David Shaw writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Arising out of this frustration has been the creation of several Web sites dedicated to critiquing campaign coverage and holding partisans accountable for their comments, such as spinsanity.com and CampaignDesk.org.

In a recent column, Shaw quotes Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CampaignDesk: “Reporters seem to think they’ve done an adequate job just because they give both sides a chance to state their case. But if that’s all you do, you may have satisfied the imagined constraints of objectivity, but often you haven’t told the reader anything. It’s the most common and infuriating flaw in the press today.”

The genius of the First Amendment is that it protects the press, warts and all. Americans should take comfort in the fact that a function of their own freedom is the freedom of the press to make mistakes, even to be biased. That freedom also includes the right of citizens to go elsewhere when they don’t like what they are reading, hearing or seeing.

If you don’t like CNN, turn to Fox. If you don’t like The New York Times, switch to The Wall Street Journal. If you don’t like your local TV station or newspaper, go to the Internet. If you think the networks are too parochial in their coverage, tune in the BBC. If you don’t like commercial broadcasters, try public broadcasting.

But that doesn’t seem to be enough for some who would like to hold the press more accountable. They want their newspapers, broadcast and cable organizations to deliver the truth. The dilemma, of course, is that the truth often is defined in terms of the individual’s own bias and concept of objectivity.

It certainly is not up to government officials, political leaders or even judges to dictate how or what the press decides is relevant and how it should communicate that information to the public.

The problem posed for the press is that truth is not the product of a political race. Polling data can’t reveal it. Neither is truth the purview or the property of one end of the political spectrum or the other.

Therefore, the press is occupied — on its better days — with finding the best way to report the relevant and provide as much context as possible, while remaining an observer and avoiding becoming a tool.

The rest of us should be occupied — on our better days — with finding a way to extract our own truths from what we learn through the press and other means.

As long as the press is free to do what it does, we are free to criticize what it does. That, again, is the genius of the First Amendment.

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