Tuesday, December 03, 2019

What we should expect from our news.

Published originally in 2011.

From time to time since February 2008, when my long article on journalism and the news media first appeared in the online version of Skeptic*, people have asked me for more specifics on what I regard as the building blocks of valid, serious-minded news coverage. This is going to be a lengthy post, so I'll dive right in without further preamble.

The News must be apolitical.

This line of thought reached critical mass in 2001 with the controversy over Bernie Goldberg and his muck-raking book, Bias**, which savaged the mainstream media for its strong (and unapologetic) leftward tilt. It's a familiar argument by now and there's no need to go into it at any great length. I think we'd get a fairly universal buy-in—at least in principle—on the idea that the News should never have a specific political agenda, Left or Right. That consensus is likely to crumble a bit when you get to a more pointed discussion of implementation. For example, we'd have no trouble finding a large group of people who think The New York Times reports the news "straight," as well as another large group who think FOX News really is "fair and balanced" in its reportage. In truth, neither the Times nor FOX comes anywhere close to objectivity; and if there are large groups of partisans who think they do, it's only because the tenor of the respective reporting coincides with their own, well, biases.

The News should not have a nationality.

Agreement here would be less widespread and/or vigorous, especially from conservatives, self-described "patriots," and others who, for example, still chafe at the multinational*** tone of Peter Arnett's coverage during Desert Storm. A "borderless" approach to news delivery has profound and far-reaching implications. It means, most conspicuously, that even an epochal event like 9/11 should not be reported as an absolute and inarguable tragedy, because it would not be received as such everywhere. After all, upon hearing of the terror attacks, citizens partied in the streets of Damascus, Tripoli and Tehran—just as Americans might party in the streets if we popped all of Al Qaeda leadership in one big whack-out. To paraphrase and extend Eugene O'Neill's savvy observation about the (deterministic) continuum of life, no event takes place solely in the present moment, but rather is a composite of all that has gone before. As in the case of a revenge killing over an ancient grievance, there is always a history that has shaped what is happening today, even if that history is generally unknown (or even unknowable). Which means that 9/11 did not begin or end on 9/11. Nor is it the journalist's job to report that history; that would be contextualizing, which journalists should never attempt unless they can be sure of doing a comprehensive job. And because that's impossible—even Mike Wallace wasn't around when the earth cooled, ineluctably setting in motion next week's playoff between the Eagles and Cards—it should never be attempted.

It is simply bad journalism to cover an explosion that kills 10 American GIs outside Tikrit differently from a raid on an Afghanistan cave that results in the death of 10 of the world's most fearsome anti-U.S. terrorists. Besides—as a practical matter—even if journalism upholds "Americanism"...whose would it be? The Left's? The Right's? Should journalism revere what America is now? What America aspires to be? According to whom? The problems are evident.


Just report what happened and where.


The News cannot and should not use existing law as the basis for its take on a story, because laws are transient, malleable and often arbitrary.

Journalism should never cover man's law as if it were eternal law (assuming any such thing exists), framing illegal activities as if they're objectively wrong or framing legal activities as if they're objectively right. (Lest we forget, Rosa Parks broke the law when she refused to give up her seat.) Historically, in fact, many might argue that journalism has proved to be most valuable when its reporting took a contrarian bent, opposing existing laws and policies. (I don't favor that, either, because journalism isn't supposed to take an active side in things, pro or con. Any changes that occur should occur "by accident," as a result of the public's response to what it hears and sees in the News. Journalists are simply conduits, providing information to a citizenry that will do what it believes needs doing with that information.)

The very foundation of American democracy, the U.S. Constitution, is itself elastic, open to interpretation and subject to amendment. And even the loftiest of ideals embedded in the Constitution and other founding documents are unproven. "All men are created equal"? It's a nice thought, and an uplifting premise for a culture...but its scientific validity remains moot.


Which brings us, finally, to:


The News should be amoral.

If by now our consensus on the aims of journalism has become somewhat fragile, this is where it really fractures. A lot of people have trouble with the proposition that journalism should not stand for good or evil, right or wrong. (Which, of course, means that journalism should not have causes.) Realize, for starters, that most political agendas are premised on notions of right or wrong; thus, morally tinged reporting too easily lends itself to political purposes. But it goes beyond that. To filter the news through a moral lens is to presume to know unerringly what the "correct" moral values are in the first place. Perhaps worse, in practical terms, news rooted in "social norms" inevitably tends to promote the notion that majority means validity. A news organization that builds its ethos around the values embraced by "most right-thinking people" is doomed from the start.

"Well wait just a damned second now!" you exclaim. [Hence the exclamation point.] "At the very least, journalism can safely uphold life over death! 'Thou shalt not kill' and all!" To which I would reply: You're kidding, right? We can't even agree as a society on whether "life" is the ultimate value. Think: abortion, capital punishment, right-to-die issues, wars. (We view the wars that we decide to wage as "just" and the loss of life that results as a "necessary evil" or "collateral damage." We forget that bin Laden felt similarly justified in attacking the World Trade Center.)


Clearly all loss of life is not equally tragic to all journalists, all everyday Americans, all Afghani warlords, all practicing physicians (who must make so-called "end life decisions") or anyone else. Thus we are left with the problem of deciding which deaths are "objectively" tragic and which aren't. Those are value judgments, and the media have no business making them. As soon as the journalist starts rationalizing, qualifying, parsing, hair-splitting or performing other ethical gymnastics in order to force-fit some types of death into this moral framework (but not others), he has abandoned objectivity and devolved into the realm of partisan politics and/or religion.


Or let's take homelessness. We look around us and sigh, "There should not be millions of homeless people in America." We may agree on that as private citizens. The news cannot project that ideal, however, because it is but a short step from "there should not be homeless" to "we need to do something about homelessness," and the latter is, of course, a political agenda. And journalism, as we've said, has no business "going there."

The objective newsperson must start from the premise that there is no absolute right or wrong, at least that we can all know and agree on. In the journalist's world, there is no justice or injustice. There are only events. From my point of view, it is never the media's job to tell us how to think or feel about a story, and it certainly isn't the media's job to "reflect traditional values." Slavery once was a traditional value. So was homophobia. So was the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. And on and on. And I'm not saying those things should be recognized as objectively wrong now. I'm saying that it's not the media's job to weigh in. In the end, the only workable approach is for the news media to project no values at all.


Nor can we turn to "God" for answers here, because the existence and nature of God are controversies unto themselves. Besides…whose God? Osama's? Jerry Falwell's? Joel Osteen's?


In the end, the media must learn to embrace, in practice, the catchy ethic that FOX news disingenuously preaches: We report, you decide. That's all there is to it.


* The piece was then republished in the print version, with slight alterations.
** Interestingly, or maybe sadly, enough, Goldberg then took a job as a FOX analyst and forswore any further pretense to objectivity. That doesn't necessarily taint his book, which was an outgrowth of a highly courageous column he wrote for The Wall Street Journal while still employed at network (CBS), and which I think stands on its merits. It just depresses me to see him trumpeting the party line night after night on O'Reilly or wherever. How does he not feel hypocritical?
*** Some prefer the word traitorous, and have never let Arnett (or his bosses) forget it. Here's a typical example.