Saturday, January 15, 2005

Note to Poynter: Change the debate

The Poynter Institute's Roy Peter Clark's latest essay "Narrative Chic & Kowtowing to the Bush Bashers"( seems to gently chide the Nieman Narrative Conference for not scheduling more speakers who like President Bush. Clark doesn't bash the Bush-bashers like Alan Greenblatt ("Journalists shouldn't be cheerleaders") did, and makes a point of saying he's not asking for form without content.

What then, exactly, is he asking for?

"It is a call, instead, for more speech," Clark writes. "Harvard needed William Safire on language. Or Martin Marty on parables. Or William F. Buckley Jr., on the spy novel. Or Billy Graham on anecdote in the homily. Or Andrew Sullivan on blogging. Or Christopher Hitchens on Orwell and Iraq. Or Mel Gibson on Mad Max, Hamlet, and Jesus. Or Ayn Rand risen from the dead."

Which is when it struck me: Yes, that's all perfectly reasonable, blah blah blah. But we're talking about the wrong thing. Both Greenblatt and Clark started from a basic assumption that there's something wrong about journalists attending a conference where "majority" sensibilities are not given equal time, with no consideration given to whether those sensibilities are based on an accurate assessment of the relevant facts.

As Greenblatt complained, "The level of public distrust evoked by partisan leanings - real or perceived - did not stop the reporters at the Nieman conference from applauding frequent left-leaning sentiments."

Yes, balance it out. Sit on our hands. Make nice-nice with everyone, including obvious partisans like Safire and Buckley who simply aren't playing by the same rules we are. In fact, invite them to come so we can not applaude them too, so that... why? So that we'll be perceived to be unbiased by people who aren't attending the conference? What a perfectly reasonable, perfectly useless prescription.

It prompted this response:

Change the debate
Posted by Daniel Conover 1/14/2005 10:08:08 AM

If I say the sun is up at noon, does balance require that I find a source who says it isn't, or to point out that yes, maybe that's true, but that it's night on the other side of the planet?

Would you expect a doctor, after giving you a medical diagnosis, to improve its fairness by sending you to a witch doctor for a second opinion?

Such is the flaw in our debate over bias. Our critics called us biased, and when pressed for proof they found it in our collective mindset. It's not that we're overtly biased, they say, it's that we see the world in wrongheaded ways and frame our stories accordingly. We nod like chastened children, ignoring the rightwing bombast that dominates TV punditry, talk radio and our editorial pages.

Few of us would argue against the existence of at least some liberal media bias. I can cite loathsome examples. We needed to look in the mirror, but for too long now we've failed to confront the politically motivated campaign against our profession. We've allowed our critics to misappropriate our ethical standards of fairness and balance to distract us from our primary mission: Telling it like it is.

It is not biased to point out that exit polls showed Bush voters were more likely to believe things that simply were not true (WMDs, Iraqi links to 9/11). When the government engages in propanda, we're supposed to challenge it.

Instead, we're over-compensating. We're allowing equal weight to voices we know to be manipulative and misleading, as if this will make us popular again. It isn't working.

Yes to fairness and balance. Yes to objectivity and humility. But first and foremost, yes to critical thinking and loyalty to a higher goal: truth. I believe we will find our moral center by affirming our values, not by pretending to deny truths. Sitting on your hands for Norman Mailer as an act of feigned objectivity? How sad.

If you were covering the Crucifixion, would you take the lead from Pilate's press conference?