Sunday, June 10, 2007

Molly Ivins on "fair and balanced" journalism

From Who Let the Dogs In?

And when the going gets tough for the press in America, the press fudges, the press jellies. That's what we're doing now. We are retreating to a fine old American press cop-out we like to call objectivity. Russell Baker once described it: "In the classic example, a refugee from Nazi Germany who appears on television saying monstrous things are happening in his homeland must be followed by a Nazi spokesman saying Adolf Hitler is the greatest boon to humanity since pasteurized milk. Real objectivity would require not only hard work by news people to determine which report was accurate, but also a willingness to put up with the abuse certain to follow publication of an objectively formed judgement. To escape the hardwork or the abuse, if one man says Hitler is an ogre, we instantly give you another to say Hitler is a prince. A man says the rockets won't work? We give you another who says they will.

"The public may not learn much about these fairly sensitive matters, but neither does it get another excuse to denounce the media for unfairness and lack of objectivity. In brief, society is teeming with people who become furious if told what the score is."

The American press has always had a tendency to assume that the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press presents the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its journalistic duty.

This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject. Thus, we see, night after night, on MacNeil/Lehrer or Nightline, people who don't know jack about Iran or Nicaragua or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the pea patch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by comsymps. They have nothing to offer in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias by people who are replete with bias and resistant to fact. The justification for putting them on the air is that "they represent a point of view."

The odd thing about these television discussions designed to "get all sides of the issue" is that they do not feature a spectrum of people with different views on reality: Rather, they frequently give us a face-off between those who see reality and those who have missed it entirely. In the name of objectivity, we are getting fantasyland.

- "The Fudge Factory," March 1987
And we're still getting fantasyland. And we're going to keep getting it until a media reform movement gets off the ground. And that will be an integral part of reforming (and saving) democracy itself.


Sheldon said...

That was a very nice and relevant extended quote. Yes, objectivity should mean fidelity to the facts of reality, instead of presenting "both sides of an issue".

The fact of the matter is, the objective facts often give better support to the position of "the left", and sometimes they give better support to the position of "the right". And of course what is "left" or "right" is dependent on the context of the historical moment.

In the creation evolution debate for example we are seeing this fallacious assumption promoted that the "truth is found in the middle" in the form of say Collin's "theistic evolution".

Anyway, thanks for bring this item of Ivin's thinking to my attention. She will be sorely missed.

Hume's Ghost said...

"... we're not living in the America of the past, where even partisans sometimes changed their views when faced with the facts. Instead, we're living in a country in which there is no longer such a thing as nonpolitical truth." - Paul Krugman

I think what the conservative movement has done with its "liberal bias" wedge is do what Intelligent Design intended to do with with its wedge strategy.

I'll write more about this in the future.

Sheldon said...

Glad you brought that up. I don't recall exactly where I read this. But the charge that the mainstream media had a "left-liberal bias" was an explicit strategy by the right.