Monday, March 2, 2009

You're biased if you just report what was said

I try very hard to keep an open mind to all sides of an issue. The best reason for keeping such a personal policy was, I think, elucidated nicely by the great twentieth century federal judge Lerned Hand, who delivered a speech in which he declared: "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right."

So one thing I've done is to bookmark on my computer both NewsBusters, which snarls that the media is liberally biased, and Media Matters, which just as vehemently asserts that journalism is partial to conservatives. Now I've never understood why people can't just accept that Keith Olbermann is going to rant against the right and that Sean Hannity, now free of the moderation of Alan Colmes, is going to tell us Obama will take the country right down the toilet. I think everybody should simply deal with it and then just get on with their lives. Still, it's good practice to peruse both websites to read points, valid and preposterous, that are made by both outlets.

And I'll tell you the difference between NewsBusters and Media Matters where my disagreement with them is. When NewsBusters writes something I disagree with, my usual reaction is to think "That's pretty trivial."

On the other hand, when Media Matters, in my view, drops the ball, my reaction is more the order of "You can't be serious!"

About three years ago, Brent Bozell of NewsBusters wrote a column in which he decried the abundance of fart humor on Nickelodeon. (When he writes about that stuff, it's more the entertainment industry being left than journalists, but what the heck, thanks to the Bill Mahers and John Stewarts of the world the line between those occupations is blurring.) Bozell and I are of similar ages, and when I read the column I just rolled my eyes. I figure he and I turned out okay in spite of being exposed to cartoons in which Bugs Bunny caused Yosemite Sam to fall off a cliff, or Jerry dropped a piano on Tom's head. I don't think kids today are much at risk just because it's a rare moment on "The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy" when somebody isn't passing gas.

My objection with Media Matters, on the other hand, is perhaps best emphasized by a piece they have today concerning the manner in which President Obama's nomination of Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services has been reported. The blurb summarizes its complaint:

"Reporting on President Obama's selection of Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services secretary, The New York Times and the Politico propagated the baseless conservative charges that the health care reform efforts of Obama and Sebelius amount to 'socialized medicine.'"

Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of "propagated." I don't think in this context Media Matters is complaining that the New York Times and Politico are trying to reproduce; the meaning intended here must be: "a: to cause to spread out and affect a greater number or greater area : extend b: to foster growing knowledge of, familiarity with, or acceptance of (as an idea or belief) : publicize c: to transmit (as sound or light) through a medium."

So what exactly did the New York Times do to earn Media Matters' admonishment? Why, they did this nefarious thing:

"(I)n a March 1 article, the Times uncritically repeated conservatives' charges that Sebelius is 'an advocate of 'socialized medicine' -- or 'Hillarycare,' as Melvin Neufeld, who was [Kansas] House speaker at the time, put it.'"

Yes, the New York Times "caused to spread out" or "fostered growing knowledge of" or "transmitted" the charge by the Kansas House Speaker that Sebelius favors socialized medicine. See, that's what newspapers are supposed to do when reporting on a politician; it's their job to get a quote or two from that elected official's detractors.

But notice what Media Matters is objecting to: that the Times article "uncritically repeated" the difference of opinion. Apparently the Media Matters folks think the reporter should have broken in with a paragraph assuring readers that the charge was without foundation.

I would argue that the Times article presents Governor Sebelius in a very favorable light--in fact, it's just the kind of piece NewsBusters might scowl at. Just read these paragraphs:

"In that job [state insurance commissioner], Ms. Sebelius cast herself as a consumer champion by pushing to protect patients from rationed care by health maintenance organizations and rapid discharges by hospitals. She declined campaign contributions from the industry she regulated and, in her boldest move, rejected the 2002 purchase of the state’s largest insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas, by Anthem Inc., based in Indianapolis.

"No other state insurance commissioner had blocked such a sale, but Ms. Sebelius argued that it would result in higher premiums for Kansans. Litigation ensued, and she ultimately was upheld by the State Supreme Court.

“'She rode that decision all the way to the governor’s office,” said Sandy Praeger, the current insurance commissioner and a Republican."

So we learn from this that Sebelius took on an insurance company, won litigation, and was elected governor as a result. Then for good measure, there is a note of acknowledgment, if not praise, from somebody on the other side of the aisle.

It certainly doesn't sound to me as though reporter Kevin Sack was unfair in his portrayal of Sebelius, and certainly he wasn't acting as a partisan hack for the right. But Media Matters takes him to task simply for reporting that Sebelius's policies have critics, which if Sack didn't do, he'd be a partisan hack for the left.

Oh well, that's the beauty of living in America and listening to as many viewpoints as you can. You always have the power to evaluate things and come to your own decision. I hope both NewBusters and Media Matters would agree.


SueMac said...

Just curious. When are you going to post on John Yoo and Bush's unconstitutional wiretapping? This is a blog on the constitution, right?

John Cowan said...

It is indeed not the job of journalists to uncritically report what people say, particularly people with power and influence. It is their job, self-defined to be sure, to report the truth as best they can discover it. Otherwise they are not journalists but columnists, propagandists, or agents of the secret police.