As the increasingly negative campaigns progress, reporters face a big problem: How do you, without appearing partisan, cover a candidate that is misconstruing facts?
As a columnist I have freedoms “regular” reporters don’t. In the space allotted to me every week I can say whatever I think is appropriate. I may have to deal with consequences for calling out the powers that be, but at least I have the freedom to call a lie a lie and don’t have to carefully dance around the issue. Other journalists do not have such luxuries.
Wire services, such as the Associated Press and Reuters, have to remain as neutral as they can. Say President George W. Bush got up in front of cameras and said that everything is going just dandy in Iraq while, at the same time, the death toll was rising at unprecedented speeds and his administration’s intelligence suggested it was only going to get worse. AP would still have to report it neutrally. They may throw in quotes by people that oppose such views to balance the fallacies out, but the majority of the article would still deliver the message Bush wants to get out.
The Bush administration has this down pat — what’s even more disturbing is that John Kerry’s campaign is getting pretty good at it, too.
In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Bryan Keefer nailed the underlying problem. He said such practices “often treat the truth as something the reader or viewer should be able to discern from competing bits of spin.” This is not only problematic at best because not every reader will be able to do so, but it also further encourages the misleading of the public by candidates.
Throw in the often-touted assumption that the media in general is under liberal control and a problem arises.
Let’s assume for a moment the U.S. president is misleading the public non-stop. It’s quite a stretch, I know, but try to imagine it nonetheless. How would the media report on an administration that twists the truth in order to fit their agenda on a regular basis without being accused of partisanship?
The effect is a media that regularly swings to the right in their coverage simply to avoid being called “liberal.” Why else would so-called liberal papers such as The New York Times or the Washington Post readily accept the Republican talking points and, for example, not question (on page one anyway) whether Saddam Hussein really has weapons of mass destruction before the nation goes to war?
I usually don’t care if a paper or station is leaning a certain way as long as I can tell which way it is.
A good example of this is the radio broadcast Democracy Now. The host, Amy Goodman, clearly leans to the left, to say the least, but this is readily apparent and she does not claim otherwise. This gives me perspectives I’d otherwise not consider. The same goes for columns by William Safire in the New York Times. He clearly leans right, but often makes point I find insightful.
Other outlets are much sneakier about it. Without mentioning a certain “fair and balanced” network, other networks, such as CNN often also slant farther than a sailboat in a hurricane, even when they claim not to.
Wolf Blitzer, probably one of the most visible journalists on television, interviewed Pat Buchanan last week. A friend e-mailed me the transcript and I had to read it twice before checking the CNN Web site to make sure it was authentic, because I could not believe Blitzer would take such a clearly conservative stance.
During the interview, Buchanan, who was plugging his new book “Where the Right Went Wrong,” openly criticized the president for the war in Iraq, stating that it takes emphasis away from the war on terror, a mistake he said Bush made because he was “untutored” on foreign policy.
Blitzer dismissed Buchanan as though the politician — who ran for president as a member of the Republican party, is a founding editor and contributor to The American Conservative magazine and occasionally fills in for Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country — were some tree-hugging hippie that had wandered off the street and onto his show by sheer accident.
To see Blitzer take a stance that was even to the right of Buchanan was disconcerting, to say the least. Whether this proves the point that journalists are scared to be typecast as liberal or if it was simply Blitzer showing his true face is debatable, but to do so during a “news” broadcast amounts to a cardinal sin in journalism.
Maybe the time when reporters could claim neutrality is past because politicians have learned to exploit the media in an effort to get their spin on stories. I’m not sure, but I am sure glad I don’t have to worry about it in my own writings.
Sebastian Meyer is a junior majoring in geography and the Oracle Opinion editor. firstname.lastname@example.org