Ducking Before a Punch is Thrown

By Brian Montopoli

In his “Media Notes Extra” column on Friday, Howard Kurtz expressed his frustration with those who “accuse the media of pushing an antiwar agenda by reporting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.” Exhibit A, according to Kurtz: The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which last week published an editorial savaging both the press’ coverage and lawmakers’ response to the Iraq prison torture scandal. Wrote the Journal: “The goal seems to be less to punish the offenders than to grab one more reason to discredit the Iraq war.”

Here’s Kurtz response:

To discredit the Iraq war. Is that why these stories are running? Is that why lawmakers are expressing outrage? Wouldn’t civilized people be appalled at prisoners being stripped naked, forced to simulate sexual acts and led around with a leash — whether they opposed the war or not, and regardless of who was president?

Sinclair Broadcast Group’s recent decision not to allow its affiliates to air a politically charged episode of Nightline — one in which Ted Koppel spent the entire episode reading the names of American soldiers who have died in Iraq — also reflects a belief that coverage depends more on journalists’ political bent than their commitment to the story. Sinclair, explaining its move, released a statement saying the Nightline episode was motivated not by an interest in reporting the news but “a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq” — a charge that a bemused Koppel dismissed out of hand.

Both Sinclair and the Journal editorial board are, of course, conservative entities with their own ideological agenda. But, truth is, most everyone these days — whether left or right, liberal or conservative, pro-Kerry or pro-Bush — believes the press is made up of ideological warriors, clad not-so-convincingly in sheep’s clothing. It’s a far cry from the perception of the press that held sway 50 years ago — when the media was revered as largely apolitical and generally more interested in the truth of its reporting than in its possible repercussions. Today, reporters everywhere realize they are perceived as politically motivated, and the charge is in the back of their minds every time they sit down to write.

That doesn’t breed truthtellers. It breeds timidity. Ultimately, by letting itself be cowed by outside influences that have neither journalism’s welfare nor readers’ best interests at heart, the press has become complicit in its own public demonization.

Any close reader of the news has seen how those with an agenda try to push the press away from objectivity and towards whatever side of the political spectrum is in their interest. In an interview with Campaign Desk last week, David Brock, founder of a website that monitors conservative media called Media Matters for America, expounded on his belief that in recent years, “[the right wing] succeeded in pushing the media, and public perception of the media, to the right.”

It’s a familiar cry — Eric Alterman, in his own effort to push the media leftward, made a whole book out of that thesis. But we can’t help but wonder: Why does the press play along? Why doesn’t it make more of an effort to hold itself aloft from the influence of political operatives and spinmeisters?

Good journalists understand that accurate reporting must take precedence over personal political preferences. Given that, the last thing that ought to influence a diligent reporter is the question of whether someone else might perceive his reporting to be slanted. But it is pausing to ask precisely that question that has caused more than one reporter to censor himself — for fear of being accused of partisan interests.

What kind of newspaper, after all, would result if reporters started pulling punches for fear of being accused of being overly sympathetic to one side or the other? These days, the answer to that question, sadly, is quite likely, “The one you’re already reading.” Most journalists — those at Campaign Desk included — have had the experience of calling a colleague to find out the “real story,” the one the colleague failed to print because the bogeyman of bias had shifted his focus from reporting the truth to maintaining some false veil of objectivity.

This is particularly apparent in campaign coverage. We’d like to think America is more interested in reality than in Stephanie Cutter or Scott McClellan’s take on it, yet time and again, reporters bow at the altar of the spinmeisters instead of reporting out the facts behind the spin. In their effort to bend over backward to appear “objective,” reporters find themselves easily pushed off balance by ideologues interested in pushing a point of view.

But reporters aren’t the only party to blame here. Editorial boards, for example, too often bend over backwards to avoid being charged with bias. Consider the New York Times op-ed page, which is stocked with columnists chosen in part to counterbalance one another. Is Paul Krugman getting too liberal? No problem: Just bring in David Brooks. That should, logic suggests, help placate those who allege bias in the paper of record. But shouldn’t a newspaper’s primary concern in selecting columnists be how well they write, or how convincing their logic is, or how often they cause light bulbs go off over readers’ heads? This isn’t to say these columnists aren’t talented or deserving of their posts. But seeking ideological balance on an opinion page, it seems to us, is no better than settling for he-said/she-said reporting in the news columns. Op-eds should cut through partisan shrillness and get to the bottom of issues. Instead, they too often cede power to the very politics of influence that it they are trying to avoid mimicking.

Perhaps that’s one reason that, while the Journal’s allegation and Sinclair’s maneuver are beyond the pale, they’re not terribly surprising. As long as the press, campaign reporters included, allows outsiders to pull us in whatever direction suits their interests — to offer up a Trojan horse and call it objectivity — we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.