TCS Daily

Reality Frights

By James Pinkerton - November 5, 2003 12:00 AM

Are the major media telling us the truth -- the whole truth, the real truth? Or are journalists merely hinting, instead of reporting?


We might consider, as a case in point, The New York Times. It declares "All the News That's Fit to Print," right there on the front page of every edition, but on some occasions the Times' new reportage ill-fits the facts. On October 22, for instance, the Paper of Record ran a story that set a record for not providing news of record: "Senate Approves Bill to Prohibit Specific Type of Abortion." What type of abortion? The reader had to get to the fifth paragraph to find even a vague description of the type, and then plow further to graf eight to see the words "partial birth." It's those words, of course, that the Times hates to see in its pages. And so a paper that proclaims its willingness to speak truth to power -- especially when such truth-speaking involves bashing a Republican president -- finds itself strangely tongue-tied when it comes to chronicling a major legislative battle.


By contrast, other papers managed to use clear language; USA Today's headline that same day was "'Partial-birth' abortion ban nearly law after 8-year effort." A busy news-skimmer could stop right there and know the essentials.


But no paper that I saw went into the deep details of the procedure. To be sure, there are legitimate concerns of taste -- how much pulling and hacking can be depicted for morning-paper readers as they are hypothetically eating breakfast -- but those concerns must be weighed against the reality of the procedure, and also the reasons the federal government was chipping away at the pro-choice status quo.


What is it about "partial birth abortion, which the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan likened to "infanticide," that has caused such a stir over the last decade? Polls and pols agree that the country is basically pro-choice -- George W. Bush himself said so on October 28 -- so what made the Senate vote 64 to 34 in favor of a ban on this specific medical procedure, and the House to do the same, 281 to 142?


Inquiring minds want to know, but they won't find out from the paper whose motto should be amended to read, "Some of the News That's Fit to Print." One might presume that the Times doesn't want to show the gory and graphic details -- or even to describe them in the commonly accepted phraseology, "partial birth" -- because the paper doesn't want to turn people away from its pro-choice stance on abortion. That is, if they show people what abortion is really like, then maybe people won't be so pro-abortion rights. That's an OK strategy for a p.r. firm, which always seeks accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, but it's not the right way to run a news operation.


But while conservatives argue for "openness" when it comes to abortion coverage -- Sen. Rick Santorum was there on the floor of the Senate earlier this month, with an easel-ful gruesome images, challenging news photographers and TV camera operators to zoom in from their diffident distance -- they argue for truth-veiling arguments when they think truth-revealing might hurt their cause.


As another example, consider coverage of capital punishment. Anti-death penalty activists have long agitated for media exposure for the actual process of execution; in 1994, liberal talk show host Phil Donahue talked of suing to gain television access to an execution. But death-penalty proponents have opposed such efforts. Yet by opposing the glare of publicity, proponents are handing, however inadvertently, a moral victory to the opponents. After all, in this full-disclosure society, those who have something to hide are automatically assumed to be guilty of something.


And in the Net age, of course, none of these hiding efforts succeed. A recent study from the Department of Education showed that 90 percent of young people, aged 5-17, use a computer, and 59 percent have access to the Internet; it won't be long before virtually all are online. So with just a few clicks, kids and everyone else can discover all the gory details about partial-birth abortion and capital punishment. With a little bit more effort, folks can click around and find abundant information about the deleterious effects of prohibiting late-late-term abortions, such as allowing the birth of grossly deformed or stillborn fetuses, and even causing the death of mothers. Similarly, one can find plenty of data about victims of murder. Which is to say, the contending factions in these fierce debates -- anti-abortion rights pro-abortion rights, pro-death penalty, anti-death penalty -- ought be thinking about expanding access to information that bolsters their cause, because the strategy of seeking to constrict information is doomed to fail. Thus there's no good reason for the Times, or any other newspaper, to play coy with reality. C'mon Fourth Estate, we can handle the truth.


But alas, the media don't think that way; the press still tries to hold the curtain over things. What else can explain the Times' last-ditch defense of Walter Duranty, the Timesman who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his adulatory coverage of the Stalinist Soviet Union? In particularly, Duranty poo-poohed the horrible facts of the Ukrainian famine that resulted from the Soviet collectivization of agriculture; millions perished from hunger, even as Duranty was writing encomiums to the Bolshevik experiment.


Decades after the basic facts about these horrors were revealed by Robert Conquest and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and after a long campaign by Ukrainian-American groups and other anti-communist whistle-blowers, the Times hired an investigator, Mark von Hagen, a professor at Columbia University, to examine the question of whether or not Duranty deserved a Pulitzer for his "reporting." Von Hagen concluded that Duranty's dupish coverage was a "disgrace" to the Times.


After such a verdict, piled upon all the previous verdicts on Duranty, one might expect the Times to be anxious to cleanse itself of this journalistic stain by renouncing Duranty's Pulitzer; after all, the paper will have plenty of Pulitzers left. Indeed, such a renunciation would have been a master-stroke for the Times' post-Howell Raines executive editor, Bill Keller, who could have offered such a clean-breasting to provide further proof that the Times had changed its ways since the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg episodes. But instead, Keller has mumbled around, citing concerns about setting a precedent for other challenges against other Pulitzers. Note to Bill: if the Pulitzer is about great journalism, a.k.a. great truth-telling, then nobody associated with the prize should be afraid of factual challenges to any winner, any time.


Then Keller fell further into the pit of veiling-justifying. "As someone who spent time in the Soviet Union... the notion of airbrushing history kind of gives me the creeps." In other words, he seems to be saying, correcting an historical error is the same as airbrushing history. But of course, nobody is saying that Duranty should be airbrushed out of existence, anymore than Nazi dupes should be airbrushed out of existence. Instead, dupes of all flavors should be remembered forever, as object lessons about what not do so as a reporter.


But instead, the Times, and much of the journalistic establishment, still clings to the idea, however tattered, that they can administer the truth, by filtering in, or out, what they think people should know.


But it won't work. And as the Times and its foibles amply demonstrate, there can never be one authoritative source for Truth. The facts are oftentimes tough to take, but they are best presented without fear, favor, or fiddling. Americans are being asked to make hard decisions on hard cases, such as abortion, the death penalty, and, soon, a slew of biotech issues, such as stem cell and cloning. To keep up, we are going to need all the reality we can handle. So if the news media are serious about doing their job, they will do more straight-from-the-shoulder reporting and less talk-through-their-hat hinting.


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