TCS Daily

I Read the News Today, Woe Boy...

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - September 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Journalism -- the business or practice of producing news -- is undergoing a sea-change, but it's hard to detect because we're in the midst of it. (Sometimes it's hardest to see what's before one's eyes.) The old model of journalism drew a firm distinction between facts and values, between telling people how things are and evaluating those things, between making words fit the world and making the world fit words, between using language to inform and using it to direct.

This model, whatever else might be said of it, conferred respect on journalists. People felt that they were being treated respectfully and fairly. Everyone needs information in order to make sound judgments and decisions, but we rightly believe that how we process, analyze, evaluate, and use that information is up to us. Nobody likes to be manipulated or put upon. To the extent that journalists provided us with facts about our world, we respected them. They performed a useful service for us. They earned our trust, our respect, and our loyalty -- even, occasionally, our love and admiration. (Think Walter Cronkite.)

Sometime in the past 30 years, at about the time moral philosophy became "practical," journalists decided to exploit the respect they had earned. Simply informing their audiences didn't seem enough to them; they wanted to be engaged with the issues of the day, to make a difference, to be a player. It was probably thought that changing the focus in this way would have no effect on the respect people have for journalism and journalists.

The thought was egregiously mistaken. It took a while, but people came to see that newspapers (such as The New York Times) and the broadcast television networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) could not be trusted to provide fair and balanced coverage of the day's events, especially political events. The line between news reportage and editorial opinion became blurred. News reports came to be seen as partisan, as trying to influence audience opinion.

Have you read or seen The Wizard of Oz? Mainstream media organizations are the wizard, pulling levers behind the curtain. But the curtain has been pulled open. Everyone now sees -- understands -- that big journalism is a small, ordinary man trying to appear big and powerful. It's a manipulator, not an authority. To read The New York Times these days is to read Democrat talking points. The Times seems hell-bent on deciding which man, John Kerry or George W. Bush, will be our next president. I'm not talking about the editors or the op-ed columnists. I'm not talking about Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert, or Paul Krugman. I'm talking about reporters. I've been reading newspapers for three and a half decades. The bias in New York Times stories is blatant and, frankly, shocking. I wonder sometimes whether its reporters and editors even try to conceal it.

A few years ago, something new came into play: the blogosphere. Mainstream journalists didn't expect to be caught out in their little game of manipulation. As long as they controlled what people heard and read, they could retain their authority as nonpartisan purveyors of fact while actually, secretly, trying to influence events. The blogosphere pulled the curtain of deception open. People have many more sources of news these days than they had twenty, ten, or even five years ago. They don't need to rely on The New York Times or their local newspaper or network television for information or analysis. They don't need to rely on Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, or Tom Brokaw.

This is by no means a defense of everything that appears in the blogosphere. Some of it, in my experience, is more manipulative than anything that appears in the mainstream press. But some of it is superb by any reasonable standard. Bloggers such as Matt Drudge, Hugh Hewitt, Glenn Reynolds, John Ray, and the attorneys at Power Line are exposing journalistic bias day in and day out. They have millions of intelligent and devoted readers.

The recent incident involving CBS and the allegedly forged National Guard documents shows the power -- and the promise -- of the blogosphere. CBS, to its discredit, is currently belittling bloggers. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the sea-change journalism is undergoing. It also shows the arrogance and contemptuousness of mainstream journalism. It thinks it still commands the respect, trust, and loyalty of its audience. Perhaps there is still a residue of respect for The New York Times and the television networks, but it is rapidly dissipating. I foresee a day when the Times is viewed the same way as The Nation or The American Conservative.

It might be objected that I'm naïve. Don't I know -- haven't I heard -- that everyone is partisan? Why put up a false front of objectivity, disinterest, or nonpartisanship? That, and not partisanship itself, would be disingenuous and disrespectful. Everyone should be what he or she is, namely, partisan.

I don't think it's the least bit naïve to think that nonpartisanship is possible. It's not just possible; it's achievable. It happens. Think about judging. Judges have values just like anyone else, but they take an oath to administer the law fairly and impartially. A judge is expected to set aside personal beliefs and values about the litigants and issues, however hard it may be to do so. Is this a crock? Are we deluding ourselves about judging? I don't think we are. When you read judicial opinions, you come away impressed by the extent to which judges resolve cases in ways that they personally dislike. They understand that their authority stems in large part from their impartiality. If you give up the latter, you lose the former.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said many times -- in his judicial opinions -- that if he were a legislator, he would not have voted for a particular bill, but that, given that the bill had passed and been signed into law, he was bound by his judicial oath to enforce it. Clarence Thomas said the same thing about the Texas anti-sodomy law that was struck down in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) -- but which he voted to uphold against a constitutional challenge. This is called integrity. It's called nonpartisanship. It's called fealty to something other than willfulness. It shows that nonpartisanship is possible. I would argue that in certain contexts (such as law, science, philosophy, and journalism), it's not just possible but desirable.

It'll be interesting to see where things go in the next few years. What we're observing is an application of Keith's Law: that there is an inverse relationship between partisanship and authoritativeness. The more partisan someone is (more precisely, the more partisanship someone exhibits), the less he or she is accepted (or revered) as an authority. Keith's Law explains why many once-respected institutions and practices have lost respect and prestige. Social scientists (especially historians and economists), philosophers, and journalists are no longer viewed by the lay public as disinterested seekers of truth ("veracious inquirers"). They are viewed -- correctly but sadly -- as partisans. Partisans don't pay proper respect to truth and other intellectual values, such as honesty, fairness, and charitableness. To them, the end of securing and retaining power trumps these and all other considerations.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D. Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to Tech Central Station. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches courses on Logic, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophy of Law. He blogs at AnalPhilosopher.


TCS Daily Archives