From Pajamas media
Editing Their Way to Oblivion: Journalism Sacrificed For Power and Pensions
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By Michael S. Malone
The traditional media is playing a very, very dangerous game. With its readers, with the Constitution, and with its own fate.
The sheer bias in the print and television coverage of this election campaign is not just bewildering, but appalling. And over the last few months Iíve found myself slowly moving from shaking my head at the obvious one-sided reporting, to actually shouting at the screen of my television and my laptop computer.
But worst of all, for the last couple weeks, Iíve begun ó for the first time in my adult life ó to be embarrassed to admit what I do for a living. A few days ago, when asked by a new acquaintance what I did for a living, I replied that I was ďa writerĒ, because I couldnít bring myself to admit to a stranger that Iím a journalist.
You need to understand how painful this is for me. I am one of those people who truly bleeds ink when Iím cut. I am a fourth generation newspaperman. As family history tells it, my great-grandfather was a newspaper editor in Abilene, Kansas during the last of the cowboy days, then moved to Oregon to help start the Oregon Journal (now the Oregonian). My hard-living - and when I knew her, scary - grandmother was one of the first women reporters for the Los Angeles Times. And my father, though profoundly dyslexic, followed a long career in intelligence to finish his life (thanks to word processors and spellcheckers) as a very successful freelance writer. Iíve spent thirty years in every part of journalism, from beat reporter to magazine editor. And my oldest son, following in the family business, so to speak, earned his first national by-line before he earned his drivers license.
So, when I say Iím deeply ashamed right now to be called a ďjournalistĒ, you can imagine just how deep that cuts into my soul.
Now, of course, thereís always been bias in the media. Human beings are biased, so the work they do, including reporting, is inevitably colored. Hell, I can show you ten different ways to color variations of the word ďsaidĒ - muttered, shouted, announced, reluctantly replied, responded, etc. - to influence the way a reader will apprehend exactly the same quote. We all learn that in Reporting 101, or at least in the first few weeks working in a newsroom. But what we are also supposed to learn during that same apprenticeship is to recognize the dangerous power of that technique, and many others, and develop built-in alarms against their unconscious.
But even more important, we are also supposed to be taught that even though there is no such thing as pure, Platonic objectivity in reporting, we are to spend our careers struggling to approach that ideal as closely as possible. That means constantly challenging our own prejudices, systematically presenting opposing views, and never, ever burying stories that contradict our own world views or challenge people or institutions we admire. If we canít achieve Olympian detachment, than at least we can recognize human frailty - especially in ourselves.
For many years, spotting bias in reporting was a little parlor game of mine, watching TV news or reading a newspaper article and spotting how the reporter had inserted, often unconsciously, his or her own preconceptions. But I always wrote it off as bad judgment, and lack of professionalism, rather than bad faith and conscious advocacy. Sure, being a child of the Ď60s I saw a lot of subjective ďNewĒ Journalism, and did a fair amount of it myself, but that kind of writing, like columns and editorials, was supposed to be segregated from Ďrealí reporting, and at least in mainstream media, usually was. The same was true for the emerging blogosphere, which by its very nature was opinionated and biased.
But my complacent faith in my peers first began to be shaken when some of the most admired journalists in the country were exposed as plagiarists, or worse, accused of making up stories from whole cloth. Iíd spent my entire professional career scrupulously pounding out endless dreary footnotes and double-checking sources to make sure that I never got accused of lying or stealing someone elseís work - not out any native honesty, but out of fear: Iíd always been told to fake or steal a story was a firing offense . . .indeed, it meant being blackballed out of the profession.
And yet, few of those worthies ever seemed to get fired for their crimes - and if they did they were soon rehired into an even more prestigious jobs. It seemed as if there were two sets of rules: one for us workaday journalists toiling out in the sticks, and another for folks whoíd managed, through talent or deceit, to make it to the national level.
Meanwhile, I watched with disbelief as the nationís leading newspapers, many of whom Iíd written for in the past, slowly let opinion pieces creep into the news section, and from there onto the front page. Personal opinions and comments that, had they appeared in my stories in 1979, would have gotten my butt kicked by the nearest copy editor, were now standard operating procedure at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and soon after in almost every small town paper in the U.S.
But what really shattered my faith - and I know the day and place where it happened - was the War in Lebanon three summers ago. The hotel I was staying at in Windhoek, Namibia only carried CNN, a network Iíd already learned to approach with skepticism. But this was CNN International, which is even worse. I sat there, first with my jaw hanging down, then actually shouting at the TV, as one field reporter after another reported the carnage of the Israeli attacks on Beirut, with almost no corresponding coverage of the Hezbollah missiles raining down on northern Israel. The reporting was so utterly and shamelessly biased that I sat there for hours watching, assuming that eventually CNNi would get around to telling the rest of the story . . .but it never happened.
But nothing, nothing Iíve seen has matched the media bias on display in the current Presidential campaign. Republicans are justifiably foaming at the mouth over the sheer one-sidedness of the press coverage of the two candidates and their running mates. But in the last few days, even Democrats, who have been gloating over the pass - no, make that shameless support - theyíve gotten from the press, are starting to get uncomfortable as they realize that no one wins in the long run when we donít have a free and fair press. I was one of the first people in the traditional media to call for the firing of Dan Rather - not because of his phony story, but because he refused to admit his mistake - but, bless him, even Gunga Dan thinks the media is one-sided in this election.
Now, donít get me wrong. Iím not one of those people who think the media has been too hard on, say, Gov. Palin, by rushing reportorial SWAT teams to Alaska to rifle through her garbage. This is the Big Leagues, and if she wants to suit up and take the field, then Gov. Palin better be ready to play. The few instances where I think the press has gone too far - such as the Times reporter talking to Cindy McCainís daughterís MySpace friends - can easily be solved with a few newsroom smackdowns and temporary repostings to the Omaha Bureau.
No, what I object to (and I think most other Americans do as well) is the lack of equivalent hardball coverage of the other side - or worse, actively serving as attack dogs for Senators Obama and Biden. If the current polls are correct, we are about to elect as President of the United States a man who is essentially a cipher, who has left almost no paper trail, seems to have few friends (that at least will talk) and has entire years missing out of his biography. That isnít Sen. Obamaís fault: his job is to put his best face forward. No, it is the traditional mediaís fault, for it alone (unlike the alternative media) has had the resources to cover this story properly, and has systematically refused to do so.
Why, for example to quote McCainís lawyer, havenít we seen an interview with Sen. Obamaís grad school drug dealer - when we know all about Mrs. McCainís addiction? Are Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko that hard to interview? All those phony voter registrations that hard to scrutinize? And why are Senator Bidenís endless gaffes almost always covered up, or rationalized, by the traditional media?