More Biased Media Please

by on April 30th, 2004

There is a fundamental belief in America that the press ought to be objective and unbiased. And it isn’t. On the right, one hears complaints against the “liberal media”; on the left, “the media are as liberal as the conservative corporations that own them allow” is a rather popular bumper sticker. This has come into sharp relief in the case of tonight’s “Nightline” broadcast.

Unless there are last minute changes, Ted Koppel is going to read out the names of all the American dead on the broadcast, and it’s going to take an extra-long show to do it. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 8 ABC affiliates, has decided to pull the show because the broadcaster notes that it has a political slant. Here’s the conundrum – broadcasting the names is definitely a political act, and so is pulling the show. There is no way to be objective in this row. And we shouldn’t be.

There is an old bit of office humor in Britain that discusses the nation’s many newspapers. The Times is read by the people who run the country, the Financial Times by the people who own the country, the Guardian (leftish) by people who think they should run the country, the Telegraph (rightwing) by those who think the country should be run the way it used to be, etc. (The real punch line is the Sun, with its topless page 3 girls, which is read by people who don’t care who runs the country so long as she is well endowed). And it is true – those papers have a clear and obvious slant, they choose their news stories that way, but their reporting usually gives some time to opposing views. This is not just on the editorial page but on every page. A similar pattern runs throughout Europe, and it used to exist in the American print media.

Now, we all agree that there is bias in the press even if we can’t agree on whose bias it is. So, let’s just own up to it. Part of what makes worthwhile is the fact that we don’t agree, that we don’t pretend objectivity yet we do try to be fair with one another and respectful. It’s a much more interesting read than the newspapers I can pick up on the way to work. And it’s much more interesting than the TV news, regardless of network.

Mr. Koppel is most assuredly engaging in a political act, and we all know it. Sinclair’s decision not to air “Nightline” is a political act as well. The effort to keep photos of flag draped coffins from the front pages is a political act, as is the printing of those photos. The decision of what news to report is an editorial decision, ultimately a subjective one. When it comes to politics and political reportage, the result is journalism as politics, either by transmission or omission.

Jeff Myhre