Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Perspective: Journalists shouldn't be cheerleaders

So says Alan Greenblatt here. (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan):

Claims of media bias were a major theme during this past election year - from Dan Rather's doctored documents questioning Bush's military service to a convention of minority journalists loudly cheering Kerry when he addressed them in August. But conservatives who want proof of their longstanding claims that the mainstream media harbor a liberal bias could do worse than ordering the audio recordings of the Cambridge conference that are on sale from its sponsor, Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism.

They would hear laughter and applause from reporters after Mailer said he wished he "was young enough to thrash" Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and scattered applause when he claimed that it was not Jesus but "the devil who speaks to George Bush every night."

Admittedly, some of the attendees were academics, publicists and students, so it's hard to say who was laughing at which remark. But the thousand-member audience was dominated by freelance writers and editors and reporters from nearly every major paper in the country. None of the dozen people who stood up to question Mailer challenged any of his political assertions. And only a few failed to stand and applaud at the end of a speech that had characterized Bush as "lord of the quagmire" in Iraq.

Major news outlets routinely have their reports and credibility questioned nowadays because of perceptions of bias. Just before the election, stories in the New York Times and on CBS stating that tons of explosives were missing in Iraq were loudly dismissed in some quarters with the taunt that these "liberal" outlets were trying to turn voters against Bush. The same held true when the Los Angeles Times reported on Arnold Schwarzenegger's past sexual aggression in the days leading up to California's gubernatorial recall last year.

The level of public distrust evoked by partisan leanings - real or perceived - did not stop the reporters at the Nieman conference from applauding frequent left-leaning sentiments. Although most of the sessions were dedicated to nuts-and-bolts instruction on journalism, such as interviewing techniques and tips on how to create a sense of place, Mailer was far from the only speaker to touch directly on politics. Seymour Hersh, the author and investigative reporter for the New Yorker, gave a talk that equaled Mailer's in its anti-Bush venom.

Straight news outlets have an even tougher job in trying to convince anyone that their reports should be distinguished from such open propaganda efforts when their own reporters willingly reveal their political leanings at a public forum. If mainstream journalists hope to preserve not just the trust but the simple attention of readers and viewers, we have to remember just what, as Hart says, our role in society is.

There's no question that reporters should be questioning Bush's version of the truth and that the profession in general should challenge his administration's bent toward secrecy. But the least we can do, when someone makes a speech either bashing or lauding Bush or any other politician, is to sit on our hands.

As usual, go read it all.

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