ABC's Peter Jennings and 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace were once asked a hypothetical question about journalistic ethics in a wartime situation like Vietnam. On PBS' television show, "Ethics in America," host Charles Ogletree asked the veteran newsmen whether they would tell American soldiers they were about to be ambushed by the enemy.
Jennings gave the answer some thought, and said yes, he would tell the American soldiers about the trap. It sounds like the decent thing to do, right? But according to Wallace, Jennings' response was disgusting. Wallace berated him for violating the conventions of press objectivity.
The professional journalist, said Wallace, would roll cameras as American Joes were caught off guard. "I'm a little bit of a loss to understand why, because you are an American, you would not have covered that story," he said. For most Americans, such journalistic ethics are a matter of great concern. Most Americans think that the media fail to inform and educate. Instead, they believe the media exploit, degrade, pander and politically slant their stories.
Indeed, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that nearly two-thirds of 3,000 Americans surveyed believe that one side is favored in presentation of the news. Almost eight in 10 (77%) think that there is at least a fair amount of political bias in the news they see. A plurality of Americans (43%) think that bias is liberal, rather than conservative or middle of the road.
Those in the Fourth Estate counter that such perception of bias — especially political bias — is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, almost every mainstream journalist labors under the idea that modern reportage is objective and non-partisan. Those who disagree can lose their jobs for taking a contrary position. Look at former ABC reporter Bob Zelnick, who was fired from the network last year for writing a critical biography of Vice President Al Gore.
In his book, Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' As a Partisan Cause, Richard H. Reeb, Jr. challenges the media's belief in its own objectivity. Of course, attacking media bias isn't new. But Reeb deserves the attention of every American who is concerned about the ideals of liberty and how the media goes about its job. That attention should be heightened as the 2000 presidential election shifts into high gear. "It is the major premise of this book," Reeb writes, "that all news reporters have a point of view in terms of which they determine what is news, as do their counterparts in party and government."
Where Reeb differs from others is that he challenges the whole idea that objectivity is possible. "Today's journalists seem to have forgotten (or would like their audiences to forget) that journalism never takes place in a vacuum but is constituted by a point of view, be it sound or unsound, sensible or wrong-headed, that directs our attention to some facts rather than to others," he writes.
Facts, by their very nature, are selected from a point of view. In fact, they are neutral only if they are "irrelevant" to politics. In other words, the eye of the beholder is really the editor, producer or writer who selects what will be reported or what stories are newsworthy.
So why are journalists so defensive?
Reeb answers this way: "The animus toward politics characteristic of our age, combined with the belief that certain 'high-minded' forms of participation in it are not really partisan, has spawned the peculiar perspective of contemporary journalism which, because of its ignorance (real or professed) of its own doings, is impatient of criticism and opposition." No one doubts the value of the free press. Liberty is impossible without it. But in a representative republic like our own, the citizens must watch the watchers and hold them and politicians to a high standard.
Thus, Reeb painstakingly shows in the first two parts of the book how two major media organs distorted their coverage through selective editing and political analysis — problems that stem from their political outlooks. He examines the CBS documentary "The Selling of the Pentagon Papers" and the New York Times' "The Pentagon Papers." One wishes the examples were more contemporary. Yet, perhaps it was a desire for thoroughness that led him to look closely at reportage that played no small part in shaping American history in the last quarter century.
Reeb then traces two differing views of objectivity. He looks at the ideals of journalist Walter Lippmann, who supports objectivity, and the New York Times reporter James Reston, who tried to reverse the trend. Lippmann believed that reporters should aim for a neutral objectivity. Reeb describes Lippmann beliefs this way: "The lack of reliable public information was the chief stumbling block to public acceptance of wise statesmanship in the modern democracies." By relentlessly pursuing the facts, Lippmann wanted to strip the public of the "fictions" that made up its opinions. A new, better democratic state would be delivered by the fearless journalists who understood and reported the inevitable scientific march of governmental progress made possible by a better, more knowledgeable political elite.
Reston's final position was similar to Lippmann's. But he believed that the press should provide a "relentless barrage of facts and criticism, as noisy but also as accurate as artillery fire" at American policies. Reston opposed objectivity as a "cult" and "rubbish." He wanted a fearless press corps dedicated to reporting hostile facts that would then shake up the status quo. Instead of dwelling on the struggle with communism, for instance, Reston wanted reporters to follow their inclinations and report the real story: "the gap between the white industrial nations and the nonwhite agricultural nations" and the immoral Vietnam war.
Paradoxically, both these views inform modern journalism. The press still upholds Lippmann's model of objectivity. But journalists also embrace Reston's liberal activist mentality. They view themselves as defenders of the democratic process. Yet, they also see their work as somehow above other democratic institutions and their intentions as more pure. Journalists seem less inclined to understand what they ought to be defending (viz., the Constitution) than what they are attacking (those ideas that violate the nearly unanimous liberal view of Reston).
Reeb finishes with detailed studies of how Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton viewed political journalism. But he goes beyond a merely theoretical treatment. Reeb finds that these founders shared a common vision — a partisan vision absent from today's journalists. "[W]hereas the founding generation looked to the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence for first principles, today's journalists take refuge in a self-denying ordinance against partisanship which neither overcomes their partisanship nor strengthens the public's attachment to the Constitution."
These are strong words in an era when so many in the media lament the lack of public spiritedness and cynicism about government. It lays at the feet of the journalistic community and its overarching ideas, the blame for much of the disconnect citizens feel toward debate in the public square. Reeb instead prescribes honesty and energy in the "partisan" cause of informing Americans about politics within the context of a constitutional republic. "A healthy political journalism should not suppress its major premises or implied conclusions but assume the honorable burden of stating and defending them, in open and honest debate, to other members of the media, to politicians and to other citizens," he writes.
Reform begins, then, with a reflection upon our republican principles. Too many journalists are defending an idea that sanctions and protects their institutional strength without understanding the other important institutions that safeguard freedom. Such narcissism comes with a cost. As American sentiment for government drops, the media often fail to report the lack of trust in them as an institution. A quick visit to the Freedom Forum's website shows just how journalists are concerned with the public's negative opinion toward them.
Reeb's answer of honest partisanship is an interesting one. He wants to resurrect the energy and dynamism that propelled debate, attracted readers and alerted citizens to American constitutional government. The community journalism movement touted by former U.S. News and World Report Editor James Fallows and others has proven a failure. Polling for what readers want to read inevitably fails to introduce them to what they don't know.
Newspaper readership and interest in the evening news continues to slip. Meanwhile, the most raucous and informative debate — for the discerning citizen, anyway — takes place on the most partisan of media: talk radio. That's something to think about as we enter once again into a season when media power grows and the voice of candidates is drowned out by the interpretations of the objective observer on the ground. Reeb wants to reverse the media's unquestioned premise about its objectivity. He has started a new and more profound debate.
Until we recognize our roots as a free nation governed by the rule of law, we will continue to drift in the no man's land of cynicism and disconnect. Jennings and Wallace aren't independent observers. They, too, Reeb would say, are part of this extraordinary American experiment in liberty and self-rule. It is important that they understand what they are protecting before there are any more casualties to poor journalism.