Saturday, June 23, 2007

True journalism and the death of constructive debate

Our dear patriarch James also asked me contribute to his blog in his absence.

Because very little of what I write is worthy of his blog, and because it's been a difficult week, I'm re-posting something I wrote a couple of months ago:

There’s an important distinction between journalism and punditry: real journalism attempts to be unbiased and impartial. Pundits, on the other hand, write or speak from a specific angle.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with punditry, in small doses and in the right context. Most blogs fall under this category, although there are a few I would describe as journalistic.

But let’s not confuse the two. Bill O’Reilly may have a degree in broadcast journalism, but he is not practicing journalism. Neither is Al Franken. Neither is Rush Limbaugh.

The ideologies these people spew are often mistaken for “news,” or even “journalism.” But they’re not. I’ll tell you why:

  • Real journalists don’t demonize people who disagree with them while elevating those who do

  • Real journalists don’t shout people down

  • Real journalists don’t use inflammatory or biased language

Journalism is succumbing to pressures from all sides, but the worst trend that’s crippling the credibility of the institution is the increased movement toward journalists as pundits, especially on cable news shows. Nothing ruins a journalist’s objectivity quite like punditry.

Fox News comes under a lot of fire (and rightly so) for being biased and sensationalist, but the fact is that all the cable news networks present the news with a distinct slant. The problem is not limited to Fox. For every Rupert Murdoch, there’s a liberal equivalent. It’s blatant. It’s obscene. It’s everywhere.

Let me give you an example. During the 2004 election, CNN and ABC News would refer to Bush and Kerry in the same sentence as “Mr. Bush,” and “Senator Kerry.” One by his honorific, and one by the generic pre-nomial “Mister.” It was a very subtle way of discrediting one and elevating the other. Fox News, simultaneously, had it precisely the other way around: “Mr. Kerry,” and “President Bush.” Do you see how clever and subtle the difference is?

Most differences aren’t that subtle. Today, if you’re a conservative, there are countless conservative radio shows, talk shows, blogs, Web sites and publications that you can go to glean your news from. If you’re a liberal, there are countless explicitly liberal shows, publications, blogs, and Web sites as well. There’s no longer any perceived need for objective journalism, because people increasingly want to absorb “news” that reflects their personal beliefs and leanings.

I’d like to submit that this system is not working. It’s just leading to greater stratification and sectionalism within our collective societies. Feeding one’s intellect with only news and information that reflects one’s own partisan slant is not healthy or constructive. It leads to the kind of “debates” that we see televised daily on these cable news shows—debates that are not debates at all, but shouting matches between talking heads and pundits.

Here’s a prime example by two of the worst offenders.

These men aren’t talking to each other; they’re talking at each other. That’s all it is. This isn’t a debate. These are soliloquies.

For that matter, there’s a serious dearth of knowledge as to what constitutes constructive debate—or even constructive dialogue or discussion—whether in written or spoken form. Some very basic, common-sense rules are not being followed. For example:

  • If you’re presenting your opinion about a contested or controversial issue, it is the purest folly to insult people who disagree with you, explicitly or implicitly. You will lose whatever chance you might have had to convince them of the truth of your position, and you’ll wind up preaching to the choir.

  • Nicknames like “Democrap,” Repukelican,” “Lib-tard,” and other childish terms don’t help your case—they just alienate these groups entirely.

  • Your “side” is not always right, just as the other “side” (liberals, conservatives, whatever you like) is not always wrong. Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken would be well served to learn this.

  • Similarly, it’s important to remember that the other “side” is not comprised of evil people who want to see American/Britain/wherever fail. They usually genuinely think they’re doing the right thing. They won’t be impressed by this kind of rhetoric.

Divisive sectionalism within the “news” community has led us to an us-versus-them mentality that is entirely unhealthy. Dialogue, discussion and debate should be respectful and articulate, not inflammatory and divisive. I truly believe that the most important factor in any discussion or debate is the ability to put yourself into the shoes of whomever you’re disagreeing with. If you can’t understand why your opponent believes himself to be right, you might as well go home. We need a true understanding of why others believe what they do, or we will never be able to communicate.

This is why I feel so comfortable talking about one extremely difficult topic—abortion. I’ve been young, poor, unwed, pregnant and terrified, so I understand the dilemma. I’ve stood in the shoes of the countless girls who have to make the decision whether or not to get an abortion. And because I understand why a young woman might decide an abortion is the right thing to do, I am infinitely more prepared to discuss this issue with people who disagree with me. I can honestly say, “I know exactly why you believe this. I understand your reasoning perfectly and I pass no judgment—now hear the conclusion I came to and why I came to it.”

The moral of the story: Good debate, like good journalism, is free of inflammatory, offensive, or biased language. I’d like to see more of both: good debate and real unbiased journalism.

What, questions? How surprising.

But Ruthie: I like to get my news from newscasters who think like me. I don’t want some liberal/conservative injecting their opinions into my newscast!

Well, that’s your loss. Going to only one source for news is severely limiting your understanding of the world. As I’ve said, it’s important to understand why people disagree with you so you’ll be better able to discuss these issues with them in a respectful manner.

That sounds like political correctness. I dislike political correctness.

It’s not political correctness, it’s just good form. It’s common sense. If you alienate your audience by offending them or putting them off, you wind up preaching to the choir and convincing no one but yourself. I’m willing to bet that 99% of Rush Limbaugh’s listeners are conservative, precisely for this reason. He never has anything positive to say about liberals or Democrats, only derogatory remarks. If you switch it around, the same is true of Al Franken (who, delightfully enough, is running for Senate here in my home state). I see them as two sides of the same coin.

But what if I can’t find any unbiased news sources? What if none of them are objective?

True objectivity is impossible. Every journalist betrays his opinions when he writes. Even subtle and often unconscious word choices, like “hostage” vs. “detainee” betray a journalist’s true opinions. Many news organizations don't even operate under the pretense of objectivity anymore. The key is balance. If you understand all the sides of an issue—all the shades of gray and varying viewpoints—you’ll be better able to defend your own.


  1. Fantastic summary Ruthie. This takes me back to the mid eighties, when I had to endure Rush Limbaugh at lunchtime every day during my early illegal working career in Aspen. I was happy when it was over. I just found his style very annoying leaving aside his politics. I used to listen to NPR, but even that seemed pretty bland and non confrontational at times. I had to listen to Pacifica to get a more "balanced" take on many issues.

    Who is Bill O'Reilly? Not heard of him.

    I find that much of journalism has degraded in terms of the quality of coverage of issues. It is way too much shock and awe and not enough thoughtful coverage. We have the equivalent of Rush Limbaugh and the like.

    Here in Australia I only listen to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. You can go and take a look or listen in Second Life. They have an island.

  2. Bill O is the biggest pundit in America... 20m listeners a week or so (I think)

    The trouble is, there are NO MORE journalists in the news. Now we have pundits and newscasters.

  3. Excellent article, Ruthie. I agree with you that true objectivity is impossible so it's advisable to read well around an issue. That's very interesting about how the channels referred to Bush and Kerry - very telling. Abortion is a difficult one. I've never had to face such a decision but I was adopted: if my birth mother had had abortion as an option or had paid a "back street abortionist", I wouldn't be here reading you now!

  4. The BBC was recently shocked to find it was left biased: BBC accused of institutional 'trendy left-wing bias'

    I fail to see why they were shocked.

    "Research for the 80-page report showed that viewers were "frustrated" by political correctness at the BBC and feel the corporation is dominated by a London-centric bias, reflected in its programmes, presenters and coverage."

    As Fox Mulder said, "trust no one."


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  6. True journalism and the death of constructive debate

    Ruthie - phew!

    Firstly, you need to take Lady MacLeod's advice which she gave JMB and which I shall do as a stand alone post this evening.

    Secondly to your undoubtedly fine post:

    [R]eal journalism attempts to be unbiased and impartial. Pundits, on the other hand, write or speak from a specific angle.

    Too true. Fox, Al Franken and so on - you always give a picture of a world we know a bit of but not the nuts and bolts of it. This post was a little like your one on the Presidential Debate. Fascinating.


Your thoughts on this?