August 30, 2006

The benefits of "unbalanced" media coverage

Since I am interested in how the media operates, I regularly go to the annual Susie Gharib Distinguished Lectureship series sponsored by the English Department at Case where they invite journalists to talk about their work.

It is always interesting to listen to journalists from the big newspapers such as the Washington Post describe how they work. One thing that always strikes me is how confident they are that the media and journalism in the US is far superior to that in other countries. They seem to accept this as an unquestioned truth.

Two years ago, two journalists from the Washington Post (a husband and wife team) described how they were in Iraq just prior to the US attack on that country, and he somewhat disdainfully spoke of the practices of their British journalistic counterparts. During the questions, I asked them why they thought they were superior. The husband replied that the US editors seemed to exercise much more oversight to make sure about getting the facts just right than the British newspapers. But if that was so, I said, how was it that the US media completely failed to discover the fact that the case being made at that time for Iraq having weapons of mass destruction was totally bogus. The US mainstream media pretty much accepted the administration's arguments largely uncritically, whereas the supposedly inferior media in many other parts of the world were very skeptical.

He became very defensive and said that this was just one case where the US media dropped the ball but that in general it was much better than the rest of the world. He said unlike much of the world's press, the US media was "objective" and "unbiased" in its coverage. My response was that this massive failure in what was the biggest story that any of them was likely to ever cover, and one that had momentous consequences, could not be dismissed as a mere aberration but pointed to a fundamental problem in the way that the media operates here.

Last year, Pulitzer prize winningWashington Post journalist Dana Priest (who won for her story on the secret prisons operated by the CIA to hold prisoners in foreign countries) was here and during the question time someone else brought up the deficiencies of the coverage leading up to the Iraq war, and brought up some examples of what he felt were stories that the US media missed.

Priest replied that the media did cover them. But the questioner persisted saying that saying something once was not enough in the face of repeated false assertions to the contrary by the Bush administration. He asked why the journalists did not periodically (say every week or month or so) keep raising the same issues again so as to act as an effective counter to the misleading propaganda pushed by the White House. She replied that they could not do so because that would imply that the journalists were pushing an agenda. She said that they had to be "objective" and "impartial."

This exchange clearly highlights the fundamental problem. Priest was right that if you look carefully in the US media, you can probably find some journalist somewhere who did ask the right questions and did report on the facts of almost any issue. She is also right that many US reporters, especially those in the quality media, think that they should strive for some kind of impartiality and objectivity in their reporting.

But the key question is not the validity of some abstract ideal of journalism. The real question is what kind of system will end up with the general public having a good sense of the truth. And I think that a strong case can be made that partisan journalism is more likely to deliver the goods.

I grew up in Sri Lanka with partisan journalism. My father subscribed to three daily morning papers and two evening papers. These papers were much slimmer than the papers in the US, with far fewer ads and feature articles, and a greater percentage devoted to news and political commentary. The political affiliations of the papers were quite clear. There were the government-controlled papers, those that were sympathetic to each of the main political parties, plus those that were run by private entrepreneurs (kind of like Rupert Murdoch) who had their own agenda of using their newspapers as clout to further their business or political interests. There were also smaller circulation papers that had their own political leanings, representing trade unions and smaller political parties.

Everyone knew the partisan leanings of each paper. These were not secrets and readers factored them in when reading the news. So what kind of journalism was produced by this system?

What happened is that the newspapers, whatever the leanings, could not publish outright falsehoods. Newspapers rarely made flat out untrue statements because those are easily refuted by the other newspapers and there existed libel laws to prevent that, as well as a Press Council which could investigate charges of serious distortions What the newspapers did do was downplay the negative news about the people they favored and highlight their successes, while doing the opposite for the people they opposed. They would give wide coverage to political events of their side and to the speeches of the people they favored while downplaying those of their opponents.

They also used biased language. It was not unusual to see a photo of someone they disliked in an unflattering pose accompanied by a snide caption. You would never see such things in the US press and whenever I go back to Sri Lanka, it is always a bit of a jolt initially to see such blatant editorializing mixed in with the "hard" news.

As a reader, it was not hard to figure out what was going on. If one paper made a major allegation, and the other paper did not deny it but tried to ignore it or downplay it, the chances are that the story was credible. If a story was serious, a paper could keep harping on it day after day, making sure that it was not forgotten or buried, and forcing the people concerned to respond to it in one way or another.

Since it was clear to everyone what each paper's agenda was, there was no point in really trying to hide it under cover of neutrality.

Of course this kind of media required the reader to do some of the intellectual heavy lifting, to read multiple sources, factor in their biases, and infer the real facts of the case. If you read only one newspaper, you were definitely missing important information. So people became adept at news interpretation and filtering.

This kind of partisan journalism is, I think, the norm in most countries. England's newspapers are like this to some extent and so are the French. The US is unusual in its big media feeling that they have to be "neutral" and "objective" and "unbiased."

Next: Is the US media actually unbiased? And how did it get to value "neutrality"?


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Mano, I know you're not that big a fan of movies, but you might want to check out All the President's Men. It's the excellently filmed story about the Washington Post reporters who covered the Watergate scandal, so I'm reminded of it by your recent posts on journalism. These days, the movie really makes one think about how far journalistic integrity has fallen in this country, compared to what it could and should be.

Posted by Elizabeth on August 30, 2006 01:53 PM

I had seen that film and it is a good one. But I am preparing a post that suggests that that kind of thing can only occur when there is an elite consensus for it. By the time Woodward and Bernstein got going, there was a general feeling that Nixon had to go and this gave W-B the room to do what they did.

By the way, I am a HUGE fan of movies. What gave you the idea I wasn't?

Posted by Mano Singham on August 30, 2006 03:22 PM

I wonder if the current emphasis on objectivity and 'neutral' reporting is in fact a direct result of years and years of propaganda against the press, calling it "The Liberal Media" - now a household phrase, repeated so often it must be true?

The media didn't seem that liberal to me in high school when I was told with assurity by my teachers that it was... and so this 'objectivity' may in part be a defense mechanism, as the media try hard to remove the "liberal" taint from their image.

That said, I also worried during the election that it seemed pictures of George Bush, an unattractive , almost goofy looking man as far as I can tell, were cherry-picked to make him look almost handsome, whereas Kerry was often depicted mid-sentence, his mouth skewed oddly, or looking tired and haggard. I noted this often, and was quite incensed by it, being a Kerry supporter. So I wonder if we really do have 'objectivity' at all...

That said, the idea of a "partisan" media frightens me. It seems un-american... why can't the press be free, objective, AND properly informative? Or would that reflect the "liberal bias" of reality too much?

Posted by Marie on August 30, 2006 03:27 PM

I don't know what gave me that impression. Some comment in your Lagaan or V for Vendetta posts, but going back to see what it was, I can't seem to find it again. Anyway, I'm glad you're preparing a post on the subject, and will look forward to reading it.

Posted by Elizabeth on August 31, 2006 12:26 AM

You're absolutely right that the way in which the media is "unbiased" -- "There are Exactly Two sides, and we will Weight them Equally!" -- is in fact a kind of bias, and a particularly pernicious one. But I do not think we as a nation have the character for your plan to work. We already have partisan journalism: it's called the blogosphere. I enjoy the blogs I read, including yours, but most of them are echo chambers. If you spend much time on a blog written by and populated with people who have vastly different political orientations, you will likely be A) ignored or B) called a troll and driven off.

Posted by Erin on August 31, 2006 11:37 AM

Wondering if you have more facts or info about your statement regarding partisan journalism in Europe for my research paper.

Posted by Eric on September 3, 2006 10:45 PM


I am afraid that I do not have the actual ownership data of the newspapers. My impressions come from visiting England, Australia, and New Zealand and reading the newspapers there and also seeing the descriptions given to French and German newspapers.

Sorry about that and good luck with your research.

Posted by Mano Singham on September 6, 2006 05:47 PM