Journalism and the Devil's Advocate

How far should one go to understand the other side?

Let's begin where I left off in this morning's post, with a critique of an editorial by David Ignatius in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Dangers of Embedded Journalism." Ignatius stops just short of invoking the phrses "Stockholm syndrome", but I think that's a pretty accurate description of his concern.

I refrained from attacking Ignatius too harshly because I wanted to address a legitimate concern he raised, which I think should be in the mind of any reasonable person. The question is: When a reporter is embedded with the United States Armed Forces - or any organization - is there not a danger that the reporting will become skewed in favor of the host organization? My friend Michael Totten did not think it unreasonable for his readers to ask whether he's only allowed to see "what the Army wants you to see." Michael's eloquent response is at the link.

If embedded journalists were Americans' only source of information about wars - or for that matter, if any other single source has such a monopoly - I would worry. But that's demonstrably not the case. Nor is it the case that today's media establishment is exactly a cheerleading squad of pro-American patriotism.

I argued that
[it is better] to take one's chances with an environment where sympathies are openly declared, and may be factored into the equation by the reader or viewer. The availability of multiple viewpoints allows for critical thinking on the part of the audience. ...

Do people tend to gravitate to similarly-minded communities - like "the Huffington Post and Daily Kos and MichelleMalkin.com and the Drudge Report", to use Ignatius' examples? Yes, absolutely, and that's an inherent limitation of the new journalism. But the environment that fosters crowd-pleasing, ideologically intense outlets like these also gives rise to a whole spectrum of intelligent opinion and analysis between and outside of these extremes.

And that is the essence of the argument in favor of citizen-generated, crowdsourced journalism such as blogging.

Up to now I have been addressing Ignatius' legitimate concern (as I see it) and figuratively "playing devil's advocate". Now I want to turn my attention to some of the more troubling aspects of this editorial.

As it turns out, crowdsourcing has come to my aid, because many of the commenters have complaints similar to mine. So I see that I am not alone, that some other people have expressed similar ideas (perhaps more concisely and articulately than I could), and that some have added points that I would not have thought of.
csanders1 wrote:
I guess it was a real tradegy that these unbiased reporters were not able to interview Hitler and Tojo in order to make sure that the American people understood their side of the conflict. I watch Fox. If you watch it you will see that even though the bias is to the conservative side, they have liberal persons on in equal numbers. If you really want bias, watch NBC, CBS and ABC. I do not see snyone reporting on the massive intrusions that the government is making on citizen rights and privacy but rail that someone might have to prove that they are a citizen before they vote or receive government benefits.

Cliff Sanders, Greensboro, GA
5/2/2010 2:02:52 PM

Cliff is presumably responding to this odious paragraph in Ignatius' piece:
The path back to unembedded journalism won't be easy, especially for war correspondents. It's one thing to want to interview both Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and quite another to actually get to talk to them. But we should operate under the assumption that we won't always be at war, and try to restore the normal order.

So, whose side is David Ignatius on? His idea of balance and neutrality is to put Mohammed Omar and General McChrystal on the same level.

Roytex wrote:
It's possible for excellent journalism to be unbiased. I'm conservative. I used to read the NYT editoril page because it produced in me a pleasant sense of indignation. But I read the rest of the paper because the reporting and writing were outstanding, and unbiased even to my keen ideological eye. The paper later allowed it's editorial point of view to contaminate its news reporting and lost me. It was as if Walter Conkrite, or maybe even Mrs. Clinton, were editing the whole thing. Maybe that's changing now that the Times is under economic pressure. That tends to change minds a bit.

24681 wrote:
Journalism is always going to be biased, especially if the journalists are being shot at. I recall quite a bit of bias among NY reporters during the 9/11 attacks. (We didn’t hear anymore about “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”).

But I’d rather the journalists be embedded and be biased on the side of America, than running around non-embedded and being biased on side of the enemy – which is exactly what they did during the Vietnam War.
5/2/2010 7:58:51 AM

breth wrote:
Well, you had me at Fox coming from the right and MSNBC coming from the left.

But then you lost me at CNN and The Washington Post coming from the middle.

Let's be real. Is David Ignatius in the center? Yes.

Is the Post in the center? Uh, no.
5/2/2010 12:29:19 AM

Some points brought up in the readers' comments: (1) Ignatius' column is carefully worded to avoid drawing attention to the fact that the mainstream media are not evenly split between liberal and conservative, but rather are a liberal sea with a conservative island (Fox News); (2) bias in news reporting is not necessarily objectionable in itself, but when the bias is extreme and/or is not acknowledged, it is a problem; (3) there is a difference between presenting opposing views on a topic which is subject to reasonable debate, and giving a platform to dictators, terrorists, and fascists.

Not everyone thinks journalists should talk to to just anyone, anyplace, anytime. Via Norm Geras, here's the tale of Eleanor Mills, who won't be the ayatollahs' stooge:
“Thanks so much for coming on,” [journalist Lauren Booth] said cheerfully. My face must have registered some shock. “Don’t worry: only presenters have to wear a headscarf,” she grinned, and she walked off down the corridor. I noticed that everyone around me looked Middle Eastern and the walls were bedecked with pictures of Iran. D’oh! The penny dropped. Press TV: the controversial television channel backed by the Iranian regime.

My heart started to race and I grabbed my phone. Thank God for mobile internet. Seconds later I’d found Press TV on Wikipedia; it was not reassuring. The station was set up three years ago to give the Islamic republic a way of getting its message across to the outside world. It is designed to look neutral to attract western journalists and politicians. But its message is always the same: it chooses those who are critical of the West for propaganda reasons. As well as Booth — who has been outspoken in her attacks on Tony Blair and Israel — its presenters include that old apologist for tyranny George “Saddam Hussein’s mate” Galloway and Yvonne Ridley, the Express journalist who was kidnapped by the Taliban and converted to Islam.

The more I read, the more uncomfortable I felt. Visions of the violent death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman shot dead by Iranian government security forces as she took part in the protests last year over the rigged election, swam into my mind. I remembered the seas of green flags, the awe-inspiring bravery of all those thousands of ordinary Iranians who ventured onto the streets declaring the election void, protesting that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, had swindled his way to victory, despite the risk of murderous reprisals. Most of all I recalled the terrible accounts of the brutality with which the regime punished protesters; how so many of them had disappeared, their frantic families knowing nothing of their fate, and had been taken to secret prisons where they had been raped and tortured. ...

Eleanor Mills knew what she had to do, and she did it. Please read the whole article at the link.