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October 07, 2006

Paint It Black

Hugh Hewitt interviewed the Strib's Eric Black yesterday, in a wide-ranging, hour-long donnybrook.

You should read the whole transcript (or listen to it) - it's a fascinating look into the intricacies of reporting politics, as well as how the mind-set of a reporter differs from that of most everyone else.

Black is, by the way, one of the Strib's better reporters, and one who is at least openly analytical about the media's biases. I'll credit him for that.

To me, this was the most interesting part of the interview. Black says... (emphasis mine):

And one of the reasons that I was reluctant [to do the interview] was because of a dynamic thatís very much evident in this discussion, which is that my job does require me to maintain my ownÖmaintain silence about my political and ideological beliefs. And youíre under no such obligation, and of course, you think itís ludicrous that anyone should. But it nonetheless is the system that Iíve worked in during my working life. Iím troubled by it, and Iím admitting that to you. But Iím still working at it, and Iím thinking out loud about ways to improve it. I donít believe the way to improve itÖ

HH: Does the Strib really requireÖ

EB: I donít believe the way to improve it is to have biased coverage with the biases admitted.

HH: Well, youíve just admitted that everyone in the newsroom has bias. Every single person has a bias, right?

EB: Right. Thereís a tension in my mind. I know you donít think this is reasonable, but Iím trying to frame this in the way it appears to me. The tension in my mind is whether itís better to have a system in which people are attempting to overcome their biases, are striving for some sort of a definition of fairness, which I agree is largely in the eye of the beholder, and very difficult to obtain, and as a result of that strategy, letís call it a strategy or goal or a normÖas a result of that, our not disclosing their biases, or whether itís better to just have open bias disclosed, but filtering and coloring everything that comes through.

Black is commenting on the conflict between two different views of journalism:
  • The way it's been practiced through much of the history of journalism, and the way it's practiced in much of the world today, in which journalists are honest about their biases, which allows the consumer to account for bias in their perception of the news.
  • The way it's been done in the American mainstream media since the middle of the last century, in which reporters strive to eliminate all outward signs of bias, and remain "objective" (or, more realistically, detached) from the story. This, of course, is predicated on jounalists having an almost-superhuman level of altruism.
Black doesn't believe that acknowledging bias is the way to go:
The tension in my mind is whether itís better to have a system in which people are attempting to overcome their biases, are striving for some sort of a definition of fairness, which I agree is largely in the eye of the beholder, and very difficult to obtain, and as a result of that strategy, letís call it a strategy or goal or a normÖas a result of that, our not disclosing their biases, or whether itís better to just have open bias disclosed, but filtering and coloring everything that comes through.
I can understand Black's point - it's the way I was taught to do reporting, way back when.

But the effectiveness of that system is entirely predicated on trust. Do people trust journalists to squelch their biases (which remain unknown to the public) and at least be genuinely balanced in their coverage?

People trusted Ernie Pyle to be balanced. Ditto Edward R. Murrow.

They trusted David Brinkley (apparently with justification) and Jack Anderson and Walter Cronkite (less so) and Dan Rather (no, no, no).

I'd suspect that a fair chunk of the public (a chunk of which I am a member) do not trust the Strib of Jim Boyd and Joel Kramer to be fair; the case of at the very least circumstantial evidence to the contrary has been building for decades.

It's a shame; Eric Black is a good reporter, as a general rule. But the Strib, as an institution, has squandered whatever trust that the institution of journalism as practiced for the last 50-70 years might have built up. They're hardly alone, of course - but when the editorial board and newsrooms' biases are revealed in incidents like the Wetterling Ad scandal, it's not a legacy that inspires confidence in their balance, detachment or fairness.

Posted by Mitch at October 7, 2006 09:00 AM | TrackBack
Comments

The average Star Trib editor is as fair and even-handed in Minnesota politics, as Bull Connor was about Alabama civil rights.

Posted by: RBMN at October 7, 2006 10:36 AM

Black seemed to kept reiterating during the Hugh Hewitt interview that if he admitted his partisan beliefs, then his coverage would automatically be biased (ala a talk show host). Unfortunately Hugh didnít call him on it. There is no reason a flaming leftist could not do good journalism. It is just helpful for the readers to be aware of the biases of the reporters in judging what they report.

Posted by: Robert Brown at October 8, 2006 11:54 AM

Interesting topic. I think you're mostly wrong. I don't think the effectiveness of journalism is entirely predicated on people trusting media. I think it's predicated on trusting ourselves as reasonable, skeptical, and analytical readers to figure out biases.

I lean center left. Do I need the Washington Times reporters to tell me their political party? I read the WT and figure out for myself what I should remain skeptical of, and what facts I can accept, at least for the time being.

If the WT reporters tell me tomorrow that they're mostly Republicans, do you think I would go, "Wow! I never knew that. I better start reading this more skeptically as a Democrat!" ?

Posted by: Tom from California at October 8, 2006 02:40 PM

"Interesting topic. I think you're mostly wrong. I don't think the effectiveness of journalism is entirely predicated on people trusting media."

Either do I, in a larger sense. I don't care if a reporter is a Republican or a Green if they're relating the facts of a one-car crash into a lightpole.

But when you get into coverage of politics, and political issues (abortion, gun control, taxes, yadda yadda), it's different.

"I think it's predicated on trusting ourselves as reasonable, skeptical, and analytical readers to figure out biases."

Right. But much of the electorate is not skeptical and analytical, and much of the media at least passively conceal their bias.

I say "Passively" rather than "Actively"; given that most reporters lean left, but also believe that they uphold the basic ideals of journalism, it's not a conspiracy (for the most part) but a matter of their perspective.

"I lean center left. Do I need the Washington Times reporters to tell me their political party?"

No, but the WashTimes is a bad example. They have advertised themselves as a right-leaning operation from the very beginning.

"If the WT reporters tell me tomorrow that they're mostly Republicans, do you think I would go, "Wow! I never knew that. I better start reading this more skeptically as a Democrat!" ?

The WashTimes didn't say it quite that way - but anyone who wants to, knows that they lean to the right. And even though you didn't hear it (apparently), the Times' reporters apparently let it slip to the point where you figured it out anyway.

Now, how about the NYTimes? The LATimes? The Strib? They don't say it - but their output over this past few decades makes their biases as obvious as those of the WashTimes. They just won't say it, preferring to hide behind this ethereal journalistic ethic of balance and fairness and "objectivity"...

...which more and more people don't trust.

Posted by: mitch at October 9, 2006 06:21 AM

I don't think the effectiveness of journalism is entirely predicated on people trusting media

Just the opposite. Trust of the media fosters sloppy journalism.

If it became widely known that the reporters and editors at Blackís paper, for example, where overwhelmingly leftists, readers would become much more cynical about the quality journalism at the paper. This would require much more effort on the part of the journalists to retain the trust of their readers if they want to claim to an unbiased source of news. I am sure that is the reason that Black is so adamant about not revealing his political affiliations, not some great philosophical debate as he would like to portray it.

Posted by: Robert Brown at October 9, 2006 09:55 AM

Interesting discussion here. The thing is, in this particular case I think it's just mistaken to say that the Wetterling ad is so obviously a lie that it is an undeniable indication of bias not to call it that.

It's a point we/I keep making to the left: "lie" is a huge barrier. They throw that word around way too often. All it takes, for a reporter like Eric acting as an analyst, is the existence of any legitimate opinion that it really isn't a lie, even if he doesn't agree with that opinion. He found such opinions; I see what he's saying.

For him to acquiesce and call the a "lie" would mean accepting Hugh Hewitt's perspective as the only legitimate one and ignoring the others. Again, that's what the left is always demanding we all do.

Posted by: Paul S. at October 9, 2006 10:20 AM

" I think it's just mistaken to say that the Wetterling ad is so obviously a lie that it is an undeniable indication of bias not to call it that. "

I agree, to a point.

I can see Black's rationale for not using the "L" word. I don't *agree*, but I see 'em - and can find things up to which to chalk that rationale that don't include bias (as well as some that *do*).

Posted by: mitch at October 9, 2006 10:49 AM

Just curious: what are the reasons that do stem from bias, in your view?

And: as long as there is even one solid reason that doesn't stem from bias, I think that means Hugh's accusation is wrong.

I really don't understand why Hugh took the real aggressive (and somewhat unprepared) tack he did with Eric. He had a small opportunity to prove to a left-leaning Twin Cities audience that he's a fair if aggressive interviewer, and he kinda peed it down his leg. Not totally, and maybe I'm falling into the trap of confusing style with substance, but a more Prager-ish approach would have been great.

Posted by: Paul from Mpls at October 9, 2006 11:47 AM

While Black may not be willing to use the L word for whatever reason, he does need to be able to distinguish between stating something that is totally false and stating something that is a gross exaggeration of the facts.

Wetterling lied when she stated that Republicans admitted to covering up for child molesters. Republicans at most admitted to not taking accusations as seriously as they should have and what Foley is accused of is not ďchild molestationĒ.

Wetterling made a gross exaggeration when she stated that Bachman wants to impose a twenty three per cent sales tax. Bachman did not reject a national sales tax, so maybe she supports it? Wetterling did not mention that the income tax would be repealed, but that is not a lie.

Posted by: Robert Brown at October 9, 2006 12:22 PM

But Wetterling and her defenders have an at least semi-reasonable response to that 'covering up' line: they're saying that the actions or non-actions some Republicans have acknowledged amount to covering something up, whether they admit to that or not.

Posted by: Paul from Mpls at October 9, 2006 12:46 PM

Oh, and the "child molestation" thing: from a victim-oriented liberal perspective, exchanging salacious e-mails with a 16-year-old could in itself fit the definition, even if the person is of the age of consent in DC and there was no physical contact. And I think they mean it.

Posted by: Paul from Mpls at October 9, 2006 12:50 PM

Ironically, that same Eric Black, was part of a set of Kright Ridder stringers, that used the Wetterling campaign; (without acknowledging
the falsity of her ad) to show the Republican's
house vulnerability

Posted by: narciso at October 9, 2006 12:52 PM

ďOh, and the "child molestation" thing: from a victim-oriented liberal perspective, exchanging salacious e-mails with a 16-year-old could in itself fit the definition, even if the person is of the age of consent in DC and there was no physical contact. And I think they mean it.Ē

I seriously doubt that a 16 year old consenting to titillating sex chat over the internet would be considered to be molested by most liberals in the sense that most of us think of child molestation. After all, they adamantly oppose restrictions on pornography over the internet and subscribe to the motion that there should be no restrictions on any kind of sexual interaction between consenting adults. The fact that the actual age of consent may be technically in dispute would not be of major concern to them.

Posted by: Robert Brown at October 9, 2006 01:35 PM

Yes, Robert; but what I think you're pointing out is one more example of the contradictions that often exist in left thinking. I don't think that means they wouldn't make the argument I'm describing. In fact I'm pretty sure I heard Wetterling make the argument on the news the other night, ringingly attacking the absurd idea that instant messages can't be molestation.

Posted by: Paul from Mpls at October 9, 2006 03:29 PM

The left will certainly make the case during the current scandal that sex chat over the internet with a minor is child molestation for political advantage. But, do you really expect speaker Pelosi to mount a jihad against homosexual men trolling for studly sixteen year olds on the internet?

Posted by: Robert Brownr at October 9, 2006 05:19 PM

heh heh heh... Robert said, "mount a jihad".

Is jihad Republican code for 16 and under...?

Posted by: Doug at October 9, 2006 08:36 PM

Doug,

you are truly a sick little fuck.

And judging by most of what you write, a liar too.

Posted by: AK at October 9, 2006 08:49 PM
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