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'Objectivity' RIP | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

'Objectivity' RIP

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Something quite odd is going on with media coverage of this war. Critics on all sides of the political equation have historically attacked the media for bias in one direction or another, but rarely were willing to admit that they were doing so on behalf of biases of their own. Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes did just that, however, in a recent cover story celebrating top journalists' willingness to throw the old objectivity rulebook out the window as a result of the attacks of September 11.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Barnes does not have all his facts straight. He seems to think that the media have reached a new low in the eyes of the public. In fact, a recent study by the Pew Research Center demonstrates that just the opposite is true; 77 percent of those surveyed rate the media's coverage as excellent or good. Barnes also calls Geraldo Rivera a "liberal media icon" when, in fact, he is a "liberal media" joke.

Nevertheless, Barnes is quite understandably excited about Dan Rather's post-9/11 appearance on the David Letterman show, when the anchor declared: "Wherever [the President] wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call." Given that Presidents routinely lie about matters of war and peace, Rather is volunteering here to be a mindless propagandist rather than a thinking journalist. Rather also explained to Letterman that the terrorists attacked us because they're evil, and because they're jealous of us. Such anti-intellectual pronouncements may warm the cockles of right-wing hearts, but they signal the death of a journalist's commitment to the ideal of objectivity.

A second source of Barnes's glee is no less instructive. During a recent class at the Columbia Journalism School, ABC News president David Westin was asked whether he considered the Pentagon to be a legitimate target for attack by America's enemies. Westin replied, "I actually don't have an opinion on that...as a journalist I feel strongly that's something I should not be taking a position on." As a lesson in the pretense of objectivity, Westin was right on point, if not exactly credible. No further questions on this topic were asked.

Thanks to a C-SPAN broadcast, however, Westin soon found himself chewed up and spat out by the nation's vast, right-wing media food chain. Brent Baker of the Scaife-funded Media Research Center sent it out on a daily "CyberAlert." There, it was picked up by Rupert Murdoch-funded Fox News Channel anchor Brit Hume, then rereported by the Murdoch-funded New York Post and later trumped by Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh, who spent about an hour on it on his radio show. While Limbaugh was still on the air, Baker received a call and an e-mail from Westin containing what Barnes accurately terms Westin's "total capitulation." "I was wrong," he wrote. "Under any interpretation, the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification."

This is silly. There are millions of people all over the world whose interpretations of the attack lead them to believe it was justified, however wrong they may be. Even so, the question is a no-brainer. Of course the Pentagon is a legitimate target for an attack for those at war against us. Hello? War is the Pentagon's entire reason for being. It's where we plan our wars and figure out how to carry them out. By what conceivable definition of war could the Pentagon be excluded as a potential target? The shock of that aspect of the attack was that we didn't know we were in a war with these people in the first place. Now we do.

What's most interesting about Westin's answer was his willingness to drop any pretext of objectivity upon having his patriotism questioned and offer an apology no less indefensible than Rather's pathetic pandering. Following Bill Maher's craven apology for speaking his mind on Politically Incorrect, the rest of the media's message to the patriotic correctness police appears to be, "ain't nobody here but us chickens." Don't forget that these are not nobodies or typical Murdoch mouthpieces. They are the nation's best-known anchor and the president of one of its top network news divisions. They make the rules.

Barnes credits some of the change in atmosphere to the emergence of right-wing "media critics, watchdog groups, press websites, and astute journalistic observers like Andrew Sullivan." And he may be right: As Joseph McCarthy demonstrated, using terms like "fifth columnist" to smear reporting with which one disagrees may not be pretty, but it is effective.

Most infuriating about the right's capture of the media since the war is the fact that, according to the Pew study, nearly three-quarters of the respondents say they want news that includes the views of America's enemies, and just over half say reporters should dig hard for information rather than trust official sources. So just why are the media wimping out exactly when tough, critical reporting is not only crucial for the functioning of democracy but is also being demanded by their audience?

Conservatives will never stop whining, but it is hard to remember a time when they were riding any higher in this country. Liberalism is in disarray, as evidenced by the New York City mayor's race, and the mainstream media are indecently obsequious to the right's worldview. Al Hunt, the Wall Street Journal's token moderate, recently observed that Bush's selection as President, however shamefully executed, has turned out to be a lucky break for the nation. Why? Because liberals are more patriotic than conservatives and far more civilized in their opposition. The far right--including, no doubt, the folks on the other side of the page from Hunt--would have been merciless in their attempt to exploit September 11 as a stick with which to beat Gore, just as they used Kosovo to pummel Clinton. Hunt reminds us that House Republicans refused to pass a resolution supporting the troops there, even after the fighting began. Tom DeLay and Don Nickles both suggested that the atrocities in Kosovo were more Clinton's fault than Milosevic's. In other words, conservative hysteria has made America all-but ungovernable for anyone but conservatives.

Objectively speaking, you'd think there might be a story in there somewhere...

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