Is the solution, as Bradlee suggests it might be, just to come up with better stories? Because I don’t think that addresses the stickier problem of younger readers simply abandoning mass media in favor of opinionated niche outlets like blogs or The Daily Show or Fox News. Since transparency is one of journalism’s core values, it’s hard for me to blame those who prefer their media bias served straight up instead of hidden in a piece of cheese, like a dog’s vitamin.
Granted, readers sometimes have only the dimmest comprehension of the difference between an opinion they don’t happen to agree with and some lunatic’s unpublishable ravings. A year or so ago, the Los Angeles Times actually began running opinions on its op-ed page that dissent from the liberal party line, and this can flummox loyal subscribers. “Why does the Times provide a forum for such misguided commentary?” asked a typical clueless letter-to-the-editor about one such piece.
Even so, Bradlee’s notion that journalists should refrain from displaying any political opinion except by voting also seems unrealistic. No marching in political rallies even if you’re on an unrelated beat like sports, the venerated former Washington Post editor tells Lehrer; no accepting paid speaking engagements from any organization other than a non-profit — “Just stay out of it!” Presumably the problem is then solved.
But what about the larger issue of stories that don’t get covered at all because of the unexamined assumptions of those who decide even counts as news? “We’re in the business of telling you what happened in the last 24 hours,” Bradlee says to Lehrer, explaining why it’s not really fair to blame journalists as messengers. This week, though, the Los Angeles Times (to its credit) ran an op-ed by Frank Schaeffer suggesting that “what happened” isn’t quite so cut and dried.
Schaeffer, who has a son in the Marines and is co-author of the book AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from the Military — and How It Hurts Our Country, makes a pretty unassailable point in his Times piece. He writes that he has no beef with the reporting on Haditha, but adds,
What bothers me is that I haven’t seen one recent story dedicated to the heroism of our troops given such consistent prominence in The Times or other leading papers [as the Haditha story.] Nor have I read a front-page headline about a military medal ceremony and the story behind it, although every year I see front-page treatment in The Times of who wins the Oscars.
Apparently some awards are more equal than others — say, for being a supporting actress in a forgettable movie rather than risking one’s life to save a group of Iraqi children.
This sort of thing hasn’t gone unnoticed, and I suspect it’s a real factor in declining readership as well as the public’s mistrust of journalists. In my own little corner of the media world, one of my regular readers is an Army major and blogger who returned from Iraq a few months ago. He made a similar point to Schaeffer’s the other day. After wondering why it’s okay for American reporters to applaud at good news about safe coal miners but not at the death in wartime of Zarqawi (presumably the enemy of American journalists as well as other Americans) he noted:
The misconduct at Abu Ghraib was repugnant, but why weren’t the court martial trials of the perpetrators and their sentences covered? Why is it that everyone knows about the scandal but not the army’s response, which entailed a detailed investigation and numerous relief for cause actions and jail terms?
These are reasonable questions. For mainstream media gatekeepers to protest in response that they simply report the news really doesn’t seem like much of an answer, especially considering their long history of proudly promoting diversity both in and out of the newsroom. USA Today founder Al Neuharth, for instance, famously insisted that the paper try to feature pictures of minorities on the front page every day, above the fold. Why is that somehow a worthy and achievable goal, but finding and writing about contemporary versions of Audie Murphy is not?
— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.