Brief Thoughts on Fairness

While reading Josh Levin’s fair-minded and very enjoyable article on self-plagiarism, I followed the link to Malcolm Gladwell’s lengthy disclosure statement, which included thoughts on fairness:

The test of a newspaper article is that when a reader finishes reading it, he or she has no idea where the writer stands on the issues under discussion. That’s objectivity. With fairness, the bar is a little lower. It is perfectly permissible—even advisable—that a reader of a New Yorker article know where the writer stands on the issue under discussion. It is important only that we be fair: that we accurately and appropriately represent the ideas at hand. During the election, many of the New Yorker’s political editorials were written by Hendrik Hertzberg. No reader could have any doubts about where Hertzberg’s sympathies lay. He is a Democrat. He is friends with many Democrats. He was a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter. He consistently and powerfully argued against the Republican orthodoxy. Hertzberg could never cover the White House beat for the Washington Post. But he is a brilliant political writer for the New Yorker because he manages—even when his sympathies lie with one side of the argument—to be scrupulously fair. He does not misrepresent his intellectual opponents. He meets—and confronts—them on their own terms. That’s the truest test of a polemicist.

I found this passage interesting for a number of reasons: (1) after reading articles in various national newspapers, I often have a very clear idea of where the writer stands on the issues under discussion (and indeed, I’ve been encouraged by the migration of many veteran newspaper journalists to more opinionated outlets like Huffington Post, The New Republic, etc., though the still more common reverse-migration raises somewhat different questions); and (2) while I don’t doubt that Hendrik Hertzberg is very intelligent, it’s not always clear to me that he does a careful job of representing the arguments made by his intellectual opponents “on their own terms,” though this could very well be despite earnest and ongoing attempts to do so. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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