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A Liberal Pines for Times Gone By

05/15/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

A friend emailed Sunday to remark on the irony of having Howell Raines lecture FOX News boss Roger Ailes on journalistic standards. Raines, you see, resigned as editor of The New York Times after a plagiarism scandal.

Raines' screed against Ailes and FOX News ran in the Sunday edition of The Washington Post. The greatest irony, however, wasn't that Raines dared scold Ailes, which is what most of the Internet chatter has been about. Raines, after all, was not the plagiarist himself. More salient ironies lay elsewhere.

Raines excoriated the FOX commentariat for expounding a static view of the world, rather than bearing "witness to a world of dynamic change." In Raines's view, this is apparently job 1 for journalists. FOX commentators instead exude a "preconceived universe as rigid as that of medieval morality."

The first of two ironies has to do with the view that reporters should simply root for constant change. How is that any less doctrinaire than asserting that journalists simply should remind us of timeless principles and values? Were we really all better off in the pre-Fox days, when only Raines' view prevailed?

But the prize for ironies was how Raines fails to bear witness to the dynamic change within the industry in which he once played a leading part. If he seeks evidence of a preconceived universe that is rigid in its thinking, he need look no further than his own column -- provided he could cast a critical (and non-ideological) eye upon it.

Technology has commoditized the news business. Anyone with a cell phone can now capture events in video and audio and send his witnessing round the world faster than Raines can read an article in The Nation. The gruesome killing of Neda Soltan, the young woman shot dead in an anti-government march in Tehran last year, was reported to the world not by the Reuters bureau chief by one such citizen journalist.

What does provide differentiation, what can turn a commodity into a product with competitive distinction, is opinion. For it to work, this opinion must be honest about itself, so people can go to it knowing what they are getting. This is Fox's not-so secret formula. Every educated consumer of news knows what Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck offer.

The formula has worked so well that is being copied, on the other side of the spectrum, by MSNBC. All discerning consumers know what Rachel Maddow, Dylan Radigan and Keith Olbermann are about.

I, like many Americans, have watched all six of them. They provide a valuable service in distilling the news and putting it in the context of their explicit world view.

Much worse was when we were all subjected to a monopoly on the creation and the distribution of news by a handful of men such as Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Raines himself, liberals all. We had to trust that they parked their biases aside when making editorial decisions.

And did they park them? In a revealing passage in his Post piece, Raines openly admits that he preferred journalists to mix their opinions into their reporting. He laments that FOX has intimidated other journalists "into suppressing conclusions--whether on health care reforms or other issues--they once would have stated as demonstrably proven by their reporting."

But, no, Howell, we don't want reporters to do that, unless it is clearly marked as opinion. Yes, opinion should be backed by reporting, and I think this is what we're getting now more or less. But we weren't better off when opinion was peddled as straight up reporting, and that's all we had.

Both Rather and Raines fell in part because of their liberal biases. Rather falsely reported that George W. Bush had misbehaved in the Texas National Guard, even after being warned that the sole document supporting the claim was likely fraudulent.

And Raines himself admitted that his own bias colored his handling of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal. In a May 15, 2003, New York Times article, he was asked if he had personally favored Blair because he was black:

"Does that mean I personally favored Jayson?" he added, a moment later. "Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."

It is the "not consciously" part that seals it for me. When a guilty liberal admits that even unconsciously he will be biased, I am glad that opinion is now clearly stated, as the Fox and MSNBC commentators do.