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Robert Weller

Robert Weller

Posted: October 18, 2010 11:42 AM

There may be no better time to look behind the scenes at American journalism. Many believe writers, reporters and editors write stories in such a way as to further their own political views.

That certainly happens, even in the mainstream media. Witness Fox News.

Some go to absurd lengths to try to counter common beliefs. National Public Radio has told its staff, everyone from janitors to reporters, not to attend the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally in Washington.

NPR managers, and they are not the first, say they fear that if someone sees one of their staff at such a rally they will assume NPR supports the anti-war, anti-Tea Party views of the two Comedy Central stars.

Is that really a major source of objectivity problems in the media? Is there any such thing as objectivity?

I think the answers are no and no. Some reporters would betray their mother for a good story, and couldn't care less if it goes against their political views.

To avoid being blown off when criticizing the media it is necessary to understand what is really going on. The same applies to the Tea Party, though I personally have no idea.

The first and most important decision on a story is the decision to do it. Once that choice is made any arguments to the contrary should be cast aside or at least minimized.

Editors often say "we need a story." But do we need a specific or any old story? Often it is the latter.

Another defense is that everyone else is doing it. "We have to do a story." We don't have to do anything.

It used to be possible, like a character in "Scoop," for a heavyweight writer to stop a story in its tracks by ignoring it or panning it in a story.

For writers hoping to climb the ladder giving management what it asks is often the best way. And it will impress both the editor and the publisher. Eddie Haskell of "Leave It To Beaver" might have tried to butter up the editor by making him/her think it was his/her idea.

Occasionally, during a busy political season it can be a good thing to look for things others don't have. Still, the idea of distinctive reporting can become an obsession.

Most of the media is convinced, with nary a doubt, that the Democrats will be crushed next month at the polls. It is sometimes mentioned that the polls might be off because few polls can or do attempt to reach people who use mobile phones exclusively. The media's love for a certain "narrative" such as Republicans are energized could become self-fulfilling by keeping Democrats at home.

Can polls be completely believed. I'll venture that if H.L. Mencken were alive today he would write "Treatise on the Polls." For those unfamiliar with him his "Treatise on the Gods" was very skeptical, suggesting it all was slight of hand.

Watching the profession from inside for 40 years I have seen evolution, despite Christine O'Donnell. Managers/editors, or gatekeepers as I like to call them, decide, for example that we should get "vox pop," meaning quotes from "real people." So you walk up to a stranger and ask questions I would reply with something like "bugger off." There is no way to know whether the person even gives a real name.

The last thing you would want to do is talk with someone you know, and whose views you know.

Then, after a few examples of reporters famously making up stories, everyone had to make sure they could prove their source was real. If anything was said today about the Manson murders it would be de rigeur to get a quote from Charley or his lawyer to give him a chance to deny everything. Happily, one call suffices to insert the infamous "did not return a call seeking comment."

With war a constant these days language tricks help avoid making it clear the writer has no idea what is going on. Call an offensive a surge. It is hard to avoid laughing when the word surge turns up in a story about a Taliban "offensive."

"Militant" almost takes the cake. When a drone kills people and no one really knows who they were, at least not at first, call them militants. It does sort of suggest they deserved being killed but doesn't call them insurgents/fighters/guerrillas outright.

It probably would work to just say "nine people were killed when a Predator drone hit a house in North Waziristan." Sadly, even after the Vietnam experience, the military has broken its promise to avoid body counts.

The mother of all language tricks must be "asymetric" wars. It is a different way to talk about guerrilla wars, or wars where the enemy won't walk up the forest road wearing Red Coats.

There is hope. Turn to the naughty Internet. Certainly there is considerable propaganda, nonsense and just plain laws. Yet there are many sources so you can look around, most of the time, and make up your own mind.

It is necessary to avoid Twitter deaths, soft and hard porn, and the worst of all, Internet Memes. But devices like Google Alerts can keep you up to date on issues of interest.

Perhaps some day there will be a widget or an app that uses algorithms to make certain the news you receive is objective.

Or you can turn to people who use confrontation to try to ferret out that the truth. The Los Angeles Times carried a column this week asking the question of whether 9/11 could have been avoided if Wikileaks had been around and someone leak all the information the government's "intelligence" services had. Better than second guessing?

 
 
 

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