THE BLOG
03/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cable News: The Triumph of Neutrality

I have written before that "objectivity" was the curse of twentieth century journalism. "Objectivity" is unrealizable, because it depends upon the relationship between writer and reader, news presenter and TV viewer. In both cases, "objectivity" is possible only when the writer or presenter share the same point of view as his audience. FoxNews, which makes no real attempt at "objectivity" flourishes, while both CNN and MSNBC flounder as they attempt it.

I have recently come upon a better word to describe the result of the CNN and MSNBC attempts to be "objective." What they have done, is to become "neutral." I found the word in Flat Earth News, a screed by Nick Davies subtitled "Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media."

Davies writes that "Neutrality requires a journalist to become invisible, to refrain deliberately...from expressing the judgments which are essential for journalism. Neutrality requires the packaging of conflicting claims, which is precisely the opposite of truth telling." This brings us back to the standard practice of twenty-four hour cable news, that is, seating an anchor between two professional propagandists, each presenting his side of a special interest issue, while the anchor sits passively by, and permits each of them to present his own distortion of the facts.

Last Thursday, I watched Mike Barnicle, ordinarily a very good journalist, interviewing Governor Tim Pawlenty Minnesota. Mike asked, very apologetically, why some people claimed it was hypocritical for any governor who, like Pawlenty, had battled the Obama stimulus bill to accept money that the bill provided to his state. Pawlenty's reply sounded as if it had been crafted by Karl Rove: he suggested that it was no more hypocritical for him to take the money than it was for a governor who had opposed the Bush tax cut to permit the citizens of his state to take the tax cut. Pawlenty did not point out that no governor has the power to prevent citizens from accepting a federal tax cut. Mike did not point that out.

Pawlenty also suggested that governors who fought the "No Child Left Behind Act," should not have the federal funds that the act provided to pay for the new program, even though the expense of the new program was mandatory. Those governors, were forced to perform services forced upon them by Congress. Most governors object strongly to unfunded federal mandates, and I'm sure we will hear Pawlenty scream when President Obama mandates that Minnesota provide a service and then doesn't pay for it. In short, Pawlenty provided two specious, even absurd, arguments, and Barnicle let him get away with it.

Last Wednesday, cnn.com, presented "The Business of Green", a specially sponsored IBM segment, which offered an evaluation of Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator. The segment's producer admits that Jackson "has only been on the job for a month, so there's not a track record to measure yet." Therefore, instead of asking his own correspondents to evaluate her, he turns to Peter Lehner, Executive Director of the National Resources Defense Council and William Kovacs, vice president for the Environment, Technology & Regulatory Affairs Division at the US Chamber of Commerce, for their views on her abilities.

CNN writes that since "The Chamber of Commerce and NRDC have opposing views on the role of the EPA...their perspectives give a counterbalance to what Administrator Jackson is putting forth." That's a pretty good definition of the neutrality that Davies deplores. In Lehner's opinion, Jackson "brings a lot of energy" to the role. Kovacs opines that the Chamber hopes, Jackson is taking a practical rather than an ideological approach, because "an ideological approach actually deviates from reality and causes harm."

Lehner was looking at his upside, more, better, regulation, Kovacs was concerned about his downside, more, worse, regulation. Lehner's wants Jackson to remedy President Bush's inaction on environmental issues; Kovacs doesn't want more regulation, more enforcement, that might cost his membership more money. Equal opportunity for propagandists brings us no nearer to the facts than reading tea leaves.

If CNN really wanted the story, instead of using neutrals, it would have assigned an EPA correspondent to cover it, ask questions about it and return with an on-air report. By doing that, CNN would then have committed journalism -- that is, provided its viewers with a clear, unbiased portrait of a government official heading an extremely important agency -- not a portrait penned by propagandists, but a hard news story provided by professionals. The use of "neutrals" is a cheap and lazy way of filling air time, which is why we see so much of it on the cable news networks.

(I later called my EPA sources, and they said that, so far, the reviews on her are mixed -- that despite her claim that she will encourage "scientists", her record in New Jersey was anti-scientist. Others said she was extremely effective, an assessment proven when NJ Governor Corzine named her his chief of staff.)

Flat Earth News is scheduled to be published in the US this spring. I disagree with some of what Davies writes, but I will be eternally grateful to him for "neutral."