Sunday, March 30, 2003

Few events stir partisan passions like a war, and it shouldn't be surprising that press coverage of the war in Iraq tends to reflect that heightened partisanship. As I've pointed out before, commentators on press bias tend to fall into two categories: those who expect journalists to serve their audiences, and those who expect journalists to serve "journalistic ideals"--that is, the commentator's personal prejudices. Needless to say, I fall into the former group. But the latter point of view, with its obvious attractions, has adherents across the political spectrum.

Consider, for example, the contrast between the two main Oxblog contributors. Josh Chafetz defends Al Jazeera television, despite his distaste for their bias: "I don't like their slant, either. But Al Jazeera is an independent media outlet, and most emphatically not a propaganda tool." His colleague David Adesnik, in contrast, questions the journalistic legitimacy of journalists at a Bush-Blair joint press conference who asked "confrontational and predictable" questions: "this sort of desperate attempt to find bad news only exhausts the press' credibility."

Now, press conferences are political theater, and in different cultures, that theater takes different forms. The British seem to enjoy the Kung Fu movie style, with richly choreographed shows of sparring skill between journalists and politicians. Americans, on the other hand, prefer costume drama, with somber reporters getting sober answers to their solemn questions from grave, pensive leaders. Neither form is inherently better than the other; both entertain their respective publics, reassuring them that their leaders exhibit the attributes demanded of them--gravitas for an Amerian president, wit for a British prime minister.

In recent war-related press conferences, however, some American reporters have been experimenting with the style of their British peers--presumably hoping to escape the subordinate role assigned them in American press conferences, and to avoid being upstaged by the Brits. Adesnik sees this drift towards the British style as anti-Bush bias, tempting journalists to "grill the President as if he were the defendent [sic] in a murder trial."

Meanwhile, Slate's Meghan O'Rourke suggests that the "standards of taste and sensitivity" that led American television networks to avoid airing footage of US POWs "look less like editorial wisdom and more like carrying water for the Bush administration." Now, this is probably the first time that the Fox network has been accused of lacking the guts to show shocking and disgusting images on television. One has to assume, then, that if even they won't touch the material, it's because their audience has made their opposition to airing the POW footage crystal clear.

It's surely no coincidence, though, that where Chafetz sees a rudely anti-Bush press corps, O'Rourke sees a fawningly pro-Bush one. Chafetz supports the war, and is inclined to view expressions of hostility to it as motivated by partisanship. O'Rourke doesn't explicitly state her view of the war, but it's not hard to discern; she credits the BBC for presenting "a more balanced and detailed picture," by showing, for instance, "images of Iraqi civilians in hospital beds." (The concern that the BBC might thus have been carrying water for a different president--the one most likely controlling the hospital treating those civilians--doesn't seem to trouble her.)

What Chafetz and O'Rourke share, and Adesnik rejects, is the view that the journalist's duty is not to his or her public, but rather to some supposedly objective standard of journalistic practice. It's an appealing principle, and it's an appropriate guide for the most basic journalistic task--that of distinguishing truth from falsehoods, and avoiding reporting the latter. When applied to broader editorial decisions, however, it's not only unhelpful; it can actually contribute to the slanting of news, by providing reporters and editors with an excuse for adhering to a politicized "objective "standard" that in truth reflects their own preferences.

I don't deny that it's tempting to dismiss Al Jazeera (or, for that matter, Fox News) as a propaganda organ, if one doesn't like its editorial stance--just as it's easy to criticize American questioners at press conferences for being either scandalously disrespectful or shamefully obsequious (depending on one's view of the politician being questioned). And Al Jazeera's recent status as virtually the only available independent news source in the Arabic-speaking world may have allowed it an unusual amount of leeway to bias its news without adverse consequences.

But today, as Mamoun Fandy points out in the Washington Post, there are nearly a dozen Al Jezeera-wannabes in the region, and any of them--even Al Jazeera--risks losing credibility with its viewers by misleading them, just as state-run news services in the Arab world have done in the past. At the level of basic accuracy, therefore, they have a clear incentive to improve the factual accuracy of their reporting, so as to avoid disillusioning--and thus losing--their audience.

On the other hand, to the extent that their editorial decisions cater to their audience's persistent tastes and interests, they can hardly be faulted for "propagandizing". Propagandists impose their views on their audiences, rather than vice versa.

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