Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Eye on CBS: CBS did the right thing by dismissing four employees, especially with the firing of producer Mary Mapes, in the wake of Rathergate. While some conservatives are calling for more blood, such as the heads of Dan Rather and Andrew Heyward, I'll leave that as a personnel decision best handled internally by CBS. In truth, even a wholesale firing of everyone involved wouldn't fix the massive credibility gap at CBS. CBS can only rebuild its credibility slowly by consistently delivering quality news broadcasts -- something I've never really found at that network.

I haven't read the whole report, but from what I've seen in it and elsewhere, the investigation doesn't take a stand as to whether the documents were really fake. I think it's plainly evident that the memos were forged, and news agencies should be tirelessly investigating who fabricated the documents and why.

The other issue glossed over is the accusation of political bias on the part of CBS. As a journalist, I have had to defend my profession from consistent charges of liberal bias. I am not a liberal. While some of my colleagues in journalism are quite liberal, others are quite conservative. But most everyone that I know in this profession works at length to remain objective and fair in order to report the news accurately. We don't have a perfect track record, but we still believe this can be done.

However, I have never had so much trouble defending the media from the allegation of bias as during this past election. The news coverage simply sucked. And sadly that only further polarized people politically, as now partisans simply don't trust certain news sources.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to quantify which way the bias is leaning throughout all of the news media. Conservatives daily find examples of articles with a liberal bias. Liberals consistently find examples of articles with a conservative bias. And they're both right. But this anecdotal data doesn't reflect the media as a whole. Such evidence mostly depends on the point of view of the person making the accusation.

While I don't buy the Rush Limbaugh argument that the media is part of some grand conspiracy to get Democrats elected (a conspiracy that would be failing miserably), I do believe that the news media, collectively, has far more liberals doing the reporting than moderates or conservatives. And that skews the finished product. While journalists like Mary Mapes may honestly believe that they were reporting objectively, their own biases were getting the better of them. And because they were surrounded by others who shared their worldview, nobody realized what was wrong.

So when the reporters saw the damaging evidence against the president, they didn't question it because it fit perfectly in their liberal belief that Bush is a scumbag. The fact that this might not be true didn't cross their minds. What also didn't seem to matter was that, even if the story were true, it was not the least bit important.

While the CBS scandal was the biggest incident, this bias seemed to play out across the news media. Anytime questions surrounding Bush's National Guard service were raised, it was treated as a scandal by the national media. Nevermind that Bush hardly ever mentions is service in the Guard. Nevermind that the issue has been comprehensively vetted for more than a decade. And nevermind that we had four years of his record as president to analyze instead. The National Guard stories were automatically news.

On the other hand, the news media at first avoided the Swift Boat Veteran accusations like the plague. John Kerry made his Vietnam service central to his candidacy, choosing to downplay his 20 years in the Senate. Many Vietnam veterans, who were rightly angry at Sen. Kerry considering all his actions as a Vietnam War protester, decided to challenge the candidate's Vietnam image. Instead of covering the issues raised, the media ran in depth pieces analyzing how some of the people making the accusations were actually Republicans. Such investigations were not held for the National Guard stories, even though Bush's enemies were primarily Democrats. But that shouldn't matter. When someone attacks a candidate, it's not news that they belong to the opposing party. In fact, that should be assumed from the getgo.

Taken individually, both news agendas are defensible. There's nothing wrong with reporters digging up every bit of information about President Bush's service record. The public can decide what's important and what's not. Conversely, there's nothing wrong with investigating the political agenda of a group weighing in on a presidential campaign and questioning the veracity of their arguments. If they entered the fray, they're fair game. But the numerous instances of reporters jumping to the defense of Kerry and against Bush supports the idea that they are living in an echo chamber. They need to go outside more often to find out what's important to people beyond the guy in the next cubicle.

All that being said, it seems some people are a bit too allergic to possible political biases from news agencies. It's true, even the ombudsman for The New York Times, "an admitted Democrat", concedes that the Paper of Record is biased. But it doesn't matter that The New York Times is dominated by liberals. That paper still does excellent reporting, and does a great job covering a variety of issues. Even if the reporting tends to be one sided, it covers that one side extremely well.

Conservatives shouldn't dismiss any criticism from The New York Times by saying, "Oh, that paper has a liberal bias." That would be like President Bush dismissing critiques from Senator Kerry during the debates by saying, "Oh, my opponent just doesn't like me." If the paper makes bad arguments, tell us why.

The same is true for some liberals and their views of Fox News and The Washington Times. Some lefties don't read those resources, and if anybody presents an article from either of them, that person is often greeted with a rolling of the eyes and the waving of the hand.

Nobody should summarily dismiss important news sources. If you get all your news from one source, you're limiting yourself. Read a variety of newspapers and listen to a variety of opinion makers. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and liberals like Jon Stewart both make intelligent arguments from time to time. We should listen to them to find out which arguments we agree with and which ones we can laugh at.


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