MIKE PESCA: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Mike Pesca in for Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week newspapers across the country reported that a federal judge had condemned the federal death penalty. Two weeks ago the Supreme Court prohibited executions of the mentally retarded. Writing in Slate this week Will Saletan says such stories are tailor made for editorial boards and reporters already opposed to the death penalty, but he says America's major newspapers sometimes shrink from making their case directly. Instead, he says, they prefer to chip away at the death penalty story by story.
WILL SALETAN: There's no issue on which journalists as a whole are more opposed in their general line of thinking to the public than the death penalty. The death penalty is an issue where the public by roughly 3 to 1 favors it, and journalists, according to surveys by about 8 or 9 to 1 oppose it. And so what you find is a noticeable, from the point of view of the reader, bias in the reporting and editorializing about the issue, and that's what's come across this week.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example.
WILL SALETAN:Well there was a story in the New York Times this past Sunday about Japanese executions and how cruel it is that Japan doesn't tell anybody when they're executing prisoners. A year ago there were articles in the New York Times about how cruel it was of the United States government to allow closed circuit TV viewing of the Timothy McVeigh execution, and there has been similar editorial criticism just about every time there has been an open execution in the United States where a lot of people get to see it. So-- my conclusion from seeing the same newspapers complain both ways is that they're not really particularly upset that the execution is secret or that the execution is public. What they're upset about is that the executions are happening at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:If you think that many of the major newspapers in this country are fundamentally opposed to the death penalty and yet they only argue on the margins rather than argue the fundamental question, why do you think that is? Why do you think they hang back from simply saying the death penalty is wrong?
WILL SALETAN: Well I'd say there are probably 3 reasons, each of which in its own way is understandable. One is that sheer variety -you know the, the editorial writer gets tired of saying over and over again stop the killing - and so he or she picks up on whatever is the, the hot story of the moment, and that's the second reason -- as an editorial writer as if you were a reporter you have an obligation to write about what's in the news, and what's in the news at any one time may be the inhumanity of the method of execution like the electric chair or it might be the retarded or it might be young people. And the third thing is politics. Editorial writers, yeah, they want to say what's on their mind but they also want to persuade the reader, and so the editorial writer asks him or herself what can I say about a particular class of people who are executed that might persuade people who favor the death penalty in general to oppose it in this case -- to favor some kind of law to narrow the scope of the death penalty?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you automatically think that that's sort of a smokescreen for writing about the death penalty in general?
WILL SALETAN:Well, when over time the same editorial page writes: we shouldn't execute the retarded, we shouldn't execute the young, we shouldn't execute the old -- when every single one of those editorials that purports to be about a particular aspect of the death penalty ends up together adding up to an overall position that nobody should be executed because everybody is covered by the exceptions -- then I feel as though there's a sense of dishonesty about the-- the process of editorializing as there is in the, in the news coverage in those -many of those same newspapers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But Will, you're not advocating that they don't write about excessive secrecy in Japan or the consequences of executing a minor or, or somebody with severe mental disability. You're not saying that they shouldn't write about those things, are you?
WILL SALETAN: No, I -- of course reporters should write about everything newsworthy. But they should also bear in mind the things that they may not be writing about. For example, reporters and editors being generally on the liberal side of the death penalty question, are very attentive to what a lousy life a lot of these people who end up on death row have had, and I'm not arguing that question one way or another. Everybody deserves to some extent to be humanized in news coverage. But sometimes I think we forget to humanize the victims because they're not there for us to interview, and because we're trying to stop the execution that's in front of us. We can't stop the murder that this person perpetrated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:There were those in the 30s who identified Adolf Hitler as a danger to the world and said so very nakedly and were punished for it. Later, of course, they were regarded as extremely prescient. There are issues in this country -- the death penalty being one -- abortion being another --where opponents and advocates feel so strongly in their position as an absolute that they feel no compunction arguing nakedly on, on those terms. Do you think there's no place for proselytizing in a paper, even if you think that there's a fundamental injustice going on?
WILL SALETAN: It's an interesting question whether over time we look back and say you know -- that issue wasn't a two-sided issue. One side was clearly right and one side was clearly wrong. And a very good example of that is the civil rights movement. We might look back and say not every story had to be sort of balanced between the segregationists and the, and the desegregationists. It's very hard, though, when you live in that era to know whi--which those questions are. I think it's a good rule to try to cover stories in the most balanced way and to try to get inside the minds of people on both sides, because we have to be humble and we just don't know whether we will look back and say we were right to write the stories about the death penalty in a one-sided way or we were unfair and biased, and it was a story with two sides.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Will Saletan, thank you very much.
WILL SALETAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: William Saletan is chief political correspondent for Slate.com. [MUSIC]
"Scarlatti's Keyboard Sonata in D minor K. 213"
by Bela Fleck