BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone with this clip of Stephen Colbert from last week’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.
MAN: Chuck! Let’s hear about the first honoree!
STEPHEN COLBERT: Our first Fear Medal goes to those news organizations who barred their employees from attending Jon’s rally because they thought it might make them look biased: ABC, CBS, the AP, The New York Times, and especially National Public Radio. Congratulations. Oh, no! Oh no, not NPR! If their employees attend Jon’s rally, someone might think that NPR is liberal!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For many media outlets, the appearance of bias is no joke. That’s why MSNBC just suspended primetime host Keith Olbermann who, Politico reported, made campaign contributions to three Democrats this fall. But we already knew what he thought. Why suspend him? Because mainstream news outlets often profess to have no opinion, and that’s why so many reporters couldn't join in the rally. But, if showing up at the rally means you have an opinion, and let's assume it does, does that mean you can't be a good reporter? We know true objectivity is impossible. We use unconscious biases to filter billions of bits of sensory information every day just to function. Reporters, sorting through data, have to do the same thing. So is this impartiality obsession just about appearance, and do we need to keep up that appearance to retain the trust of the news consumer? In the run-up to the 2004 election, I prodded several journalists for their views on objectivity, comma, appearance of, starting with Michael Skoler, who was then Minnesota Public Radio’s managing director for news.
MICHAEL SKOLER: We restrict our reporters’ political activity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Skoler says the policy applies to everyone from political correspondents to arts reporters.
MICHAEL SKOLER: So that means you shouldn't register as a member of a political party, you shouldn't participate in a Minnesota caucus, you shouldn't attend rallies or show any other public support for a party or a political cause.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: With the exception of restricting party affiliation, which is unusual, his is the policy that prevails in most newsrooms. But just because you don't trumpet your beliefs doesn't mean you don't have them.
MICHAEL KINSLEY: This notion that journalists ought to be sort of political, ideological eunuchs who don't have any political views is just hopeless.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Kinsley is a longtime editor and columnist, now for Politico.
MICHAEL KINSLEY: The question isn't whether they hold opinions but whether they suppress those opinions to the extent they can when they do their work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When Kinsley was the editor of Slate, he disclosed who he was voting for and invited his reporters and editors to do the same. Mostly, they did. He admits it was less risky for Slate than for other news outlets because Slate is a journal of commentary and analysis. But –
MICHAEL KINSLEY: I think newspapers ought to do it precisely because it’s a fiction to suppose that reporters don't have political views, and it would be healthier and more honest if they simply said what they were.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Len Downie, who was then editor of The Washington Post, now retired, is the poster child for the opposing view, the one that says reporters should keep mum. But he takes it even further. When executive editor Ben Bradley handed him the reins more than two decades ago, he stopped voting.
LEN DOWNIE: Unlike the rest of our staff, I had the last word as to whether or not the paper was being fair in its reporting on these issues, and I didn't want to take a position even in my own mind on them. I wanted to maintain a completely open mind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, despite all the information that flows through your desk and all you know about the political environment of Washington, DC, you are able to not make up your mind?
LEN DOWNIE: Yes, actually it comes fairly easily to me. I guess it’s the nature of my personality to see all sides of most issues. In fact, I'm rather surprised at people that are so definite about things.
MICHAEL KINSLEY: Does he say he can bend forks with his mind? You know, some people can do remarkable things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Kinsley.
MICHAEL KINSLEY: I mean Len Downie, I admire. But I'm not sure that I would admire him as much if I thought that he was really able to go blank in his mind as easily as he claims to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The argument against laying your cards on the table, assuming you have any, is twofold. The first says that if reporters state their conflict of interest, editors would have to bar them from covering certain stories because the public wouldn't trust them to be fair, even if they were. It's about appearances, and we’ll return to that one. But there’s a second, more intriguing argument - the one that says taking a political stance makes your views stronger. Public Radio International’s Michael Skoler:
MICHAEL SKOLER: When you kind of put a sign up or put your money where your mouth is, you move from observing to acting. And I think that changes you internally. I mean, you can even see it when people purchase a car. You know, how many friends have you had where they finally - they struggle with what car to purchase, and when they finally purchase it, they try to convince all their friends how brilliant their decision was. That, you know, kind of putting a stake in the ground makes you vested.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, has spent decades on difficult beats and managed not to get vested in his stories, even when reporting from the most polarized place on the planet.
ETHAN BRONNER: I spent many years in the Middle East, and I have, you know, views on what should happen or what could have happened or what has happened, but I also think that the most important view I have is, is to keep my mind open to the idea that my own view may be wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He might say bending forks with your mind is part of the job.
ETHAN BRONNER: I don't think it's a question of being more honest to come forward and say this is what I think, because I think that once you announce your view, you persuade yourself in addition to others, whereas if you force yourself not to come to a conclusion about a difficult question and to leave yourself open, you will stay more open.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Kinsley concedes that the best argument for keeping your views to yourself is -
MICHAEL KINSLEY: - that there is a feedback loop. Yes, that's a clever argument, and I wouldn't say it's worthless. The argument that I do think is worthless is the argument that you shouldn't do it because of the appearances. And I feel pretty strongly that the job of journalism is to make appearances accord with reality, not to make reality accord with appearances.
JEREMY O’GRADY: In the British case, there is that tradition of being much more overtly adversarial about things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeremy O’Grady is the editor-in-chief of The Week, in London.
JEREMY O’GRADY: There is a very traditional ding-dong between left-leaning and right-leaning papers, which tends to up the ante quite a lot. They do look at each other a lot of the time and take account of their arguments and throw them back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Bronner says that we should not seek a cure for what ails the American media in the European press.
ETHAN BRONNER: I think that will be a big mistake. The editor of Le Monde, for example, will, on a given day, gather his editors around him and say, okay, let's have a main editorial saying that the Iraq war is wrong. Let's get a feature out of Baghdad, showing what's problematic about it, and I want a front-page story that does something else, similar to that, whereas it seems to me that we come to work every day saying, what's it going to be like today? What elements, what interstices of truth are we going to discover today? And I don't mean this in a naive fashion. I think that we consciously try to keep our perspective on whether it's a good or a bad thing at bay in order to report it as best we can.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But American reporters are people too. They tend to be biased in favor of freedom and democracy. They couldn't get a decent job if they took what could be seen in another nation as a balanced position on socialism, say, or Osama bin Laden. And our values change with the times. What might have passed for balanced coverage of slavery 200 years ago would read like lunacy today. The fact that no one has a corner on the truth could be used to back Kinsley's argument.
MICHAEL KINSLEY: You start with the situation of reporters trying to do their best to be objective, but having views because they're intelligent human beings. Why don't we just find out what their beliefs are, let the readers know, and let everybody go about their business?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the slipperiness of truth also makes Len Downie’s case.
LEN DOWNIE: So many of the most important public issues do not have a clear-cut right and wrong, and in fact the public divides evenly over them. And if one of our journalists covering that issue were to have a strong conviction on one side or the other, it would be impossible for them to cover that story fairly. It is very difficult for non-journalists to understand how so many journalists, so many people who choose this profession, and particularly choose to work with the ethics of The Washington Post, have chosen almost to be monks, if you will - to be observers, not participants, but observers. That's what we do here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But observing inevitably leads to a viewpoint based on what is observed. It’s a limited viewpoint, to be sure. The only way to broaden it is to consume the work of reliable witnesses beyond your range of vision, witnesses like journalists. But many people think they already know who and what NPR or The New York Times or MSNBC or FOX are. They may be wrong, but it doesn't matter. Ultimately, it’s the reporting that matters, reporting that is undistorted by attempts to appear objective, reporting that calls a lie a lie right after the lie, not in a box labeled “analysis,” reporting that doesn't distort truth by treating unequal arguments equally. We started with a quote from Colbert. Let's end with an observation he made some years back, that sometimes even reality has a bias.