This week, like most weeks, “On the Media” got letters accusing us of bias against the Bush Administration. And, as also often enough takes place, the accusation triggered some heated exchanges on our Web site’s comments section. Usually, I don’t intervene, but this time I weighed in, too – responding most especially to the charge that we had failed to back up our analysis with data. Because the reply addresses an oft-stated complaint about the liberal media, I thought it might be worth sharing here:
I’ve been a critic for more than 25 years and in that time scarcely a month has passed without an outraged letter from a reader accusing me of letting my work be contaminated by opinion. So, as a perk of my job, I get to roll my eyes a lot.
Another good thing about the criticism game is that it leaves a trail. I’m a veritable Hansel and Gretel. My breadcrumbs on the Bush administration are about 350 hours of programming.
I believe what listeners should be wary of from pundits is not “bias,” but rather something else: the absence of intellectual honesty. That means approaching subjects not to explore the underlying truth, but to proffer your argument. That’s how lawyers and politicians work, but it should not be how journalism is conducted.
I was saying earlier in this thread that sometimes a question is just a question. Sometimes, of course, a question is far more than a question. Sometimes it is implicitly an assertion, or even an accusation. In that moment resides the difference between fairness and dishonesty, because we can edit out anything that doesn’t conform to the underlying premise of the question. We, needless to say, never do. On the contrary, we often find that the answer reveals layers of complexity to an issue that hadn’t even occurred to us. And sometimes we learn that our premise itself is wrong.
If those exchanges help flesh out a subject, we leave them intact and take our lumps. If they merely expose an interview subject to needless negativity, the listener never hears either question or answer.
Obviously, we could all pretend that we never draw conclusions (that the White House lies compulsively, for instance), but what would that accomplish? It’s a charade, and by definition dishonest in itself. As Brooke likes to say, “We own our opinions,” and use that — versus some phony claim of “objectivity” — to establish the trust of our audience.