Thursday, March 04, 2004

Ombudsmanship Happens 

Atrios has a lenthy exchange between activist Larry Kramer and New York Times editor Bill Keller up right now that highlights the major problems with bias (both real and perceived) in major news outlets, attempts to correct said bias, and the position of the ombusman as middle-man between reader and medium.

Kramer begins with a well-reasoned argument that the recent firing of a stringer with an activist past was politically motivated, or at least hard to explain considering the many real conflicts of interest found among Times writers of higher status. Keller responds with a justification that, while not entirely satisfying, at least makes sense: there are many, many stringers, and making sure everything they contribute to is free of bias would be a collosal undertaking, so it's easier just to fire the ones with an easily-documented history of public advocacy for a political cause. With the high-profile writers, of which there are many fewer, their articles will get more prominent placement and can thus be afforded the luxury of more careful examination before publication. Keller doesn't mention it, but there is probably the idea floating about that people who write about, say, the CDC, and have personal experience with the workings of the CDC, might be able to add more in-depth analysis than an outsider.

This isn't a very good policy, but it's consistent and falls well within the standards of ethics most major news outlets run with.

Kramer responds with a nonsequiter. Instead of arguing the merits of the policy itself, he holds up an example of it and calls it a conflict of interest. The Chief Medical Correspondant worked for the CDC. The Times, according to Kramer, has been soft on criticizing the CDC.

Now, Kramer doesn't actually give them an example of their inconsistency -- this is an example of bias at the Times in a sense, but one that is written into the operating rules of the paper itself. If that is their policy, there is no reason to violate it because someone doesn't like it, unless they present actual proof that the policy is damaging, which Kramer doesn't.

The problem is, Kramer's original bias-complaint has been invalidated. The firing of the stringer doesn't seem to be politically motivated, as the Times doesn't seem (these days) to have an anti-ACT UP agenda. It was an example of problematic-but-justifiable ethics policy, a policy which gets to the heart of the real biases at the Times.

It is a bias towards institutions, corporations, and the upper-middle-class and rich. This is because it is a paper marketed to those people, written by those people, edited by those people, for those people.

The Times is still my paper of choice, on the internet especially, because it is the creator of Common Knowledge and the Accepted Truth of issues. It's important to know what the Official Story is before you go off and criticize or find a contrary position. If you read it with a critical eye, it is a fine news source. And if you filter it with news and analysis from sources with a specific, stated agenda (blogs, political magazines, columnists, etc.) one can stay pretty well informed as to what's going on in the world.
Now -- what I've just done there is the sort of a "public editor" at a major newspaper should do. I'm not saying I did it very well, but I did it with more objectivity and less arrogance than the Times' own hack, Daniel Okrent, who has really, really got to go. The man is never helpful, because he focuses (very purposefully) on the unimportant things. The minor nitpicks are his speciality, because, as an insider and a reporter, he doesn't understand that The Times has an institutional bias, and that that is different from stone-cold objectivity.

Gawker points us towards this quote from NPR's ombudsman, which illustrates precisely why "public editors" are unhelpful to the actual public: "The credibility of the complaint is inversely proportional to the volume of e-mail that is generated on that subject."

In other words, when Atrios sends 200 readers to a Times article with a misrepresentation of a political issue, it won't get a personal response from Okrent's assistant. When one extremely high-profile political activist writes an angry email to the publisher, he gets a personal response from the Editor-in-Chief.

(the real conflict here is over the definition of "objectivity." Perhaps the country would be better off with the British system of wearing a specific political ideology on the sleeve. It makes things more interesting, and news "objectivity" is a relatively recent invention anyway. Of course, it would prove incredibly divisive, but if everyone wrote from a specifically political point of view, it might put an end to all these "Liberal Media" "Conservative Media" mud baths. It's all Corporate Media, and Corporate Media has an agenda far beyond simple Left and Right.)

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com