September 30, 2004

Editors don't even recognize reporting when they see it anymore

You may already have read Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi's e-mail to friends about "the situation" in Iraq. If not, you should.

Journal editor Paul Steiger defends Fassihi's right to make personal observations about the war, noting, "Ms. Fassihi's private opinions have in no way distorted her coverage, which has been a model of intelligent and courageous reporting, and scrupulous accuracy and fairness."

The defense is proper, but there's something very odd about describing the e-mail as Fassihi's "opinions." To the contrary, 99.5% of it is not opinion at all but statement of fact based on Fassihi's reporting. I found only one sentence I'd call opinion: an Iraqi tells Fassihi that if Saddam Hussein were allowed to run for president, he would win, and she says, "This is truly sad."

There is only one other sentence some people might point to, and probably what Steiger had in mind: "The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into a bottle." But that comes at the end of the long message, and would more accurately be called a fair conclusion based on all the reporting that comes before it.

The problem here is the modern journalistic notion of objectivity as a matter of "presenting all sides" rather than faithfully reporting the truth. Fahissi, through obviously careful observation, has determined what the truth is and feels free to tell her friends in a way that she can't tell her readers, because her editors will call it opinion. In print, she'd have to have an equal number of official lies and evasions to balance out what she's actually learned.

Fortunately, critics have started to rebel against this he said/she said model of objectivity. None have eviscerated it as shrewdly and effectively as this Daily Show parody of the Swifty controversy.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


There was another episode of the Daily Show where Stephen Colbert said it was unfair to report on the facts because the facts are all biased against Bush.

Meanwhile, the New York Times, in an effort to pretend they haven't been part of the problem all along, allowed this to appear in an Op-Ed piece:

"This [providing on substance instead of style at the debates] is ultimately a challenge for newspapers because television isn't interested, not even the cable networks with their longer political broadcasts. Indeed after watching the coverage of the Swift Boat story, it is easy to imagine an evenhanded cable exchange revolving around a political ad saying one candidate thought the earth was round. Its sponsor would be challenged on cable by someone who said the earth was flat. In an effort to seem fair to both sides, journalists can forget to be fair to the public."

Also, I got the full text of the Daily Show excerpt I posted yeterday off the rerun, and it makes me think they're reading your blog, or else you're moonlighting there:

Ed Helms: We [reporters] write the narraives in advance based on conventional wisdom and then whatever happens we make it fit that story line.

Jon Stewart: Why?

Helms: Because we're lazy. Lazy thinkers.

Stewart: What happens if actual news happens?

Helms: That's what bloggers are for.

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