The echoes of Rathergate the decision by CBS News' Dan Rather to broadcast
a story that could affect the results of a presidential election based on
fraudulent documents weeks before ballots will be cast will be heard in the
mainstream press for years to come.
But no matter what this sorry episode means for Rather's career or the
election, the main impact will be to solidify the notion that the media is biased.
That was a difficult pill for an old newsman like Rather to swallow, and he
still maintains that the blunder was made in "good faith."
That, of course, is debatable. But his insistence, despite evidence to the
contrary, that his decision was made in the tradition of journalism practiced
"without fear or favoritism" is very much in line with a more recent tradition.
This is one that maintains journalists must pretend to be objective, no matter
how subjective they really are.
CULT OF OBJECTIVITY
Objective journalism is the ideal, but as much as we journalists like to
polish this Olympian pose of disinterested reporting, the truth is, in many cases,
it's a lot of bunk.
Dan Rather isn't the first and won't be the last journalist to buy into
false evidence just because it confirmed his pre-existing notions of what the
truth should be. And as notorious as this case is, it isn't nearly as important to
our understanding of the way institutionalized bias can operate as other,
less publicized issues.
Case in point is the way the press labels certain people and activities. Like
The reluctance of many in the media to tag some people or anyone for that
matter as a terrorist is an ongoing sore point for many readers, viewers and
Various news media style guidelines have made the use of the word
controversial for journalists because it is regarded as subjective or judgmental. Indeed,
Steven Jukes, the Reuters news service's former global head of news, famously
said in the aftermath of Sept. 11 that: "We all know that one man's
terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and that Reuters upholds the principle
that we do not use the word terrorist."
While many newspapers and broadcast outlets were not afraid to label the 9/11
attacks as the acts of terrorists, this shibboleth against using the word has
been generally observed when it comes to describing those Palestinian Arabs
who deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians for mass murder.
Few in the secular media have challenged this assertion, thus allowing groups
such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, whose singular
purpose is the murder of Jews, to be routinely described as associations of
"militants" or "activists," as if they were merely trying to organize a union
at a textile factory.
This is the line taken by CNN, National Public Radio, The New York Times and
Knight-Ridder newspapers. But lately, one exception has popped up and the
high priests of this cult of media objectivity are not happy about it.
The Canadian chain, CanWest Global Communications, publishers of 13 daily
newspapers including The National Post in Toronto, has instituted a policy of
calling terrorists "terrorists." This means that when their papers run world
news articles from Reuters, CanWest editors are instructed to substitute the word
for whatever euphemism the wire service has employed for these killers.
AN EMOTIVE WORD
To cite an example, one recent Reuters story described the Al Aksa Martyrs
Brigade as a group that "has been involved in a four-year-old revolt against
Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank."
Instead of this description, the National Post inserted the following: "The
Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a terrorist group that has been involved in a
four-year-old campaign of violence against Israel."
According to David Schlesinger, the current global managing editor for
Reuters, this is an outrage. For him, the use of the word terrorist is an "emotive
word." He told CBC News that this was an unacceptable slanting of the news.
The Al Aksa group has murdered hundreds and maimed thousands of Israeli men,
women and children in relentless suicide bombings since September 2000. To
describe Al Aksa as anything but a terrorist group is not only false, the Reuters
line is itself a classic example of the media spinning the news to fit the
frame of reference of one side in a dispute.
To describe the Palestinian campaign of terror as nothing more than a "revolt
against Israeli occupation" is to buy into the myth that theirs is a battle
for freedom, rather than an effort to destroy Israel and kill its people.
When Reuters and similar news sources obscure this fact and veil these
atrocities in nonjudgmental copy, it is they who are editorializing, not the people
Scott Anderson, CanWest's editor-in-chief, told The New York Times that
Reuters is off base. "If you're couching language to protect people, are you
telling the truth? I understand their motives. But issues like this are why
newspapers have editors."
He's right. But the question remains: Why don't more editors and newspaper
chains like the Knight-Ridder monopoly, which maintains its stranglehold on
daily newspapers in Philadelphia use their judgment and common sense on this
issue, instead of following the herd of politically correct sheep?
Do they fear retribution?
Schlesinger hinted at this when he told the Times that CanWest's policy could
possibly "endanger its reporters in volatile areas." Reuters is worried that
the people it won't call terrorists will terrorize them.
But there's more to this issue than cowardice. For Reuters, the pretense of
objectivity about a group of murderers is more important than telling the plain
truth about their activities, especially when they seem to favor the
As long as that is the conventional wisdom among journalists, the profession
will continue the slide into the pit that people like Dan Rather and David
Schlesinger have dug for us all.