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Jewish World Review Sept.8, 2000 / 7 Elul, 5760

Tony Snow

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Consumer Reports


Reporters worship "objectivity," but practice advocacy

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- GEORGE W. BUSH enjoyed a rare moment of political triumph this week when he described New York Times correspondent Adam Clymer as a genuine, non-speaking, hydrogen-sulfide-emitting, adipose human aperture. Bush not only had taken the offensive for once, he also said something with which a substantial portion of the press corps agrees.

Nevertheless, a few pundits called on him to apologize, most notably Dan Rather. This is interesting because Rather incited a controversy of his own last month by declaring confidently that Republican operatives were responsible for disrupting the Democratic National Convention by leaking word that a grand jury was considering criminal indictments against President Clinton -- and going public the very day of Al Gore's acceptance speech.

As it turns out, the man responsible for the breach was not a Republican, but a judge appointed by Jimmy Carter. Moreover, Independent Counsel Robert Ray -- the man pilloried as the presumptive GOP hatchet-man -- not only wasn't in Washington when the story broke, he wasn't even in the United States. At the moment the news hit the wires, Ray was on a ferry plying the churning surf in the Bay of Fundy. His panicky staff couldn't reach him because he had entered a too-rare region on this earth where cell phones, pagers and other electronic stalking devices do not work.

Now, this is interesting business -- this matter of reporters demanding apologies from politicians. Like most in our profession, Rather never apologized for his broadside, although he did promise Ray he would not repeat the calumny.

This is not unusual. Reporters hardly ever say they're sorry, even though we practice a craft that necessarily invites error. We are in the business of assembling stories and hustling them before the public as quickly as possible.
Rather: Full of what comes
out of a Clymer

We must scoop up as many facts as possible and speak to as many people as practicable. We must do our best to examine developments from every imaginable angle and portray them in as neutral a light as we can.

We are hostage to our shortcomings. If a key source doesn't return a call, we can't assemble the full story. We may not be able to lay our hands on the proper type or volume of research. We must rely on the imperfect testimony of others, comb through conflicting accounts, and sift away inconsistencies and impossibilities. And we must contend with our biases and ignorance. Journalists seldom admit these things. Instead, the press corps has reinvented itself in the image of 19th-century newspapers, which openly pledged fealty to political parties and causes.

These days, reporters worship "objectivity," but practice advocacy. The New York Times offered a case in point last week. It published an article asserting that the Boy Scouts were becoming pariahs in the wake of a Supreme Court decision upholding the organization's ban on homosexual scoutmasters. As the paper made clear in a subsequent correction, the writer essentially made up the tale. The story wrongly asserted that a series of municipalities and school systems had banished Scouts from their property. It claimed that "dozens" of United Way chapters had pulled the plug on the scouts (the proper number was a dozen at most). It even asserted the Catholic Church does not ordain gay priests.

No copy editor seemed to notice that the facts seemed too pat and perfect, and that the theology bore no resemblance to Catholic doctrine or practice. The story slid through -- perhaps because it appealed to the prejudices of editors who read it and placed it on Page One.

Readers beware: "Objectivity" requires something humans don't possess -- omniscience. It is an unattainable ideal. And so is a public apology from a politician.

Think about it. When journalists call for a public figure to beg forgiveness, they're posturing. You don't need to demand apologies from people who are inclined to confess their sins. You challenge only to those who seem incapable of expressing remorse.

Journalists and politicians share a type of hubris: Both hate to admit the limitations of human power and reason. They pretend to know more than they do, and to possess powers they can never acquire -- such as the ability to smooth away the cares and sorrows of the world.

This inability to acknowledge some obvious features of human nature explains why people hold politicians and journalists in such low regard -- and why no struggling officeseeker ever damaged his chances for election by referring to a contentious scribe as an aperture.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate