Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2004 / 28 Elul, 5764

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Consumer Reports

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Media bias is doing nation a disservice | The solemn warning that "the first casualty when war comes is truth" has stood unchallenged for nearly a century. No more. It's time for a modern update. The first casualty these days is not truth, but the truth tellers. Or at least their reputations.

So let's rewrite the World War I wisdom attributed to a 1917 speech by Sen. Hiram Johnson. In our times, "the first casualty when war comes is the press."

The evidence is scattered around like so much barnyard litter. It was put there by news organizations and journalists who have taken turns staining their honorable, if not always honored, profession.

Think of it as the difference between getting scoops and being a pooper-scooper.

Doubts over the authenticity of documents CBS News used to "prove" President Bush got favored treatment in the Texas Air National Guard 30 years ago are the latest in a long list of troubling examples. Here's a roll call of the proven guilty:

  • In July, Peter Chernin, the president and chief operating officer of Fox Corp., the parent of Fox News, endorsed John Kerry and called Bush's education policy "a joke."

    The event drew little outrage because Fox is seen as tilting to the right, at least compared with everybody else, so Chernin was given a pass. But the problem is not whether a media boss tilts left or right. Tilting either way should be a no-no.

  • In August, Kerry got a standing ovation from many of the 7,000 journalists attending the minority-based Unity convention. Bush got a tepid response and snickering, according to some embarrassed participants, who called the blatant side-taking "awful," "inappropriate" and "unprofessional."

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    The head of the organization defended the behavior, but it was shocking to many journalists raised under the long-established rule of "no cheering in the press box." That goes for booing, too.

  • Just last week, CNN said it saw no problem keeping Democratic operatives Paul Begala and James Carville on the air even though the two are now openly giving advice to the Kerry campaign.

    While it's true that Begala and Carville are obviously partisan in their CNN roles, having them moonlight for a candidate presents so many conflicts of interest that CNN shouldn't have to think twice about making them choose jobs.

    It would be easy to blame the media missteps and ethical lapses on the nation's polarized passions over the war in Iraq and the election. Or to blast the Web bloggers, talk-radio jocks, authors and, yes, filmmakers who casually confuse fact with assertion and even fiction.

    But in truth - there's that word again - there is no excuse. The blame falls on people and organizations who know better. They have taken shortcuts for the worst of reasons - because they can.

    Not that the public needs more reason to distrust the media. In the age of fabricators like The New York Times' Jayson Blair, conscientious efforts to be fair by legions of honest reporters and editors are being swamped by the clamor for "edge."

    But the trip from attitude to partisanship is turning out to be shockingly short.

    And while most of the bias tilts left, getting balance by hiring more people who tilt right isn't the answer. Indeed, the tired formula of turning the cameras or news pages over to two partisans so they can duke it out only adds to the burden of viewers and readers. They are now expected to find the truth that presumably lies somewhere between two lies.

    Used to be, that was the job of journalism.

    Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News Comment by clicking here.


    08/18/04: Kerry confusion will soon be unforgivable
    07/29/04: Why are the wackadoos still dear to Dems' hearts?
    07/21/04: Kerry couldn't say no: Hillary waffle was just part of a wimpy week

    © 2004, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.