Media overcorrect on objectivity
Arguably, he should have chosen a more diplomatic word.
Arguably, he should have said statements from the regime of now-deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak were “misleading,” “untrue” or “deceptive.” Arguably, he should not have accused the government of “lies,” a word that is as judgmental as a guillotine blade.
On the other hand, it is ultimately not how he said — but what he said — that has drawn criticism of CNN’s Anderson Cooper this week from several of his fellow journalists. In his reports on Egypt’s crisis, Cooper repeatedly scored Mubarak’s government for untruths. He did it in pointing out that journalists had been beaten and detained, in contradiction of the government’s contention that they were being allowed to report freely. And in discussing a claim that the government had directed that protesters not be pursued or harassed. And in dismissing a government statement that only 11 people had been injured in the protests when an independent human rights group put the figure at close to 300.
For that, Cooper was ridiculed by James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times.
CNN media critic Howard Kurtz questioned whether Cooper should be “taking sides.” And one Liz Trotta said that “any correspondent worth his salt knows that you shouldn’t be making editorial comments.” She, amusingly enough, is employed by Fox News.
All three critics concede Cooper was accurate: the regime did lie. Yet they question whether it was journalistically ethical to say it.
Take a close look. You will seldom see a clearer portrait of the timidity and obsequiousness that have infected and, increasingly, defined, American journalism.
Here is my pet theory: After years of criticism for their liberal bias — some of it merited — news media, eager as a puppy to be liked, have corrected by overcorrecting. Which is to say that in the search for that mythical beast, objectivity, they have sought to banish from the news gathering process an indispensable element: judgment. Excluding, of course, Fox, for which a reluctance to judge has never been a problem.
The rest of the journalistic world seems to have embraced its own version of those robotic, idiotic zero tolerance policies where some kid gets suspended for bringing Midol to class. Meaning, in other words, a paradigm from which human reasoning and common sense are exiled. So on any given story, a reporter is encouraged to get the facts, make sure the liberal and conservative talking points are represented and, once those boxes are checked, to feel as if she has done her job, has been objective. No thinking required.
Me, I have no idea what objectivity means, at least insofar as news reportage goes. What I do understand is fairness, the requirement to give voice to both sides, all sides, of a given issue: abortion, immigration, gun control, the budget, whatever.
But I also understand this: Though the axiom says there are two sides to every story, that is not always the case. What was the other side of World War II? The civil rights movement? Watergate? Would Liz Trotta have lectured Walter Cronkite for questioning the Vietnam War? Sometimes there are not two sides, or at least, not two sides both consonant with our broadest understanding of human rights, human wrongs and human reason. To chain reporters to some model of ethics that does not acknowledge this is to make reporters ridiculous and irrelevant.
Especially in an era where American politicians take ever more brazen liberties with the truth.
I intend no defense of the intrusion of opinion into the space reserved for news. But I do defend the transmission of verifiable, quantifiable facts. Even his critics concede that is what Cooper did. Back in the day, we had a word for that.
We called it reporting.
— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.