25 June 2008

Tim Russert Fights Back From Beyond the Grave

Russert was already a dead man when last week's New Yorker came out featuring a profile of Keith Olbermann, the host of MSNBC's Countdown program. Peter J. Boyle, the magazine writer, interviewed Russert for the story, getting some of his last public comments on the news media. Here's how he answers post-mortem complaints about his allegedly obsequious objectivity:

What cable emphasizes, more and more, is opinion, or even advocacy. Whether it's Bill O'Reilly or Keith Olbermann or Lou Dobbs, that's what that particular platform or venue does. It's not what I do. What I do is different. I try very, very hard not to come up and say to people, 'This is what I believe,' or 'This is good,' or 'This is bad.' But, rather, 'This is what I'm learning in my reporting,' or 'This is what my analysis shows based on my reporting.' And as
long as I can do that, I'm very, very comfortable. And nobody has asked me to do anything but that.

In other words, Russert strove to uphold the 20th century ideal of journalistic objectivity. In repudiating the partisanship of the 19th century press, reporters attempted to present facts, and even analyze them, impartially. It seemed possible for a while, but throughout that era some leftists, and later many more conservatives, perceived and criticized institutional biases in news reporting. The left saw, and in some cases still sees, a "corporate" bias, based on business interests, while conservatives denounced a "liberal" bias, based on intellectual prejudices. Many people now question whether the objectivity Russert tried to exemplify is possible, or whether it was a big lie all along.

There probably was a time when most people felt that the world wouldn't end if the other party won an election. The American Bipolarchy doesn't need ideology to sustain itself, just a sense that the other party is the enemy, but enmity itself doesn't mean you think the other party will actually destroy the country. The 21st century has so far been an ideological age, so people tend to think the stakes are higher than they were 100 years ago. Ideology demands that people take sides, and is impatient with pretenses of objectivity. At the same time, objectivity has been too often confused with neutrality. For the media, to be objective was not to take sides with Republicans or Democrats. It might well be an objective truth, however, to state that on some issues, both sides are wrong, or that the system that sustains both sides as half of so-called whole is wrong. The Bipolarchy asserts that every issue is an either-or, win-lose, zero-sum debate between the only two sides that can possibly exist. That assertion inhibits journalists who aspire to neutrality, since challenging the party in power can't help but be seen as aiding and comforting the opposition party. Tim Russert was clearly inhibited during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, but not necessarily because he was a glad-handing toady, as Alexander Cockburn charges, but because he misunderstood his own mandate to inform the public. But that doesn't mean that he should be replaced by the often-hysterical and obviously biased Olbermann, or any counterpart of his on the other side. It does mean that we need journalists and analysts who are capable of thinking outside the two-party box and transcending partisanship, and thus are unafraid of offending anyone or everyone. I won't hold my breath waiting.

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