17 November 2010

Koppel and Olbermann on the bias of objectivity

Keith Olbermann was not long returned from his slap-on-the-wrist two-business-day suspension for violating the NBC code of journalistic ethics (he had donated money to political candidates) before he began a feud with Ted Koppel, the former host and creator of ABC's Nightline show. In an op-ed for last Sunday's Washington Post, Koppel delivered the ultimate insult to Olbermann; he equated the Countdown host with his reactionary counterparts on Fox News, condemning both Fox and MSNBC for abandoning the old TV news ideal of non-partisan objectivity and accusing both networks of telling their audiences only what they wanted to hear. The next night, Olbermann responded with one of those fire-and-brimstone "Special Comments" in which he persists despite the devastating parody Ben Affleck perpetrated on Saturday Night Live some time ago. He denounced Koppel, claiming that his false notion of objectivity failed to prevent the invasion of Iraq because it somehow restrained Koppel from calling lies by name. Koppel riposted during a radio interview yesterday, reiterating his warnings against ratings-driven opinionating disguised as journalism.

As it happens, Koppel was also criticized by Olbermann's nemesis, Bill O'Reilly, who has reportedly promised to retire if Koppel can prove that he has ever lied on the air. As far as I know, however, Koppel never made such a charge against O'Reilly or Olbermann. The issue is bias, the absence of objectivity, the habit of talkers on either cable network to preach to choirs. Koppel's heroes, Murrow and Cronkite, supposedly never did such things, and arguably could not have because TV news in their time wasn't neatly divided into ideological niche markets. Koppel exalts them as models of objectivity, but the entire debate begs a question: is there an objective definition of objectivity?

Murrow's legendary objectivity, after all, was an early form of "liberal bias" as far as the fans of Joe McCarthy were concerned, and the entire movement toward conservative media was based on a perception that Cronkite and his counterparts on the network news shows were all biased against conservative policies and values. Conservatives watched the news and felt excluded; the networks seemed to them unwilling to acknowledge that there was more than one side to certain stories, that certain notions taken for granted were still open to debate. Politics complicates the idea of objectivity, making it not just a matter of "just the facts" but a matter of fairness -- fairness itself being a matter of equal representation for contradictory viewpoints. For some critics, objectivity defined as pluralistic fairness threatens to abdicate its responsibility to judge. A critical account of news reporting in advance of the invasion of Iraq might protest at the equal presentation of administration and opposition positions and a perceived refusal to judge between them. From this perspective, objectivity becomes a matter of bending over backwards to accommodate partisan feelings, placing too much priority on not appearing to take a side and not enough on telling truths and passing judgments. Our bipolarchial political environment exacerbates this tendency, since denouncing one party looks like endorsing the other. Objectivity becomes a matter of neutrality, but neutrality compromises objectivity if we expect it to make judgments, as we should.

Olbermann clearly sees himself as a truth-teller, someone who tells "the powerful" what they don't want to hear, should they happen to listen to his show. He bristles when anyone suggests that he's a cheerleader for the Democratic party, though he routinely makes the same charge against Fox News. His problem isn't that he's a cheerleader -- he routinely criticizes Obama's persistence in waging the War on Terror, for instance, -- but that his entire program is premised on the existence of an enemy -- the Republican party, its reactionary acolytes and their media propagandists. He doesn't say that Democrats are always right, but he very nearly says that Republicans are always wrong. He claims to hold himself to a higher standard of truth than Fox, but I don't watch Fox and won't take an enemy's word for what they do. In any event, I'm sure that O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck make the same claims of veracity for themselves while calling the MSNBC hosts liars. You can't decide between them simply by watching them both any more than you can by watching only one. You'd probably be better off watching neither network.

Apologists for either MSNBC or Fox will quickly note that Olbermann, Maddow, O'Reilly, Hannity et al are commentators. Their job is to offer their opinions, not to report news. They're not a new phenomenon; commentators of their ilk used to be common on the radio before the days of television. Nor have they replaced the nightly news or the straight news reporting on either network. What Koppel resents, presumably, is that the commentators now overshadow the anchors, that people (especially in the blogosphere) seem to care more about what Olbermann or O'Reilly say than what Couric, Sawyer and Williams report. That may be because news reporting is compromised by complicity in the American Bipolarchy and includes no viewpoints from outside the system. Real objectivity may require journalists to at least ask whether the answer is to take one side or the other, or to make a stand against both.


Anonymous said...

Just out of curiousity, I wonder what the Nielsen ratings of Koppel's news program, compared to MSNBC or FOX's "journalistic entertainment" shows?

d.eris said...

Just a couple thoughts on this issue . . . I think we can determine at least three sources of "bias" in the mainstream press, at the levels of form, content and actual practice.

"Content bias" is the most well-known: the subjective, ideological-political position of the reporter in question colors or undermines his or her reports, pushing them in one direction or the other, leaning more toward one end of the bipolarchy or the other. The content of a conservative or liberal reporter's work is tainted by this in some way, consciously or unconsciously.

"Form-bias" is determined by the medium itself and the conditions of its existence. You get at this when you write about the ideological niche markets of cable news. The corporate form and structure of the program affects what it covers and how it covers it.

"Practical bias" might be seen in a reporter's choice of sources for a story, and how they are treated. The fear of potentially losing a source likely scares many reporters from writing articles that may result in losing that source. The desire to maintain access effectively shields the source from criticism.

One of the problems with the notion of objectivity in reporting is that such objectivity might just be impossible. The objective reporter might be just as impossible as the eye that is capable of seeing itself. The notion of objectivity also presupposes that there are indisputable facts on which an argument is based, but oftentimes the argument is about what the facts are.

For this reason, reporting would greatly benefit from a rebirth of practical and philosophical skepticism.