Reader Request 2004 #5: Objective Newspeople

For today’s reader request, we go to Dave Schaefer:

Hi John. I’m wondering what you think about the contrast between a journalist or writer’s personal and professional work. The local student paper recently ran an article on why it was a bad idea for journalists to have personal websites or participate in online discussions. The argument was that if a journalist “published” their personal opinions on the web it would reduce their credibility for presenting issues in an unbiased manner.

Any thoughts?

Yeah, I think it’s pretty stupid.

When people talk about journalistic objectivity, people are usually conflating two pretty much separate issues: First: whether journalists have their own opinions. Second: whether the journalist can put aside her own opinions in order to present significant news in an unbiased manner.

Well, obviously, like any other human beings, journalists have their own opinions about things. And call me naive, but I also believe most journalists don’t have a problem leaving their opinions at the door when it comes to reporting facts and events. This comes from my own experience working with journalists on a daily basis. The reporters I worked with for years had their personal opinions and thoughts on things, but ask them if they were promoting a political or cultural agenda and all of them, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, would bristle. Doubting a journalist’s dedication to facts is like doubting a clergyman’s dedication to God. It’s part of the job description. You can’t do the job without it.

Yeah, but what about Jayson Blair? What about Fox News/New York Times/The Washington Times/Insert Your Favorite Slanted Media Outlet Here? Well, Jayson Blair one messed-up puppy; no matter where he was or what he was doing, he would have imploded sooner or later. As much as the blognoscenti likes to imagine our media riddled with Blairs, the fact his pattern of dissembling was exceptional. He’s not representative of the average reporter.

As for slanted media, the question to ask is not necessarily whether the editorial drift of the media outlet goes right or left, but whether the individual reporters get their facts straight. Which is to say: On the article level — the level at which reporters work — are the facts correct? Is the piece well reported? When I lived in the Washington area, I subscribed to the Washington Times as well as the Washington Post; I’m not going to pretend the Times wasn’t blatantly conservative in its story choices, but by and large I didn’t get the feeling the reporters were Republican cogs. Like most reporters, they wanted to get the story correct.

News outlets benefit from oversight; reporters can get sloppy, and the deadline, daily nature of news and the limited availability of newshole (the total amount of space for news in the paper) means that newspapers can print the story in an incomplete fashion (any reporter who’s had several inches of a story lopped off to fit the rest of the story into a tiny newshole will tell you that). But by and large, reporters make the effort to get as much of the truth out there as they can. They all do it. That’s what being a journalist is about.

(Let me slide out here a moment and note that I’m using “journalist” specifically to mean “news reporter,” and that there are a lot of other jobs in a newsroom — critics, opinion columnists and editorial writers — whose jobs are to have opinions, and who cannot be considered reporters in any useful sense, even if they do reporting as part of their gig. When I was at the newspaper, I was one of these folks, and I would never confuse what I did with reporting. Reporting’s a way tougher gig. When they told me they wanted me to do more reporting, I wimped out and left. Point is, accusing these people of having opinions is waaaay dumb.)

I don’t think most people understand that journalists have this fetish for the truth, which is why people accuse them of bias when they have personal opinions, but also get angry with reporters who are assumed to be part of some community but might be writing up a story that’s “harmful” to that community. In both cases, people don’t get that a reporters desire to get to the truth of a story can (and should) override personal opinions and associations, because most people’s jobs don’t require that of them. It’s not driven into most people’s head every workday that it’s something they need to do.

If a reporter is doing his or her job diligently, I couldn’t care less about his or her politics, race, religion, sexual identity or taste in music — nor would I care about his or her blatherings about any and all of the above online. As that’s the case, I say let them say and do whatever the hell they want.

And now, having issued that blanket statement, let me issue the absolutely critical caveat: Whatever your beat is as a reporter (or, actually in any newsroom gig), stay away from talking about that outside of your work capacity, and for God’s sake don’t work for those you cover. When I was a film critic, if I were ever to have consulted for film companies, I should have been fired. If I’m a political reporter covering a national campaign, I can’t be working for one of the parties. Financial columnists shouldn’t invest in the companies they cover; they should stick to index funds (as, frankly, should most of us). And reporters should always disclose conflicts. This is something I think most people who’ve ever spent time in a newsroom should do reflexively. I mean, I’m not a reporter, especially here, but every time I make mention of AOL (which is not often), I automatically note I’m on their payroll. If these things are done, by and large I think everything will work out reasonably well.

Media outlets, of course, are overcautious and will prefer to have their writers withdraw from public life in all ways. When I was a film critic, I went to City Hall to support a friend of mine whose nightclub was having some problems with the city. When I spoke in support of my friend, the first thing I did was note that I was there as an individual and in no way representing either the newspaper or the company which owned the paper. Then I said my piece and left. When I got into the newspaper, my managing editor called me in and told me I shouldn’t have done that. Well, clearly, I think that’s dumb. The nightclub had nothing to do with my beat, and the owner was my friend. I think I did the right thing, and I don’t suppose I’d have a problem doing it again. I understand my editor’s issue, but he was overreactive.

If I got another full-time newspaper or magazine gig, I doubt that I’d give up the Whatever, although I would stop writing about things relating to my beat (If I got a full-fledged column I would probably stop writing the Whatever because what I do here I’d do there). But I wouldn’t stop having opinions the moment I joined a newspaper, and I don’t see much value in pretending that I did.

Racist Backtracking at its Finest

I thought I’d elevate this out of the Unassimilated Hispanic Menace comment thread, mostly because I find it amusing to watch racists wriggle. Be warned there’s some bad language coming up.

Let me first note that by and large, the comments in the thread there have been interesting and thoughtful, as is par for the course for the Whatever readers and commentors. But occasionally someone likes to come by and be a feculent, draining asshole. Meet “Mark,” who came over by way of Drudge Retort, which had posted a cropped picture of Athena as part of a link back to the entry. Mark felt compelled to come over to say:

“Cute little wetback girl. I wonder if she’ll grow up to do donkey shows like her whore mother.”

To which I responded:

“Probably not, Mark. She’s not your sister.

Further note to the folks who wish to display their flagrant and abject racist stupidity: Try to have a little more creativity about it, please? If you’re going to be a flagrant racist asshole, you need to stand out from all the other flagrant racist assholes out there. Try to exhibit a little style. I know, it’ll be difficult, given the general inability of your neurons to fire on a regular pattern. But do make the effort, why don’t you. ”

Mark then backtracked:

“Sorry. Didn’t realize she was your daughter. My apologies.

I’m outta here! Best wishes!”

This implied he was leaving, so I was content to leave it alone. But it appears he did in fact not leave, because when Phillip J. Birmingham made the cogent comment:

“Yeah, because it’s okay to spew vile insults about little girls if you don’t know anybody they’re related to, right?”

The presumed-disappeared Mark responded with:

“Depends what race they are.”

To which I responded:

“Try the human race, Mark.”

Which apparently prompted the following backtrack from Mark:

“Well, race isn’t so much a factor than is culture. Some cultures raise children that are destined to be criminals. The black culture in the U.S. for example. It’s a culture that embraces failure as success and sees success as failure. It’s really not genetic that this will happen. It’s a cultural problem that is embraced by the colored folks here in the U.S.

To succeed in life is to be labeled an ‘Uncle Tom’ or as ‘giving into whitey.’ When a black is successful, he/she ‘loses’ his race and is labeled a sellout (e.g., Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, C. Rice, etc.) It’s a shame that blacks are so racist against their own race.

So, no. I am not a racist.”

I responded:

“Otherwise known as the ‘there’s black people, and then there’s n—ers’ argument, which in my experience is usually offered by people who want to find a plausible way to try to dodge their racism, and usually aren’t fooling anyone with it.

I agree that’s there’s a cultural strata that tends to look down on its members doing better, but in my experience it has far less (indeed, near to nothing) to do with race and quite a lot to do with economics and education; in other words, poor and willfully ignorant people of all colors, creeds and nationalities will strike out at others doing better, even within their demographics. White trash don’t much cotton to their own puttin’ on airs, either, and I say that as a former recipient of tubs of government cheese.

So, yeah, Mark, you still smell like a racist to me. Of course, you tipped your hand the moment you called my daughter a wetback and my wife a whore. I hope you’ll understand I find it very unconvincing for you to try to backtrack from that. ”

Which earns a denial, a backtrack and a second denial, because Mark’s all about value:

“I never called your daughter a wetback nor your wife a whore. Well, if I did, it was unintentional for your daughter’s picture was posted on a Communist website for all the world to see earlier.

Still, I’m not a racist. I am black.”

Which kind of got me going:

“Well, no. You intentionally called my daughter a wetback and my wife a whore, and you intentionally came to my site from another site to do so. You just didn’t realize they were my wife and daughter. Since it’s very clear in the essay that she is my daughter (all those parts where I call her “my daughter” are a dead giveaway), and yet you say you didn’t know that fact, this suggests very strongly that you didn’t read the article, so your only reason to come to my site was that you get some undefined pleasure out of calling little girls racist names wherever you can, regardless of context.

I appreciate that you wouldn’t have called my daughter a wetback and my wife a whore to my face, had you known they were my wife and daughter, nevertheless less you did call my daughter a wetback and my wife a whore. So now I know what you think of my family. Thanks for that information.”

As for the ‘Still, I’m not a racist. I am black” bit, I say:

“Uh-huh. Because it’s not racist to go out of your way to visit someone’s website to call a little girl in a picture a ‘wetback’ if you’re black.”

At which point I closed the thread, because I felt like having the last word there (I can do that, it’s my site) and because I’m elevating the comments here, since they paint such a lovely picture of Mark that I just felt I had to share.

Here’s a helpful note to racists: Please don’t bother trying to pretend you’re not. It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for you, because you’re not fooling anyone. And it’s embarrassing for us. Being in front of someone who is obviously racist and declares that they’re not is like being with a child who has a mouth full of jellybeans yet swears he hasn’t touched the jellybean jar. They’re just so fumblingly stupid and false you hardly know what to say. In the case of Mark, let’s review: Man travels to a Web site he’s never visited before to type a racial slur (and a sexist slur, to boot) about a picture there. But, he’s not a racist. Honestly, I couldn’t be more embarrassed for this fellow. It’s just sad.

It’s not like I want racists puttering around the site — I dislike people who dislike other people purely on genetic grounds, and I encourage them to play in their own vile, badly-plumbed pools of hate and leave me well the hell alone — but look: If you are racist, just have the cojones to own up to it. I won’t respect you any more than if you try to hide it, but at the very least you’ll save us all a lot of time. Be who you are. And then please head back to your racially-pure enclave. Us mongrels have better things to do.