Friday, October 28, 2011

In Defense of Journalistic Bias

When I was a reporter at The Washington Post, the newsroom was guided (through some tense times, I should add) by the sure and steady hand of our executive editor, Len Downie. Unlike his predecessor Ben Bradlee -- whose combination of profane swagger and sure-I'm-a-lot-older-than-you-but-I-could-still-break-your-goddamn-neck-with-my-bare-hands physicality could silence you, or even Dustin Hoffman, with a sidelong glance -- Len was a much more low-profile personality. Let's put it this way: the gravel-voiced and enjoyably menacing Jason Robards was born to play Ben Bradlee. If they ever decide to make a movie about the Post newsroom set during the 1990s or early 2000s, Bill Paxton's agent will probably be getting lots of phone calls.

Anyway, one of Len's very few eccentricities -- maybe the only one -- was that his dedication to the journalistic ideal of even-handedness extended all the way from his editor's chair to the polling booth. Len famously refused to vote in presidential elections (and maybe in all elections; I'm not actually sure), citing an inherent conflict of interest. His reasoning presumably went something like this: People would rightly be furious if they found out that the executive editor of The Washington Post was contributing money to a candidate, or volunteering for his staff, or providing him favorable coverage in the paper. But a vote is the most direct and necessary form of support that any individual can give to a candidate. Ergo: I won't vote while I work here. Implicit, of course, was his belief that his editors and reporters who covered politics shouldn't vote either, although I never heard reports that he ever pressured anyone about it.

I thought of Len recently when I followed this live-chat thread with Jack Shafer, one of my favorite journalists. Jack was at the indispensably wonderful Slate for many years before being let go early this year; because he's so good, he was snapped up immediately by Reuters, where he continues to share his slightly curmudgeonly, often hilarious, and always astute observations about politics and media. Here's a quote from Jack's live chat that I found especially provocative:

We're kidding ourselves and kidding our readers when we pretend that journalists have no opinions and no biases. My view is that journalists can't be objective, because as human beings we are all subjective. What we can do is employ an objective method in the reporting and writing of the news: To be fair, to be accurate, to be comprehensive. If a reporter pledges to do that, I have no problem with them having opinions. In fact, some of my favorite journalists work at opinion magazines--National Review, Nation, New Republic, Weekly Standards--and they're able to break stories because they're not shackled to an ideal of "objectivity."

I think this is spot-on. You can't ask journalists to be unbiased. You can ask them, if you wish, to report without bias -- and for many news organizations, that's an understandable and even admirable goal. But speaking for myself, as a reader, give me good old biased, opinionated reporting -- from the right or the left -- any day. When a journalist is too worried about whether she'll come off as biased, she writes bloodlessly, pulls her punches and inevitably traffics in the bane of good journalism: false equivalence. But when a journalist honestly believes that she knows the truth, and isn't afraid to express that truth in her story, her writing is much more likely to sparkle and captivate. If we as readers are too lazy to ask ourselves: Do I agree or disagree with the "biased" subtext in this piece? then we really just ought to go back to reading about Lindsay Lohan's latest parole violation or watching another cat video on YouTube.