Searching for the best version of the truth

October 24, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

AT A DINNER meeting recently, I got a new slant on the conservative-liberal media war. Presented with the usual media-is-flagrantly-liberal indictment, I gave my God and country, professionalism and free press speech: Reporters and editors are governed by standards designed to find error and to override whatever bias, conservative or liberal, may creep into their work.

"Oh, please," said the distinguished prosecutor. "Why don't people in the press see what readers and viewers see?" Apparently the speech had fallen short.

Reporters at most newspapers are lefties, he went on. They may bow toward standards, but they're ultimately guided by liberal "tropes": neural pulses that incline reporters in their writing and reporting toward liberal orthodoxy. (Synonyms for trope include notion, perception, thought and phantasm).

If somehow professionalism asserts itself in the writing and reporting, an editor with his or her liberal tropes in good working order will reinstall the missing bias.

At another speaking engagement, a listener wanted to know if I thought The Sun was a liberal newspaper. Yes, I said, editorially it certainly is, though that characterization would be simplistic. The only thing that saves it, the questioner went on, as if I had disagreed, was a certain conservative columnist who appears regularly on the op-ed page. Then I gave the God and country speech with the Chinese Wall codicil: A paper may be liberal or conservative editorially, but that shouldn't affect the news columns, which are separated from the opinion pages by the press equivalent of the Great Wall.

Then, at a meeting of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce last week, my friend Blair Lee IV, a businessman who writes a column for The Gaithersburg Gazette, said to 250 or so members of the chamber that the press is incapable of fairness.

"To think The Sun or The Washington Post could ever endorse or fairly report on" Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., he said, is "hopeless. To expect otherwise is like expecting Comptroller William Donald Schaefer to be a wallflower." People were rushing up to praise him, so I didn't get a chance to do much of my rebuttal. Actually, no one seemed too disappointed.

All this reminded me of an evening I spent recently on a panel convened by Baltimore Quakers. Their view was even less flattering: The press is lazy, superficial and owned by the Establishment, Democrat or Republican. It has become a propaganda arm of the government. By failing to adequately cover the carnage of war in Iraq and by buying into the Bush administration's views - by fearing challenges to its patriotism - the press has culpability for an unnecessary war. Forget about tropes. The press has essentially been lobotomized.

That night I could comfort myself with the thought that when you're attacked from both sides, maybe you're in the middle.

But taking that pathetically easy way out has been harmful over time. I fear that people are unaware, by and large, that reporters have always understood they are subject to tropes (or something akin to them) and need editors who will ruthlessly spike the toxic intrusions. Until recently, newspapers were a bit like political candidates who don't respond to opponents - and consequently find themselves defined by their critics.

We live in a world of spin and information overload, so the consumer of news faces an enormous challenge. Even the professional fact-checkers (the trope police?) have been challenged. So how is the poor, harried voter to sort things out? Not easily.

But that's voters' job. For the most part, they succeed well enough: They're weeding out the bias - which I insist is inadvertent in good newspapers, not some vast liberal conspiracy. It's just a massive diversion to make liberal bias into such a consuming preoccupation - or to bail out on your responsibility by joining the liberal bias industrial complex.

It takes some effort to be an adequately informed citizen. And, of course, the many new iterations of "the media" should help, not hinder. Some do, some don't. Consumers will become increasingly adept at discerning the difference. I'm personally left to conjure with that trope thing. It sounds like a version of interstellar communication through crystal sets secretly implanted in dental work, there to keep the brain focused on its liberal mission.

Oops, gotta go. I'm having my filings checked.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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