Missing Information

Thursday, March 01, 2007

John Leo, famous for keeping tabs on political correctness for years in U.S. News and World Report, has an eye-opening post over at City Journal titled "Sins of Omission", in which he describes several egregious failures on the part of major news media to report on the race, religion, and political beliefs of individuals central to news stories. In particular, he notes the following:

1. Don't identify people in the news by race unless race is important to the story: that's the policy of most newspapers. But in practice, outbreaks of sensitivity in the newsroom often lead reporters and editors to withhold racial identification even when police are seeking a suspect after a major crime. Newspapers mention all details that might help the authorities find the perpetrator -- except skin color.

A current example is the so-called "second rape case in Durham," an eerie mirror image of the Duke lacrosse case: here the suspect is black and the alleged victim is white. North Carolina's News & Observer described the suspect as "in his late teens or early 20s, about 6 foot 1 and wearing a do-rag, a gray sweatshirt and blue jeans." That's word-for-word from the police description, except that the police said that the suspect was black. The newspaper deleted the reference. It also couldn't bring itself to mention that the attack allegedly took place at an African-American fraternity at Duke.

2. In Nashville last week, readers of the Tennessean were probably able to deduce the religious affiliation of a cabbie who tried to run over two Christian students after a heated discussion of religion. His name: Ibrahim Sheikh Ahmed. The paper reported: "Metro police spokeswoman Kris Mumford said one of the students is Catholic and the other is Lutheran. Mumford said that Ahmed's religion was not known."

3. Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist whose vehicle was fired on in Iraq by American troops, said that the troops were lying when they claimed that her vehicle had attempted to crash through a checkpoint. Much of the news media delicately failed to mention that Sgrena is notably anti-American, identifies with the insurgency, works for a communist newspaper, and is a communist herself. The New York Times called her employer, Il Manifesto, a "leftist" daily. A more detailed description of her opinions and commitments might have helped readers trying to judge her credibility. [bold and numbers added]
Given that most people involved in reporting within the news media are politically on the left and many are trained that objectivity is impossible in journalism anyway, the only surprise here is how blatant the omissions are. Each one of these is so insulting to the intelligence that the few readers who haven't correctly guessed the missing information will feel no surprise upon eventually learning it.

It is at times like this that I remember some good advice from Ayn Rand, which she delivered through the mouth of Ellsworth Toohey, the villain of The Fountainhead: "Don't bother to examine a folly -- ask yourself only what it accomplishes." So what exactly does it accomplish for a journalist to omit race from a crime report when the suspect is black, religion when an attempted act of terrorism was almost certainly committed by a Moslem, and political affiliation when a communist blamed American troops for lying?

The obvious (and wrong) answer is that mentioning race, religion, or politics in these stories would unjustly reinforce stereotypes of the omitted groups. But what if the stereotypes exist for a reason? After all, is it not true that blacks are responsible for a disproportionate share of crime, Moslems for terrorism, and communists for attempts to undermine America generally? If your response right about now is to think, "What a racist!" the journalists have achieved their goal.

"Racism" is the new "bigotry". (Which partly explains why we keep hearing America's war condemned from the left as "racist".) Or, to be more precise, it is the new term that is being used to confound the perfectly moral act of drawing rational generalizations (that the left disagrees with) about certain groups with the immoral act of refusing to judge individuals on their own merit. It is patently absurd to hold that if one notices that black culture is especially crime-ridden, one is therefore unable or unwilling to judge a black individual on his own merits.

What the leftist media want to do is to cause those of us who notice things like the ones in the second paragraph from the above to lose credibility with others (by prejudicially labeling us as "racists", "Islamophobes", or "McCarthyites") and, more importantly, to lose certainty in our own morality. The hope is that we will be afraid to speak our own mind about certain kinds of facts.

But to take note of the fact that crime is generally higher among blacks than other segments of the populace is not the same thing as racism ("a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement ...") or even prejudice ("any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable"). Nor is asking serious questions about why this is so racist or prejudiced. Indeed, this would necessarily be one of the first steps towards working to rectify the problem.

It is interesting what asking Toohey's question can unearth. The only questions that remain are for the journalists to answer: Why not work to understand the cultural pathology that causes crime to be higher among blacks? Why not examine what it is about the ideology espoused by so many terrorists that motivates them to threaten and kill us over religion? Why not examine communism closely-enough to understand why so many communists are inimical to America?

Why not, indeed.

-- CAV

PS: Noumenal Self makes several excellent points in the comments. In particular, (1) he questions whether two of Leo's examples constitute bias at all; and (2) he notes that the conservative media are not, shall we say, "without sin" (although it is possible to be unbiased).


Today: (1) Added two sentences. (2) Added PS.


Anonymous said...

This is one if the reasons why people are turning away from the MSM. More and more people are starting to see through this kind of bull shit.

I read an interesting analysis on this linked from Drudge today. From the article, "...the closer we get to the actual news events themselves the more obvious it becomes just how biased the coverage has been in the past. Needless to say, that's led to a lot of disenchantment with the traditional media. And rightly so." - http://abcnews.go.com/Business/IndustryInfo/story?id=2915370&page=1

Gus Van Horn said...

The article is interesting, but if I read this correctly, it talks too little about part of the MSM's problem: its bias.

It is true in a sense that every reporter will filter the news in accordance with his belief system. (This may or may not be bias in the sense of accurately gauging the importance or meaning of a news story, but few people realize that belief systems can and should be evaluated by whether they are true....) The problem with the MSM is that it looked at only half of the problem: It saw its declining popularity only in terms of how fast or slow the news came out, but not in terms of how biased it was and remains. Yes, it's true that news has to be delivered fast, but it still also has to actually be news. And whether even a stringer will report something and how accurately (think: doctored photos from Lebanon) still depends on his personal philosophy. (The article hints at this, but in this day and age, too many people take rationality for granted. This needed to be more explicit.)

Anonymous said...

I think that liberal media bias is real and important to catalogue. However I also think that right-wing bloggers often *want* to find it, sometimes when it isn't there.

Consider the examples mentioned by Leo. Not knowing any more about the situations than what he tells us, I would agree that #1 is a pretty straightforward example of bias. If the police have mentioned the race of the suspect, that is important and relevant information, and is probably being suppressed for the ideological reasons you note.

But what about #2? Here the report quotes the police officer as saying that the suspect's religion is not known. Perhaps bloggers later discovered what the religion was, but if, at the time the report was being made, his religion was not known, this quotation of the police officer would be perfectly justified. Truly one cannot deduce religion from someone's name.

In the case of #3, it probably was well-known what the journalist's political affiliations were, but here it is harder to justify their relevance. Simply being a leftist does not disqualify one's reliability concerning the report of who has attacked you or not. I would even go so far as to say that being anti-American doesn't necessarily disqualify your reliability in this regard, unless it is well-known that your anti-Americanism has coincided with unreliable reporting in the past.

Generally speaking, I am very skeptical about right-wing bloggers animus toward the "MSM." Without the MSM, bloggers would have nothing to talk about. One of the reasons I object strongly to the "pajama epistemology" idea is that you can't in fact learn about the world by sitting in your pajamas. You have to depend on reporters to find things out for you. It's fine to criticize bias in that reporting when you find legitimate reasons to think it's there, but simply assuming it's going to be there, and then making a game out of finding it, is not very useful and probably also distracting from more important issues.


Gus Van Horn said...

Excellent points, NS, especially about #2. On point #3, though, we are talking about someone who sympathizes with the "insurgency". Yes, alone, her views do not necessarily mean she'd be unreliable, but given the context of her remarks -- driving around (with/aiding insurgents? I don't remember the story well enough) in Iraq -- they may have been relevant.

Having said that, your point on making bias-finding a game is very good and brings up the possibility that this practice is having the side-effect (intentional or not) of lending the notion of "pajama epistemology" additional undeserved credibility -- by making the so-called "Old Media" sound even more biased than they really are.

Thank you for taking the time to comment on this.

Anonymous said...

Let's also not forget that there is also tremendous *conservative* media bias that the pajamas media people never bother to criticize (just watch Fox News). Liberal bloggers do--no surprise there. If only there were someone who critiqued both ends of the media--they'd be much more credible in my book.


Gus Van Horn said...

Another good point. This can be especially bad any time certain events with religious implications, like the Terri Shiavo debacle, occur. I couldn't stomach Fox News at all during that.