All the News that Fits (the mold)

There is something prophetic about a news story. An article in print carries the weight of a scroll, while radio and television broadcasts are communications from upon high.

For evidence, you need look no further than opinion polls in the months preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As the mainstream media weeded out voices of dissent, support for the war climbed, despite none of the facts changing. This force feeding peaked with Fox News' little-reported shouting down of anti-war protesters in Manhattan. The network was so brazen as to post insults on its news ticker reading, "How do you keep a war protester in suspense? Ignore them."

But chinks in the armor of the Fourth Estate are now being broadcast by the major news players themselves. The recent revelation that a New York Times reporter would invent quotes reminded us that no news organization is completely reliable. This was further illustrated this week when it was revealed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) planned to use online gambling to collect covert intelligence. Despite the preposterousness of the plan, it was proven to be true before being publicly denounced by virtually every high ranking official on both sides of the aisle.

The irony is, two senators had to reveal the plan when it had been spelled out plainly on DARPA's Web site. You would think an agency charged with enhancing American security by spying on Americans would justify having a single beat reporter assigned to it. One that might actually read the department's web postings. But, alas, no.

Deep down, we know the reports we receive aren't gospel. How could they be? There is simply too much activity to be kept up with. Throw in governmental obfuscation, and you have some pretty unreliable information coming your way.

This, to a certain degree, is acceptable. Simply because it has to be. But the real sin is that we still allow our news outlets to maintain claims of objectivity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, each reporter comes to a subject with some preconceived notions. Those are then mapped against the facts he is capable of gathering under a typically tight deadline. Those facts that support his belief are retained, while those that don't are discarded.

Here is an example: A journalist attends a city council meeting in which a controversial bond referendum is being discussed. The real deliberations, however, take place behind closed doors, in executive session.

When the council members emerge, who does the reporter approach first? He has two choices, really. He can either ask a reliable source who has provided him with details in the past or he can go after a representative that is somehow central to the debate. If the person is one in the same, great. But this is unlikely.

Time is ticking and these politicians are in no way beholden to answer any questions, much less unflattering ones. As they begin gathering their belongings, the reporter goes to the councilman steeped in the controvery in the hopes of getting some noteworthy quote. Instead, he is rebuked with a flat "no comment." He then turns to his usually reliable source only to again be provided nothing.

Now it's press time and the reporter has to write something. He cobbles together the information he was able to gather into something legible. But obvious holes exist. Questions are being begged. If he doesn't explain why these are going unanswered, he will look incompetent, a fool. Out of frustration, he states the central figure "refused to comment." He makes no mention of his source's similar denial.

So when the article appears, the first representative is held up as unresponsive to his constituents' inquiries. The second councilman, meanwhile, is preserved as a potential source, although acting identically the previous night. And another story on the referendum gets assigned to the reporter.

This happens everyday, hundreds of times a day, often with much more serious consequences. The fact is, news stories are judged most critically by the subjects themselves. And the subjects tend to be the sources. So if they don't look good, the reporters get less information.

This is nothing new. It is and has been the way of the world since the Tsing Pao first published court records in China 1,500 years ago. It wasn't until the 1980s, though, that news journalists were forced to reveal their deferences. This is when newsrooms started demanding that fifth W from its writers. For the first time, hard news reporters were asked to supply the Why in their stories, in addition to the Who, What, When, and Where. The gruesome How was always a given.

This opened a Pandora's box in which journalists were telling stories about bond referendums with leads like, "Little Jimmy Olsen used to play four-square at Lincoln Park before it fell into disrepair. It was his only joy after losing his mother to bone marrow cancer. Now, a bond referendum before City Council may reopen the park and restore Jimmy's long-lost love for playground ball."

Horrendous, I know. But what can you do? Reporters were not only being asked to explain why an initiative is being considered, but also why readers should think it's important to them. This put writers in the precarious position of choosing a side and developing it. Yes, the opposition view would be presented, in the third paragraph after the page jump, if they're lucky.

Understand also that many of the most influential (and time-consuming) stories must first be cleared by management before pursuit. Then, you filter the article through copy editors, news desk editors, and if important enough, executive editors, and you can see how the content we are presented is less than pure.

Sure, most newsrooms can point to an organizational and often physical separation between itself and the advertising department. Some news editors brag about the time they took it to a dishonest car salesman or some such who happened to be a big advertiser. What they don't like to say too loudly is that ads tend to make up about two-thirds of all news companies' revenue. And they are just companies after all.

If all reporters had license to go after whatever subject or official they wanted, there would be no need for so-called investigative reporters. Shouldn't every journalist approach each story critically and without bias?

The short answer is, our news outlets will always be deficient. But it is aborrent they refuse to acknowledge this and still present themselves as objective, omniscient. For this reason, I prefer smaller, independent outlets that are openly biased. At least I know readily from whence they come. Objectivity is an impossibility. Fairness is a necessity.