Sunday, October 24, 2004

Style over Substance II

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:02 AM |  

It’s good to be the king -- or in this case the editor of the Pioneer Press. On Sunday’s Opinion Page, Pioneer Press Editor Vicki Gowler gets her “rank hath its privileges” third-page space to defend her position on the three-day suspension of two Pioneer Press investigative reporters for attending the pro-John Kerry “Vote for Change Concert,” a story that broke in the enemy paper. (This is starting to become a habit. Gowler was also prompted to respond when the Strib broke the story about changes in staffing at the Pioneer Press.)

I’ll leave any fisking of her response to “the Elder” and "Saint Paul" over at Fraters Libertas -- they are much better fiskers than I, and besides, as an Opinion Page contributor, I clearly have, in Gowler’s worldview, a conflict of interest.

Nonetheless, there is one paragraph in her piece that I can’t, in good conscious, let slip by. It is this --

“The election season brings a heightened awareness of what’s fair, particularly in a close election as we are having this fall. I take some solace in the fact that, over time, both liberals and conservatives have criticized our coverage. To me, this signals that we have been successful in keeping our coverage balanced.”

Gowler’s comment is the essence of what is wrong with “journalism” today -- it has made truth secondary to balance. "Good journalism" is "balanced journalism" (which might make one wonder why there isn't more "balanced" coverage of those who believe beheading is valid political protest.)

Then-Pioneer Press entertainment columnist Brian Lambert’s screed over CBS pulling its controversial miniseries "The Reagans," is a great example of "balance" in practice. Like Gowler, he starts his column with an ode to credibility -- “Credibility is a precious commodity. You taint it at your peril.” He then goes on to rip CBS a new one for caving into conservative pressure and pulling “The Reagans.” In Lambert’s words --
“The “superficial charge” that the (unseen) miniseries is chock full of inaccuracies and therefore should be censored, if not killed, is the stuff of black irony. I mean, schlocky TV biopics and historical accuracy? No dialogue permitted that can't be verified by official transcript? What planet did they just fly in from?"
Later in the column he argues --
“If historical accuracy is the guiding principle for TV melodrama, why didn't any of the aforementioned engine stokers complain a peep about Showtime's recent "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," a lavishly inventive drama that portrayed George W. Bush as a leader so gifted he was practically clairvoyant.”
One more example before I make my point, this from a Deborah Locke Opinion Page piece urging people to attend a lecture by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Locke writes --
"I get some pretty amazing mail," Krugman said in the phone interview from New Jersey. Still, he decided long ago that if an opinion doesn't enrage readers, he's wasted the space in the page.”
Okay, what do we have? First we have a mainstream media editor who equates “objective journalism” with being criticized by everybody -- not praised by everybody. Sure, all columnists get letters from the crazies on both sides, but that’s hardly an indication of being objective. Sometimes people of opposing views have good points that make one stop, rethink a position or find a better way to state an existing position. Being criticized by both sides might just mean you're always wrong.

Which Brain Lambert thinks is okay, as long as you're balanced. Credibility is fostered by balance, not necessarily accurate reporting. Essentially, his argument is that an inaccurate pro-Bush documentary “ethically” and “objectively” ought be balanced by an inaccurate anti-Reagan miniseries. Truth, apparently is irrelevant.

Then there’s Krugman who declares that his job is to enrage readers -- no mention of either objectivity or ethics. Enraging readers is easy, and is most easily done by distorting the truth. It’s far more difficult to write from the perspective of seeking what is right and true and trying to persuade, not alienate, others.

Yes, I get some, but surprisingly little, email and letters from the crazies on both sides of the aisle commenting on my Pioneer Press Opinion Page columns. I basically ignore those but do respond in detail to people who write respectful and thoughtful criticisms. Those are challenging and help me define, often enhance and sometimes broaden my positions. But my favorite responses reflect this recently received email --
Craig -- I have enjoyed your columns since you were a community columnist, and am pleased that the PP has picked you up full time. I often don't agree with you, but enjoy the challenge of your clearly stated positions. Keep it coming!
I don’t carry a tattered “Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics” around in my pocket. (Note that the “s’” makes it a collective code rather than an “’s” individual ethical code. That’s significant There is no such thing as “collective ethics.”) Ethics is something that is part of one’s character regardless of whether or not you like Bruce Springsteen. Journalists might better spend their time with a tattered copy of "The Elements of Style," so they might learn to distinguish style from substance.