Coverage of the War

David Edwards of Media Lens has an interesting article over at ZNet, documenting a conversation he had, by phone and e-mail, with George Entwhistle of BBC’s Newsnight. Edwards starts by asking Entwhistle why anti-war voices like Scott Ritter’s, who both agree is “an incredibly important, authoritative witness” on the state of Iraq’s potential WMD programs, haven’t been invited to appear on Entwhistle’s show as often as pro-war voices. We’ve heard this conversation before–Amy Goodman’s recent Democracy Now interview with CNN‘s Aaron Brown and FAIR‘s Steve Rendall covered some of the same ground–but where it get’s interesting is in the post-interview e-mail follow-ups. We rarely get a chance to look “behind the scenes” at what goes on after the story airs or is published.

What we see here is an exceedingly polite exchange between two journalists–journalists who obviously admire each others’ work–struggling with difficult concepts. How can we measure media bias? How do journalists decide who can best give a fair and balanced report? (Note: really fair and balanced, not Fox News’ style of “fair [to those we agree with] and balanced [between people who share our point of view and those we have on but don’t let talk]”) Entwhistle relies heavily on his program’s audience appeal to show he’s doing a good job–feeling that people want coverage that makes sense of the world around them, and if his coverage were not balanced, it wouldn’t do that for viewers and viewership would go down. Edwards does not see the link, noting that when people are hungry for news, all news outlets see an increase in audience, but that this does not necessarily correlate to the quality of the news being presented.

What I find especially appealing about this article is that both men come across as reasonable, sympathetic figures, each struggling in his own way to make good journalism. This doesn’t mean that Edwards should not be held to account for failing to feature dissident voices like Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn, and Michael Albert, and for featuring voices like George Monbiot, Edward Said, Denis Halliday, Rolf Ekeus, Guada Razuki, Mike Marqusee, Tony Benn, Joan Ruddock, Alice Mahon, Martin Amis, John Rees and Harold Pinter less often than they could. Edwards provides an “action item” at the bottom of the article for readers to contact Entwhistle and ask for more of this kind of voice. Interestingly, he asks that, when writing letters to journalists, writers “maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone” (showing something of the character difference between Americans and Brits, I think), a tone that is all too rare in political discussion these days. What is also interesting is that while many of the calls for “unbiased” reporting are generally calls for reporting biased towards the critic’s point of view and not other peoples’, Edwards seems to honestlybelieve in an ideal of journalism as a service in the creation of an informed public, not merely a tool for the advancement of a point of view. Refreshing, to say the least. This isn’t to say that reporters should be “neutral” or “unbiased”–they’re people, after all. But good reporters recognize their own biases, and work harder to cover the spots they would ordinarily be blind to. Good reporters treat “fair and balanced reporting” as a working ideal, not just a slogan.

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