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September 18, 2003

The View from Nowhere

Is ABC the most anti-war network? Ridiculous, says Peter Jennings. And it is... to him.

Peter Jennings is asked about a think tank study arguing that ABC is the most “anti-war” network in its reporting about Iraq.

ABCs coverage was the most critical of the war, with two out of three (66 percent) on-air comments negative. CBSs coverage was the most supportive, with nearly three out of every four (74 percent) opinions favorable. NBCs coverage was most balanced towards the American mission-53 percent positive vs. 47 percent negative evaluations.

His reply in USA Today, a protest about misinformed criticis, is worth quoting because it contains some fateful press think:

I don’t think anybody who looks carefully at us thinks that we are a left-wing or a right-wing organization….We have been criticized, a little bit to my surprise, by people who think I was not enough pro-war. That is simply not the way I think of this role. This role is designed to question the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public….Are we out of step with the administration because we do not comport completely to their political point of view? So they criticize us for it. It goes with the territory, and if we get a groundswell we begin to look at ourselves. ‘Are we? Are we not?’ I don’t think the public realizes how much soul-searching goes on in news organizations about what is the right thing to do.

That’s Jennings responding to the most recent charge of proven bias. I have listened to this conversation for some time. It’s probably louder now than ever, but that tells you it’s important. After ten, fifteen years, it sounds like this in my ear….

The Right: You creep, Jennings. You’re just a shill for the anti-war left, like the rest of them. They did a study that proves it.
The Left: You creep Jennings. You’re cheerleading for the war, like the rest of them. The people who study it have proved it.
Jennings: We’re journalists, not ideologues. We try to play it straight down the middle.
The Right: Screw you, Peter Jennings.
The Left: Yeah, screw you.
Jennings: No serious observer thinks we’re left or right in our approach to covering the news.
The Left: You think we’re not serious? Where are all the stories on Halliburton, Peter?
The Right: Why don’t you cover what’s going right for the military in Iraq? Because it doesn’t fit your agenda!
Jennings: Actually we’ve covered those stories on World News Tonight and even gone back to them. Maybe not as much as you would like, or with the spin you would put…
The Right: Spin? Like I’m spin and you’re not?
Jennings: I think there’s a big misconception here about how journalists work.
The Left: Staight down the middle with this, Jennings.

In the media id of the Left, temptation lives. Dumping everything to the right of The Nation magazine into the “conservative” bin is an intellectual temptation. When it happens, journalists at ABC can plausibly become “right wing” in the observer’s eyes. And they actually are to the right… of The Nation. Progressives, people on the Left, call it the corporate media, which dispenses captured news, news that is essentially propaganda for the system and its rich friends, or a distraction from unjust things happening all around the world, which do not get reported.

In the media id of the Right, temptation also lives. It wants to call everything to the left of the Washington Times the “liberal” media. When that happens, journalists at ABC can become “left wing” in the observer’s eyes And why not? They are in fact to the left… of the Washington Times. Conservatives, people on the Right, call it the liberal media. The liberals who run it are hostile to traditional values, intoxicated with their own social agenda, eager to expand the power of government, reflexively anti-Amercan, and we see it all over the news.

To Jennings, this is all quite odd. ABC News, he firmly belives, isn’t left or right, pro or anti-war. It isn’t “political” at all in that way— it’s a professional news operation, “designed to question the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public,” but equally designed not to take sides. He and his colleagues do not let political temptation color the news; they work hard at curing their reports of any undue bias— failing often but only because they’re human. That kind of caution is basic to how we operate, he says, second nature to any journalist. The public’s failure to grasp this struggle in the journalist’s soul makes possible a common charge like, “you’re the anti-war network.”

In the ritual of this exchange, it’s forgotten that all three parties can be for truth, if you understand what each is saying.

But even in objectivity there is id. Temptation for Jennings and his colleagues does not involve taking sides. It does not mean “coming out” as anti-war or pro-Rumsfeld or skeptical about American power in the Middle East. Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for “vocal critic,” and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism. It can’t be that simple, that beautiful, that symmetrical… can it? Temptation says yes.

When you have an obligation to remain outside the arena, it is also tempting to feel above the partisans who are struggling within that arena. (But then where else are they going to struggle?) You learn the attractions of a view from nowhere. The daily gift of detachment keeps giving, until you’re almost “above” anyone who tries to get too political with you, or at least in the middle with the microphone between warring factions. There’s power in that; and where there’s power, there’s attraction.

”I don’t think anybody who looks carefully at us thinks that we are a left-wing or a right-wing organization.” There is no question this is a sincere statement. But it is also a superficial one. Not left, not right… so what are you, Peter Jennings? The answers he thinks adequate: “we’re a news organization,” “we’re professionals,” “we’re journalists, no axe to grind” along with “you don’t understand how we work”… have one curious quality about them— besides being bland. If accepted, they end the conversation. Another way to say it might be: they lack soul.

In an extraordinary book excerpt circulating around the Net, New York Times reporter John Burns, who was in Baghdad in the regime’s final weeks, states:

For some reason or another, Mr. Bush chose to make his principal case on weapons of mass destruction, which is still an open case. This war could have been justified any time on the basis of human rights, alone. As far as I am concerned, when they hire me, they hire somebody who has a conscience and who has a passion about these things.

This is not a reporter willing to call himself pro Bush, anti-war, left, right or pacifist, but John Burns—who is keenly aware of the power of his newspaper—is here saying: I am a human rights organization, myself, as well as a journalist. If you want me as your correspondent, expect my passions to influence my work. Burns puts himself above no one. He declines the view from nowhere. Him we can talk to.

Editor and Publisher Online says it got more mail from the Burn excerpt than anything it has published.

For more reactions to Burns and his testimony, go to Roger Simon. (“It makes you believe in the possibilities of journalism again.”)

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 18, 2003 8:59 PM