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October 10, 2003

No Man's Land in Journalism Today

The LA Times intervened in the recall. But it can't say that. Terry Gross took action against Bill O'Reilly. She can't say that. Strange, what's unsayble.

This week, the Los Angeles Times is catching hell for its decision to print accusations of sexual conduct against a candidate for governor in the week before the vote. The LAT’s actions are seen as a late intervention in the race— possibly legitmate, maybe not. But it’s hard to resolve the matter when there is no language of “intervention” available to press thinking, no way to explain yourself in those terms. Listen to this:

“I don’t consider it my business to judge the political impact of what the paper publishes,” says John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times. “That’s up to the politicians. But it is a paper’s job to disclose anything it knows that bears on a candidate’s fitness for office before Election Day, not after.” I know what he means. You become gun shy if you worry too much about people’s reactions.

But think it through: if the newspaper has a duty to disclose before the vote, the reason has to be that the news in hand might have an effect, might be “relevant” to voters. If that’s the determination made, why does Carroll say his business is not to judge the impact of the paper’s reporting? He must have some business in that area. “It’s relevant and could have an effect,” is a different judgment from “it’s irrelevant and won’t have an effect.” And it leads to a different decision.

With equal or greater accuracy, Carroll could have said:

Yes, we realized this story could have an effect on the race. That is why we published it, so that voters could decide if new facts about Arnold Schwarzenegger changed their view of his fitness for office. We’re not in the business of publishing things that have no impact on the way people think; that’s not effective journalism, and it’s not responsible journalism. But are we at the Los Angeles Times telling you the reader what to think by running the story? I say so emphatically, we are not.

But that would be an attempt to legitimize intervention. If instead you say: “took action? what action? all we do is provide information…” you appear to elude the legitimacy debate, even though critics are screaming for you to join it. And I think Carroll is being elusive in this way.

This week Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air, the popular show heard on NPR stations, was blasted by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly for admitting in her interview with him that she had not treated Al Franken, on a recent book tour, to the same kind of probing and poking she got into with O’Reilly (who is also on a book tour.) He denounced her double standards in a speech, then stormed out of the studio, cutting short what he called an “ambush” interview. Then he raged against Gross and NPR on his web page and TV show, including an “isn’t this outrageous?” exchange with a Republican Congressman, Cliff Stearns of Florida, who said: outrageous, Bill.

Stearns then threatened to look into NPR’s remaining government funding. If you listen to the interview, which is fascinating and brutal, you will discover that Terry Gross had no idea what to say when O’Reilly, sensing a kill, denounced her lack of evehandedness. She tried to come back with, “Al Franken had written a book of political satire,” which, her reasoning went, is different. (How? Is satire harmless? Not of political consequence? Released from full scrutiny because it’s good clean fun? Is Franken not a political figure, as well as satirist, comedian, author?) You have to listen to the tape for how weak this is, though for much of the interview Gross was in good command, and O’Reilly had the weaker answers.

If there was a coherent explanation for why she did a more light-hearted interview with Al Franken, it might go something like this:

I, Terry Gross, think you, Bill O’Reilly, are rather a bully, a touch more than paranoid, and too ready to smear people you don’t like, all of which matters to the public and to my listenership, because you are a best selling author, anchor a top-rated news program on Fox, can be heard on some 400 radio stations (your figure) and you have a lot of power. That’s kind of scary to me and the people who listen to Fresh Air. Al Franken doesn’t scare me, although he can go overboard. You do. So I ask you different questions. Is there anything else I can illuminate for you, Mr. O’Reilly?

But this reasoning—which I actually think is defensible, although it might anger even more people—is unsayable in the public tongue the press has learned to speak. Gross is taking a kind of affirmative radio action here, (whereas with Franken she did not feel the need) but all her profession has to justify this decision is a thin language of information. She could say: look, the rules of any interview permit tough questioning, but then why not be just as tough with Franken?

Fair and balanced, fair and balanced. O’Reilly hammered on that phrase. Gross stammered to explain why her admitedly unbalanced treatment was, in some unspoken moral universe, quite fair. It’s not that she broke the rules of journalism so much as she entered a territory with O’Reilly that is effectively rule-less. This was greatly to his advantage, because he is more ready to blow up her show than she is. The press nether-world can be dangerous.

NPR’s ombudsman calls the Gross interview unfair.

Click here for my later post about John Carroll’s extended explanation of the Schwarzenegger groping stories.

Doc Searles listened to the interview and has an intelligent reaction: “The real conflict here isn’t between left and right, but between two kinds of righteousness. One looks for ‘middle ground,’ as Gross put it. The other fights a ‘cultural war,’ as O’Reilly put it.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 10, 2003 4:02 PM