September 03, 2003

Fair and Balanced in LaLa Land

Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll became of hero of right-wing pundits when he put out a memo in May criticizing a story about a Texas abortion law as biased (liberally) and correct (politically). [ Read the memo here ]

The memo figures prominently in a Los Angeles Magazine story about Carroll's efforts to remake the Times from the "recognizably liberal" paper created by Otis Chandler into - to quote Carroll's memo - a newspaper that is "intelligent and fair-minded" and challenges the liberal populace of L.A., which, Carroll reminds his staffers in the memo, "and is unreflective of the nation as a whole."

L.A. Magazine writer RJ Smith frames Carroll's "desire to distinguish the Times from modern-day, tabloid-style palaver," certainly a worthwhile goal, in the larger and ongoing debate over news media bias. Smith writes:

"The memo skirts one of the most vexing issues for journalists-that balance isn't always the same thing as accuracy. … A newspaper, in (Carroll's) mind, maintains civility by equally weighing both sides of a controversy. But not all stories have another side, and there are times when to give voice to one position is to lend it more credence than it actually has or deserves. Yes, you have to respect people's beliefs, but sometimes honoring them distorts the truth. What about alien abductees? Creationists? Holocaust deniers? There might be a pro-slavery side, but does it deserve to be sought out for the sake of balance?"

Smith is correct - some stories are one-sided (it is not necessary when writing about rape victims, for example, to interview rapists) - and his questions are rhetorical. Because, as any of us who have written, edited or photographed for a living know, all journalists are biased, but not in the way that FAIR or AIM suggest.

Andrew Cline, the wizard behind the curtain at Rhetorica Network, defines several "structural biases" that afflict - and enhance - journalism.

Journalists prefer conflict over harmony, bad news over good. They are always on deadline and therefore biased toward quick information over in-depth reporting. TV journalists must have moving picture. Reporters tell stories - and therefore create narratives where sometimes they don't exist. [ Read: When No News Becomes Badly Reported News ]

Cline points out that even the dedication to fairness is inherently biased because the he-said-she-said format of most political stories "creates the illusion that the game of politics is always contentious and never cooperative."

Let's applaud Carroll's campaign to root our inadvertent bias in the Times. And let's accept the reality that it is a campaign without end.

 Los Angeles Magazine Making Distinctions: Can John Carroll get the Times to chew with its mouth closed?
 Rhetorica Media/Political Bias

Posted by Tim Porter at September 3, 2003 04:01 PM