The Worst Excuse of All
The John Edwards scandal is really two scandals in one. The first is the revelation of the thorough dishonesty, self-absorption and recklessness of a man who was nearly “a heartbeat from the presidency.” The other is the decisive exposure of the mainstream media as so hostage to its own biases (National Enquirer=Bad; Liberal Democrat=Good) that it cannot be trusted to make an even-handed news judgement. It is the latter scandal that has the most significance for the nation. Nobody is likely to take John Edwards seriously again, perhaps not even the juries that he so frequently charmed on the way to personal riches. The question is whether the importance of the media scandal will spur journalists to some serious soul-searching about its biases and duties, or whether it will simply be dismissed as an “even we can make mistake” moment. The early results are not encouraging.
Reading the various commentary by media watchdogs and mea culpas by news editors and producers, one must conclude that the news media doesn’t think it is biased because it doesn’t know what bias is. This is the ultimate journalistic arrogance and ethical failure. Bias is innate in all of us, all the time. We have likes and dislikes, and they control our opinions, judgements, choices and views of the world. Bias interferes with fairness and independent judgement: it is at the root of many forms of unethical conduct. The only way to fight bias---and all professionals have an ethical obligation to do so---is to acknowledge one’s biases and carefully strive to neutralize them.
But article after article, op-ed after op-ed, essay after essay from mainstream papers and news networks have argued the same thing. The incompetent coverage of the Edwards story was not due to bias, but because of other factors, the primary one being the media’s affection and sympathy for Elizabeth Edwards, the terminally-ill wife of the man columnist Maureen Dowd alternately calls “the Ken doll” and “the Breck Girl.” Typical is Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post’s media critic, who, mere sentences after dismissing liberal media bias as a factor in the episode, pointed to Mrs. Edwards as the biggest reason for the mass whiff. He wrote:
The Elizabeth Edwards factor cannot be underestimated. The enormous public sympathy for a woman who campaigned for her husband, even as she battled an incurable form of cancer, extended to many of the reporters who followed and interviewed her on the trail. The emotional high point of the Edwards campaign came last year, when he and Elizabeth held a news conference to announce that her cancer had returned, but that he would not leave the race. Slate's Mickey Kaus, the leading online critic of the mainstream media's reticence, wrote that he had "gotten enough emails from anguished and angry members of the MSM to conclude . . . that it's the prime reason for the MSM blackout."
But this isn’t bias
Of course it’s bias. It is the definition of bias…allowing personal likes and dislikes to influence what are supposed to be neutral, rational, emotion-free, agenda-free decisions on what is news and what is not. Kurtz, like many of his colleagues, thinks that citing sympathy for a sick woman is somehow an ennobling and attractive reason for professionals to abdicate their duty. In this, he is both admitting and proving bias, while making it alarming clear that he doesn’t comprehend how damning this is.
It is not acceptable for an attorney to lose a client’s case because he felt sorry for the other party’s family. It is not excusable professional conduct for a police officer to refuse to arrest a criminal because the criminal has adorable children or a long-suffering spouse. And a bomber pilot will be court-martialed, quite deservedly, if he refuses to bomb a target because he is concerned about civilian casualties. A journalist’s job is to report the news, regardless of whose feeling it may hurt, regardless of whom he or she likes or dislikes. If sympathetic feelings for a family member can interfere with a reporter’s or editor’s news judgement, then they are in the wrong profession. “But this just proves we are human beings!” several essays have argued. No. This just proves you are untrustworthy journalists, which is to say bad ones.
And if, as Kurtz and others seem to eagerly admit, whom a journalist likes affects what is reported and how, then the case for liberal media bias is closed and settled. About 90% of all mainstream media journalists are Democrats and liberals. That is a fact. Human beings reflexively agree with and sympathize with those they like. That is a fact. Human beings overwhelmingly prefer people who agree with them over those who don’t. That is also a fact.
If journalists openly admit to making news decisions according to their personal and emotional preferences, then they will slant the news, and that slant will overwhelmingly be to the Left. And in the John Edwards scandal, that is exactly what they are admitting.
John Edwards was exposed by his scandal as a dishonest, untrustworthy creep. American journalists were exposed by theirs as disgracefully unprofessional and untrustworthy frauds.