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Fact or opinion? Yes, it really does matter

To an extent unforeseeable just a short while ago, next year’s general election is shaping up as a referendum not only on America’s political future but also on the direction of its news media.

At issue is the question being posed with increasing frequency by right- and left-wing partisans: Have the American media simply failed in their decades-long effort to separate facts from opinions and to make impartial reporting the governing ethic of their news columns? Or, alternatively, has American society’s changed nature simply made the whole project irrelevant?

This assault on the ethic of impartiality has two sources, one intellectual, the other social.

Liberal and conservative intellectuals who have sipped more Kool-Aid than they realize from the post-modern punch bowl insist that because pure objectivity does not exist, only pure subjectivity remains. According to this view, because not every form of prejudice and predisposition can be eradicated, every piece of “fair and honest” journalism must contain a confession of the inevitable reportorial bias.

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Call it the You’re Biased, So It’s OK That I’m Biased school of journalism. (Rather than engage in cheap psychoanalyzing, we’ll skip over how neatly this view dovetails with the narcissism that is America’s most prevalent social disease.)

There is a certain kind of bright but brittle mind that loves this sort of either/or thinking. What such minds cannot accept is the common-sensical notion that real life -- including that of the press -- is lived mostly in the pragmatic middle. There, experience has demonstrated that intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline enable journalists to gather and report facts with an impartiality that -- though sometimes imperfect -- is good enough to serve the public’s interest in the generality of cases.

This is the kind of abstraction customarily reserved for panel discussions. But it has taken on an angry urgency because of the cultural moment in which the country finds itself. According to the polls, this nation is again a house divided. And, on either side of the partisan divide, attitudes appear to be hardening.

“It’s certainly true that we are now two Americas,” said CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, who is also a leading scholar of public opinion. “We’re seeing this with greater clarity as we move further into this election cycle. There is no attempt to find a center. On the left, the Democratic front-runner, Howard Dean, wants to purge the party of its centrists, to repudiate the ‘Third Way’ Bill Clinton advocated. On the right, not even President George W. Bush talks about compassionate conservatism anymore. Look at the bestseller lists. They’re dominated by people like Al Franken and Michael Moore on the left and Bill O’Reilly and Anne Coulter on the right.”

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Our nonfiction literature, in other words, is today a shouting match. In such a climate, according to Schneider, “people who are as angry and convinced as the activists are today don’t want impartial journalism. They’ve staked out their positions, and now they want the press to take sides too.

“Partisanship has grown much harsher in recent years, no question. There is also a more bitter atmosphere in the country generally because our politics have come to involve issues of values and religion in a way they did not 30 years ago.”

This is a fault line that ruptured in the 1960s. Schneider, for example, recalls explaining to European journalists and politicians that the experience of that turbulent decade was far different in the United States than it was in other Western democracies. “Our experience of the ‘60s,” he said, “was entirely different from theirs, because this is the only country in which the counterculture triggered a lasting right-wing backlash. That occurred because, in the developed world, the United States is a uniquely religious society. Ronald Reagan won office, in large part, by bringing the religious right into presidential politics, and nothing has been quite the same since.”

In fact, pollsters now will tell you that the best way to find out how a person is likely to vote is to ask whether he or she attends church regularly.

The problem with value-laden politics, of course, is that they admit no compromise. And because opinion -- like water -- appears to seek its own level, a politics of value makes no place for impartiality, whether in the party caucus or in the press.

“Both poles in our increasingly polarized society,” said Schneider, “now want news as seen by people who see the world as they see it. The right feels threatened by the left; defensiveness is a hallmark of American conservatism. The left nowadays feels bullied by the right. They think conservative tough guys like Rush Limbaugh are beating them up every day and taking their lunch money. They want somebody on their side, who will punch the right-wing bullies in the nose.”

So, why not choose sides?

Two reasons:

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One, we’ve been there before. On the eve of the Civil War, Americans were per capita the greatest readers of newspapers in the world. Hardly a hamlet or frontier settlement was beyond the reach of the era’s ubiquitous newspapers and emerging weekly magazines, which had begun to circulate nationally. Every single one of those publications was passionately -- in fact, bitterly -- partisan. A very good case could be made that the free press of that period, though vigorous, not only failed to arrest the nation’s slide into civil strife but also played a major role in provoking it. Nobody is arguing that our current divisions remotely approach those of 1863. But it, too, was an era of value-laden politics in which popular sentiment demanded that the press take sides. A partisan press, though free and open about its bias, simply propelled its readers into the abyss.

Two, the era in which the ethic of journalistic impartiality has prevailed has coincided with a period of unequaled prosperity in the American media. Impartial, nonpartisan news columns have created advertising venues in which all sorts of enterprises are comfortable seeking customers. The consequent profits for newspapers, magazines and broadcasters have enriched owners and stockholders. But they’ve also made possible a level of reinvestment in news-gathering technologies and journalistic workforces that have made the U.S. media the powerhouse of the Information Age. Without that level of continuing reinvestment, it won’t long be necessary to divide fact from opinion, because the latter will be all anybody can afford.


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