When the press takes sides by not taking sides

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Jay Rosen has an excellent post you should read. Go check it out; I'll wait. But come back, because I want to elaborate on something he writes.

OK. Here's Rosen:

My claim: We have come upon something interfering with political journalism's "sense of reality" as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called it (see section 5.1) And I think I have a term for the confusing factor: a quest for innocence in reportage and dispute description. Innocence, meaning a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved. That's what created the pattern I've called "regression to a phony mean." That's what motivated the rise of he said, she said reporting. [Emphasis added]

I don't disagree with anything Rosen wrote, but I think he left out something that is very important (and something I suspect he knows): When reporters omit reality from their stories in order to avoid being seen as "involved" or "taking sides," they are taking sides. And they are taking the wrong side. When you treat two statements -- one true and one false -- as equally valid and equally likely to be true, you are conferring an undeserved benefit on the false statement.

I've written about this before, describing it as "privileging the lie," so I won't spell it out at length again. (More here.)

I will simply offer an analogy. When a basketball referee fails to call a foul late in a close game, broadcasters will often say the referee "didn't want to decide the game" or "wanted to let the players decide the game on the court." The implication is that if the referee calls a last-second foul, he is deciding the outcome of the game -- but that if he doesn't call it, he is letting the players determine the outcome. This may be aesthetically and dramatically pleasing to some, but as a basic matter of fact and logic, it is incorrect. By not blowing the whistle on a clear foul, the referee is doing the opposite of what the announcers say he is doing. He isn't really letting the players decide the game on the court; he's giving one team a distinct advantage. When the people in charge of enforcing the rules stop doing so, their actions are the opposite of neutrality. Not calling a foul is a decision, too -- and it, too, has consequences.

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Jay Rosen
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