January 2005

Bias is in the eye of the beholder

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

I see deadened people.

They glide like ghosts between desks and coffee pots, feeding the bottom line, informing others, but in the name of “ethics” are barred from expressing their views publicly. They’re called corporate journalists.

According to “the industry,” these intelligent, informed people are required to sacrifice any number of civil liberties in order to do the job—sometimes in their own homes and even when not on the clock, all because someone, somewhere might think their personal choices infect their reporting with “bias.”

It is common sense that opinion must never be substituted for fact; feelings should never take the place of reporting; no one should ever deliberately distort information to fit an agenda, and obvious conflicts of interest should be avoided. This should not, however, be taken to mean a reporter can’t hold an opinion in the first place and express it on his own time, or on a page clearly marked for commentary. Too frequently, it is, and with results that approach the ludicrous.

Real-world examples:

* An editor who reportedly once boasted that he didn’t even vote, so great was his terror of being seen as “non-objective.”

* A reporter who got into trouble because he, on his own time, signed a petition against the PATRIOT Act. It wasn’t clear whether he actually ever covered politics, but apparently, his personal views would be obvious to readers: “Look! Here comes that guy who signed the PATRIOT Act petition!”

*Newsroom staff members who were told they couldn’t have campaign signs in their own yards, for fear that someone driving by might realize where they worked. It didn’t matter that none of the staffers actually had such signs, that non-employees might live in the home or own the property, or that the company was applying its rules outside of the workplace.

I see paranoia. Now for the reality check.

By its very nature, journalism—hold onto your hats—is not objective. Reporters choose what meetings to cover; what information from those meetings is relevant and then present it in the manner of an editor’s choosing. As Hunter S. Thompson once remarked, sports scores and stock-market reports are the closest thing to “objective” journalism, otherwise, the phrase is “a pompous contradiction in terms.”

Then there’s the uncomfortable truth that the news is printed largely because advertising dollars created the space for it. Lucrative ads aren’t yanked for fear of perceived bias. Somehow, it’s understood that lines can be drawn between news and ads—so why isn’t it also understood they can be drawn between the reporter as individual and the reporter as professional?

The simple truth is that bias is in the eye of the beholder, and the wholesale muzzling of people by profession is no sort of answer. Some have read bias into a typing error; others apply their standards unevenly by criticizing one journalist for his opinion, while praising another for hers. The explanation here is simple: it depends on whom the reader agrees with; ergo, in this instance, the “bias” is the reader’s own.

The issue is not cut and dried at different publications, either—some allow staff commentary, including my last job, where the rules changed to accommodate the wishes of various editors. My new boss happens to think “a staff-written opinion column is an asset at a small paper,” while another paper that offered a job seemed to think otherwise.

Now, the industry has a point: People do not have to become reporters. However, those who choose the profession do so with the same understanding any employee and employer enter into: 40 hours’ work for 40 hours’ pay. There is no agreement to exchange priceless liberties for a paycheck. When other businesses attempt to control employees’ behavior outside work, people tend to see such as an ACLU suit waiting to happen, not as noble sacrifice.

I see irony, irony with enough levels to be a high-rise. If the media are the watchdogs of civil liberties; if the industry lauds itself for giving a voice to the voiceless, how can it withhold those same liberties, silence its workers, and then talk of “ethics” with a straight face?

Take the industry’s defense to the extreme, and there’d be nothing to stop a media outlet from telling employees what to watch on TV, where (or if) to go to church, what acquaintances to keep, where to shop, what kind of car to drive, or, indeed, whether to vote. Such, after all, are indicative of a person’s opinion.

You’d think, too, that the media would at least be getting somewhere with these standards. Alas, the trade-off isn’t there. According to recent stats, Average Joe trusts Average Journo less than he does a used-car salesman. This is not usually because the journalist isn’t following ethical rules (look at Fox News’ ratings), but because he’s somehow crossed Joe’s comfort zone, or because Joe can see through the window dressing of “ethics” to the corporate agenda beyond.

It is this agenda, not the individual, that is the problem, yet the industry persists with its pompous pontificating and attendant mythology: Readers are either too stupid to see what is before them, or too fragile to bear it, so reporters must be controlled in the name of an ideal the industry itself finds impossible to uphold. This sort of control—and it is control, not ethics—is excused as “the nature of the business.”

I see the deadening of common sense and I hear a whispered message: Freedom must be surrendered to the job, or the job cannot be correctly performed. Journalists are not, technically speaking, citizens with rights. The hell it can’t, and the hell they’re not.

Katharhynn Heidelberg, a longtime area resident, is moving to Montrose. This column was written Dec. 21 and published before Jan. 4. Her new employer knows about it, so there’s no need to send him clips — openly or otherwise.