Who Watches the Watchers?

If perfect objectivity for a news article is a 10 and pure bias is 1, FOX News’ story about the Senate’s gridlock for a new defense budget scores around 5.   CNN’s same story rates around 6.  Aspects of each story seem to favor an objective reporting style, but subordinate topics tend to dip into personalizing and dramatic biases.

Both stories conform more or less to industry norms of taste and decency, though a glimmer of the tension between sensationalism and hard news bleeds through.  This is especially evident in Fox’s references to the Log Cabin Republicans and CNN’s insistence that Lady Gaga remain part of the discussion.  Other issues are omitted, especially by FOX, that might be instrumental in shaping the purpose of the information.  FOX’s most glaring omission is simply the perspectives of the military men and women who will be the most affected by a repeal of DADT.  CNN takes some space to allow military officials’ opinions to be reported.   All politics aside, what are the immediate and practical consequences of dissolving this long-standing and uncomfortable military policy?  CNN’s article gives us a clue, and FOX avoids the issue altogether.

Instead, FOX adds elements to the story that have either been avoided or scrapped by CNN’s more detailed coverage.  FOX twice refers to an abortion policy included in the contested bill that is absent in CNN’s article.  FOX also presents the fun fact that 48 years have passed since the Senate has failed to ratify its yearly defense budget on schedule.  48 years ago?!  Silent Spring had just hit the bookshelves and no one outside Liverpool had heard of the Beatles!

(Just proves how inept the party in power truly is!)

Both stories use well-generalized terms that are crafted to be easily digested by each outlet’s respective consumer base.  Complex information involving the mechanics of the US Senate is paraphrased effectively.  CNN outpaces Fox in terms of length and specifics but hangs its entire story on the official statements it draws from.  Only one of CNN’s many quotes is taken from an unofficial source (Joe Solmonese, Human Rights Campaign).  The rest of the feature hovers around official versions of the proceedings, never far from what Robert Gates and Harry Reid have said.

Of course, news reports that rely upon the statements of biased officials must reflect that bias.  Fox’s article ends with an ominous quote by Dick Durbin, Majority Whip and Super-Democrat from Obama’s home state, “promising” to push pro-immigrant legislation known as the DREAM Act.  FOX’s adherents are almost certainly losing sleep to nightmares about slippery slopes.

CNN is barely better.  John McCain, as qualified as he is, serves as CNN’s designated Republican spokesman, calling the legislation “cynical” and “insulting.”  As an objective observer, I can understand why McCain is upset, but his words frame the debate in personal and emotional terms that stray so far from impartiality, the objectivity of the coverage suffers without an emotional counterpoint.

A score of 10 on my scale is probably an unachievable rating for journalists—indeed for human beings—but I would argue that a 9.5 is quite possible.  Objectivity is a kind of journalistic paradox, requiring a view of events that is removed from those same events.  The problem is that journalists cannot operate in a vacuum.  The point is to become as objective AS POSSIBLE, to remember that objectivity is the most important objective, and other goals should be prioritized accordingly.  Party press and advocacy press already exist in modern form in America today, propelled by business interests shared by political factions.  I believe it is more important now than ever that some news institutions continue to obligate themselves to the ideal of objectivity because some others so brazenly do not.  As long as we have C-Span, we can laugh at Glenn Beck.

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