In Defense of Bias

IN DEFENSE OF BIAS….I don’t really want to pick on David Adesnik, but, um, I guess I’m going to anyway. Today he writes that Howard Dean is the victim of liberal bias at the New York Times, and as happens so often when I hear charges like this, I think that David is paying too little attention to a key point.

The story in question is a profile of Howard Dean, and aside from making the common mistake of thinking that the reporter also wrote the story’s headline (this never happens ? headlines are written by the copy desk), David objects to her use of the word “rabid” to describe Dean’s supporters, the phrase “Birkenstock liberals” in another place, and several other instances where the reporter made some judgments about the nature of depth of Dean’s support.

But here’s the thing: this is a feature story, not a piece of hard news. Stories like this are supposed to rely on the reporter’s personal observations and on the colorful ? and necessarily subjective ? details that they record. Sure, this means their point of view comes across, but that’s deliberate. It makes the story more lively and readable, and without it feature writing would be dull indeed.

What’s more, I think that hypersensitivity to wording choices in a story like this does a real disservice to readers because it reinforces the cult of objectivity that has such a stranglehold on American journalism. It punishes reporters for trying to tell us what they really think is going on, instead rewarding a lifeless who-what-where-when-why-AP-style-quotes-from-both-sides style of writing that does no one any good. Top reporters are supposed to be smart and savvy, and we should encourage them to make more use of their sharp eyes and good instincts, not less.

Besides, liberal bias is the least of the problems in our major media. Al Franken put it pretty well yesterday:

“There are so many other biases in all the mainstream media: pack mentality. Sensationalism. Sex. Conflict. Getting it cheap. Getting it first instead of getting it right.” To ask whether the establishment press has a liberal bias “is like asking whether al Qaeda uses too much oil in their hummus.”

This is exactly right. What reporters really want is their byline on the front page above the fold. Everything else is secondary.

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