NPR recently ran a two-part series on media bias. The reports, by David Folkenflik, were quite good, with a couple major flaws. Folkenflik ignored the question of who gets hired by the major media and why. Isn’t it time to do a nuts-and-bolts investigation of who gets brought on to the Washington Post, New York Times, CBS, et al, and who does not? Answering that question may answer why the media has lost its capacity to report fairly, not to mention delight, compel, and surprise — characteristics that, idiotic pronouncements about “objectivity” aside, are part of what makes good journalism.
In his report, Folkenflik compared American papers to British ones. The British papers are proudly partisan and don‘t hide it; one editor went so far as to say the partisanship affects how stories are reported — who gets quoted, what gets left out. According to Folkenflik, “Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger argued that British papers give more room than their American counterparts to voices that challenge conventional wisdom. ‘I think it’s quite a striking thing about the British press that you get this polemical battle over the basis for what news is, which I feel is to a large extent missing in the American scene,’ Rusbridger says. ‘No judgments are free of ideologies, so who you choose to quote and how you structure stories are highly political judgments. I think that’s the problem with trying to place too much faith in something called objectivity.’”
“Who you choose to quote and how you structure your stories.” That’s an honest and revealing sentence. Anyone who has ever been interviewed by a journalist knows that most of them distort facts to fit their biases. But I would even go deeper. Most of them simply ignore stories long before getting to the point where they want to trash someone.
Let me offer a personal example. I realize that in doing so I could be accused of simply resenting the fact that a book I wrote was not covered in the Washington Post. That would be a fair charge, but 1) I agree with the Brits that there’s no such thing as objectivity (there is, however, honor and fairness), and 2) my own hang-ups don’t make my point any less valid.
In 2005, two books were published with the word “Prep” in the title. The first was Curtis Sittenfeld’s prep school novel “Prep.” The second was my memoir “God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling.” Two books with “Prep” in the title, published six months apart in the same year. Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel got a review in the Washington Post, and the author a bio in the coveted Style section of the paper. This is as it should be: Sittenfeld had won the “Seventeen” magazine fiction writing contest and was teaching writing in Washington. Moreover, “Prep” is about the cannibalism of upper-class mean girls, which is always good copy.
When “God and Man at Georgetown Prep” was released a few months after “Prep,” the Post was silent. The book is my account of how liberalism almost drove a famous Catholic high school in Washington, D.C. off the rails in the 1980s. I have deep roots in Washington, going back to when my grandfather was drafted to come to the city and play baseball for the Washington Senators in 1915. My brother won the Helen Hayes Award for the best actor in Washington, and my dad worked for National Geographic. More, “God and Man” was a man-bites-dog story. Unlike the countless adolescent memoirs that criticize Catholic education from the left — the ones that get covered in the media — mine was a critique from the right. And my implicit warning that the corrupting liberalism causing problems at Prep could result in serious damage was validated, as I described in this piece in The Daily Caller.