How our newspapers might turn bias to balance.
by Bruce S. Thornton
The media’s techniques for smuggling opinion into what are supposed to be news stories are so pervasive that often we don’t even notice when they are at work. Here’s an example from the Friday, November 4 New York Times, in a story about the Muslim riots in Paris. Most of the article simply describes the events and the political fallout for various French politicians.
It’s in the last paragraph that the reporting of news gives way to disguised opinion: “The continuing unrest appears to be fueled less by perceived police brutality than by the frustration of young men who have no work and see little hope for the future.” In Saturday’s coverage, this opinion migrates to the front of the story, with references to “underlying frustrations” and “decades of high unemployment and marginalization.” To statements such as these any perceptive reader should respond, “Says who?”
Notice the use of the impersonal weasel-word “appears.” Appears to whom? The Times writer, a French politician, an academic, an imam, or the rioters? The way this opinion is phrased obscures the fact that it is a mere opinion, an interpretation of the events described, not a fact. As such, the source of the opinion should be identified so we can evaluate its usefulness and integrity. But to say it “appears,” unconnected to a person with a point of view, is an evasion of responsibility. If this explanation was deemed so important for the story, then surely the reporter could have found someone to give him a quote expressing the opinion so that at least we’d know whose ax is being ground. And a thorough reporter would be sure to find other people with alternative interpretations in order to provide balance and give the reader a fuller range of opinion on the matter. Without this sort of attribution, however, the opinion then must be that of the writer and the editors of the Times. At which point we need to be asking why a newspaper that continually proclaims its professional objectivity is putting opinion into what’s supposed to be a news story.
But it’s not just the concealment of the opinion’s source that is troubling. The opinion itself reflects a certain ideology, a set of modern prejudices about human behavior. To attribute the riot to “frustration” and “no work” is to indulge a highly questionable view of human action that reduces it to environmental forces outside the individual. This materialist determinism — the idea that material causes in the environment, especially economic ones, are the prime mover of humans — is not a scientific fact but an ideological prejudice whose roots lay in pseudo-scientists like Marx and Freud. It discards the fact of human free will and ignores the many complex and conflicting motivations of people that explain their actions. Sometimes people burn and loot out of economic frustration and hopelessness; sometimes they do so because of the innate joy in destruction and in the power that such destruction temporarily bestows; sometimes they do so because they want stuff for free; sometimes they do so in pursuit of some value or ideal; and sometimes they do so just for the sheer hell of it.
In the case of the Paris rioters, there are other explanations for their behavior that are more accurate than liberal clichés about “frustration.” As Dr Jack Wheeler puts it, “The problem is not that these Moslem kids are unemployed, but that they are unemployable. They are illiterate, unskilled except in crime, don’t speak French well, refuse to assimilate into French culture and think being Moslem is more important than being French. Worse, they are paid by the French welfare state not to work, living well off the dole (and crime). The problem was epitomized by these words of a young Moslem rioter to a French reporter: ‘In the day we sleep, go see our girlfriends, and play video games. And in the evening we have a good time: we go and fight the police.’”
But don’t expect the Times to explore these alternative interpretations. TheTimes endorses the opinion consistent with the liberal-left world-view of the paper’s editorial board, a vision of human nature in which notions like free will and unmotivated evil are superstitions that have been unmasked by science. People in reality are just passive victims of the larger forces controlling their destinies. Thus the unjust economic system (i.e. capitalism) and its oppression are to blame for destructive actions, for man does live by bread alone, and so if he acts up it’s only because he doesn’t have enough bread. All those Muslim youths have no autonomous wills, no values or ideals they hold dear, no spiritual beliefs that justify their actions. They are just passive victims who can only react to the injustice around them.
Even those who presumably believe that humans do have free will, and that spiritual reality is as real as material, are seduced by the same determinist assumptions. The Bush administration’s belief that jihadist terror is a deformation of Islam brought about by lack of political freedom expresses the same assumption. This is akin to the equally mistaken belief that the jihadists in Iraq are blowing up American soldiers and fellow Moslems because of anger over the U.S. overthrow of Hussein. In both cases, those who act on the basis of spiritual beliefs are reduced to mere reactors to environmental forces outside their control. And when the jihadists identify for us, as they do repeatedly, the religious beliefs and doctrines that inspire their actions and that are consistent with the history and theology of their religion, we arrogantly dismiss their words as expressions of some neurosis or delusion whose true sources lie elsewhere.
So pervasive is this determinist prejudice that I’m betting the Times reporter and editors wouldn’t even think that it is an opinion, or find putting it in a news story untoward. Nor would the writers and editors for the Associated Press and Reuters, whose coverage of the riots repeat the same questionable opinions in what are supposed to be news stories. It’s just one of those things that “everybody knows,” at least everyone whose mind isn’t warped by primitive religious superstition. And indeed, this prejudice has so infected the schools and universities and government agencies that it does seem to be a simple scientific fact that needs no argument or proof. But it’s not. It’s an opinion about human nature, an interpretation based on questionable premises. And such opinions have no place in a news story unless they are clearly identified as an opinion, balanced against others that challenge it, and attributed to a source, so that the reader can make a critical judgment about its value. At least that’s what a newspaper would do that truly believes its job is not to advance a cause or tell readers what to think, but to report the truth and give its readers the information needed to make up their own minds.