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Pressing Questions



Published July 14, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Facts are just facts. Stories take facts and add motivation, drama, meaning, spin. Isolated facts are hard to remember; stories are easy. Facts tend to get lost in stock reports and technical papers; stories sell newspapers and movie tickets to a mass audience. But where does "story" become fiction? How much can you spin the truth before you're turning out propaganda?

It seems skepticism about the "official story" has reached an all-time high. The notion of objective media outlets, staffed by reporters who convey information without bias, has been attacked from both sides of the political spectrum. Recent years have brought us Bernard Goldberg's Bias, Bob Kohn's right-wing dissection of The New York Times, and the counter-salvos from Eric Alterman in What Liberal Media? and David Brock in The Republican Noise Machine.

The success of Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 has pushed the debate about media objectivity into overdrive. Critics of the movie point out that it's blatantly partisan in its presentation of the Bush Administration's response to September 11. Defenders reply that Moore makes no attempt to hide his political slant, nor should he. After all, one of the film's underlying themes is that the mainstream media present us with a biased, fractured view of the world -- giving us President Bush's tough talk about terrorists from the golf course but leaving out his eerily breezy segue, "Now watch this drive."

If CNN and the major papers are playing cheerleader for the current administration -- so goes the argument -- why should we expect Moore to be any more evenhanded? Should journalists, facing an ever more cynical and media-savvy public, bid farewell to their ideal of objectivity and simply play to partisan niche audiences? Might a disillusioned public be won back by a truly fair and balanced source of news?

Saint Michael's College journalism professor David Mindich has spent years mulling over such questions. His first book, Just the Facts, was a history of the notion of objectivity in American journalism. His forthcoming exploration, Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News, will be published by Oxford University Press in October.

Mindich, who's just over 40 himself, sees cynicism among the young at the root of the "tuning out" trend. Skepticism about the "official story" is healthy, Mindich says. But "when we cross over into cynicism and doubt all information, then we've said in effect that the news is equal to reality TV or 'Friends.'" Young people who recognize no difference between news and entertainment "cede a lot of their power as citizens," he believes.

Mindich was happy to see a lot of young people in the Fahrenheit 9/11 audience, though he points out that most of Moore's facts aren't a revelation to those who carefully follow the news. Moore's real accomplishment, Mindich suggests, lies in "putting [the facts] all together in a package with a tone of irreverence. It might be useful for mainstream media sometimes to abandon their objective, robotic voices and embrace that kind of passion."

Rachel Donadio, who's been a cultural reporter at the New York Observer since 2003, grew up in Middlebury -- she's the daughter of New England Review editor and Middlebury College prof Stephen Donadio. In the past, she worked a political beat at the Forward, covering both the 2000 presidential election and the bin Laden embassy bombings. Last April she interviewed Len Sherman, the obscure Arizona literary agent who convinced Richard Clarke to write Against All Enemies.

"To say there's no objectivity in the media is a little bit cynical," Donadio says. "It's not a question of whether there's absolute truth -- you need to do justice to as many sides of the story as possible." As for Moore, she says, "He's not a journalist. He's not out there to be as balanced as possible. He's creating his own narrative, and he has decidedly more of an agenda than mainstream news outlets do."

One phenomenon of special interest to media critics and commentators is the proliferation of new sources of information. Gone are the days when the vast majority of Americans tuned in at six to hear trusted network anchormen deliver the news. We're more likely to get our news on the run, from 24-hour cable networks and websites that traffic in gossip and rumor.

"You're bombarded with information from all sides, and you have to do more work of your own to piece the story together," says Donadio. However, she doesn't believe that traditional media will have to cede their role to opinion-makers on the Net. "People are more skeptical about mainstream media outlets, but still rely on them," she says. "Websites may have a scoop, but there's no way of verifying it. What print media do is edit all the material that's out there, make sense of it and place it in context."

James Bandler has been writing for the Wall Street Journal since 1999. Earlier in his career, the New York native worked for five years at the Rutland Herald, where he says he was "stunned and a little intimidated by the number of talented reporters."

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Bandler co-wrote the Journal story "Bin Laden Family Could Benefit from a Jump in Defense Spending," which brought to light the connections between the Bush and bin Laden families via the Carlyle Group investment fund -- facts that Moore spotlights in Fahrenheit 9/11. This year, in his new role as a "print media writer" for the Journal, Bandler has been investigating the business side of the media. In May, he reported on The New York Times' editorial admission that the paper had not been sufficiently critical in its coverage of the Administration's claims that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

How does he respond to the notion that the mainstream media can't be trusted in its coverage of events since 9/11? "Human beings produce news," says Bandler. "It's a fallible process. It wasn't a conspiracy at the Times. Reporters are taught to be skeptical, but sometimes when we deal with authority figures, we lose that skepticism. There's an institutional belief that when a prosecutor tells you something, it's worth more than what you hear from a defense lawyer."

Bandler points out that reporters are often under pressure to produce a compelling story on deadline. "Something we don't do enough is say when we don't know," he says. "When journalists return to a rapidly produced story and do follow-up research, they often produce a second story with more nuance. But that story may not be placed as prominently in the paper as the first." Such was often the case in the Times with articles that presented less alarmist views of WMD potential in Iraq. It's human nature, Bandler suggests, to focus on information that plays directly to our fears: "People are more interested in tension and conflict than in resolution."

Maybe our appetite for stories will always clash with our desire to find out the whole truth and nothing but the truth -- even when the truth is complicated or tedious or unwelcome. But these journalists agree that to dismiss every media outlet as a corporate or partisan tool is to give up the fight. "If you want to hold your leaders accountable," says Mindich, "you have to trust a media source. You have to trust that there's a there out there and that we can get in contact with it."

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