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For Journalists, A Question of Balance

6 December 2001

At the end of the 19th century, when African-Americans were strung like “strange fruit” from Southern trees, The New York Times required every story about lynching to include a quote from a segregationist justif ying the hanging.

At some point, the absurdity of that journalistic “evenhandedness” struck home to the editors. Murder is not a story with “another side.”

I mention that footnote to my profession's history because I've always found something odd in the notion that ''balance'' is a seesaw, outfitted with exactly two seats for opponents whose views are carefully and equally w eighted. A given story may have 15 sides - or one. When terrorists struck on Sept. 11, there was only one side. No editor demanded a quote from someone saying why it was fine to fly airplanes into buildings. No one expec ted reporters to take an “objective” view of the terrorists.

Journalists were a part of the story. Sometimes literally. My Boston Globe colleague David Filipov, now reporting from Afghanistan, lost his father on Flight 11. It doesn't get any closer to home.

Not only did many in the media from Boston to New York to Washington feel their hometowns under attack, the first targets of anthrax - home-grown or not - were Congress and media alike.

For the first time in a while, the public saw journalists as part of the vast American “us”. Being neutral on terrorism was as absurd as being neutral on lynching. Approval ratings soared, along with our sense of self-worth.

Now we are into the next layer of the story; the one with 15 sides. The view of Ground Zero has become a more complicated prism on countries from Afghanistan to Iraq. The story is no longer just about victims but also about policy. Not just about what was done but what to do.

And as it evolves, some old, familiar questions are cropping up about journalism and patriotism.

We've had arguments about whether journalists should wear flag pins and whether Reuters writers could use the word “terrorist”. We've heard Geraldo Rivera say that he might shoot Osama bin Laden rather than interview him. We've heard Dan Rather blurt out that “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions and ... wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

Some readers complain that publishing pictures of Afghan civilians apparently killed by our bombs is a disloyal act. Some viewers believe that airing disagreements about administration policy and strategy is un-American.

Meanwhile, Roger Ailes, whose Fox News Channel promoted itself as “fair and balanced” in a jab at the more liberal media, has a new mantra: “Be accurate, be fair, be American.” But in the Fox dictionary, being an “American” journalist, however, is not a matter of cit izenship. It apparently means referring to bin Laden as a “dirtbag” and muting talk about the origins of Middle East hostility to the United States.

“We don't sit around and get all gooey and wonder if these people have been misunderstood in their childhood,” says Ailes dismissively.

Well, this may qualify me as a traitor in Ailes's book, but as Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, says, this idea of American news “cooks the books. Journalism is supposed to be as close a rendering of the complete story as you can offer, not preaching a declared slanted perspective.”

You can be a patriot and a journalist but practicing “patriotic journalism” sounds suspiciously like propaganda. “Bin Laden the Dirtbag” falls a wee bit short of a useful profile of the enemy, and editing out the Middle Eastern view turns Fox into our own al-Jazeera. Tom Rosensteil at the Project for Excellence in Journalism has been holding media seminars asking loaded questions: “Are you a journalist first or an American first?” Not surprisingly, reporters reject the conflict or choice. Since Sept. 11, they tell him they feel more connect ed to country and more committed to helping people make sense of events.

Maybe the phrase that works the best is the one offered by The Tampa Tribune's Gil Thelen, who describes the role as one of “committed observers.” We have - or should have - a strong commitment to the community, a stake in our country, a stake in creating a more secure world. And a role as independent observers.

This is what we mean by balance. And this is the reason to retrieve the Fox mantra for our own: Be fair, be accurate, be American.

Ellen Goodman.
Published in the Boston Globe.
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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