The Transparency Trap

August 20, 2o04

If you traffic in commentary, especially media criticism, it’s getting warm out there. The flourishing community of Web-based blogmeisters — some of them skilled journalists, many of them fervent partisans — is transforming the climate in which ideas are floated and tested.

They’re a tough crowd. Published work ricochets around the Internet, subjected almost instantly to criticism and denunciation if it’s suspected of factual or ideological error – or both, as with the Web-led assault on CBS for relying on questionable memos about President Bush’s time in the National Guard.

One recurring theme in Internet comment targets the unwillingness of journalists in mainstream media (known as MSM, generally a pejorative) to admit to having opinions of their own. If the problem is media bias, as the bloggers insist, why don’t journalists simply own up to their predispositions, abandon the pose of neutrality, and let audiences evaluate their work accordingly.

This seems reasonable. Indeed, some of the most thoughtful mainstream commentators have acknowledged as much. Jay Rosen of New York University, a father of civic journalism whose PressThink is one of the best media blogs around, referred at a recent nationwide gathering of journalism teachers to the mounting pressure for transparency, of journalists declaring where they stand. Michael Kinsley, founding editor of Slate and now editorial page chief of the Los Angeles Times, remarked this month on National Public Radio: “It’s a fiction to suppose that reporters don’t have political views, and it would be healthier and more honest if they simply said what they were.”

Why not? If motive is the issue, since we can’t get purity at least we’ll have clarity. But looking closer you find that transparency is rife with problems.

First, what exactly do you disclose? Fine, readers should know if a reporter covering an electoral campaign is a fierce partisan. But the situation is rarely that clear-cut (since assigning editors aren’t usually that ethically obtuse.)

In fact, the logic of transparency implicates a vast range of predisposition, way beyond Bush vs. Kerry or liberal vs. conservative. Values, beliefs, pre-existing attitudes of many kinds shape any reporter’s mindset, don’t they?

Hence, the second problem: What do you cop to? A lifelong mistrust of authority? Abiding sympathy for underdogs? Admiration for entrepreneurs? Many readers find religious faith relevant. Should you acknowledge having doubted the existence of a just and benevolent God as a cautionary note alongside your story about litigation over a comatose child? Might a bitter divorce influence your coverage of lawyers and courts?

How thorough a confessional is required? How much privacy must the journalist give up?

Third, why confine disclosure to the person who wrote the story or appears on camera? Journalism is a team effort. So we get this reporter’s disclosure for an abortion-related story: “I’m a gay man, and have no personal involvement, although my unmarried sister just had an abortion. But my editor is strongly pro-choice, and the headline writer is a born-again. The publisher is a practicing Catholic with seven children, and reads everything we run on the subject….”

Excessive? Sure. But the likely alternative is that transparency would degenerate into bland formulations from journalists that would be no more revealing than the self-flattery we get from politicians – “I believe in the sanctity of the family.” Aha, I knew it!

Besides, what’s the point of all this voir dire? Shouldn’t the proof of good or bad reporting be the report itself, especially compared with others? If a story is skewed, buries some facts and makes corrupt use of others for polemical reasons, won’t that emerge from analysis and criticism, not from some half-baked critique of the people who produced it?

And if it’s a bad piece of work, who cares if the reporter approached the subject free of preconceptions?

To me, the cry for transparency isn’t about holding media accountable. It’s a way to make certain media discountable. It creates a rationale for ignoring content you dislike by dismissing it as the deliberate product of unshakeable prejudice.

Instead of ad hominem critiques, we’re better off focusing on what matters: subjecting reporting to the test of truthfulness, and argument to the test of persuasiveness. That’s terrain we can all fight on.

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