A NEW POLL reports that most journalists describe themselves as "liberal," and most of them voted for Bill Clinton. This is said to prove that the news you get in newspapers and on television is "biased."
Maybe a little bit. A reporter's outlook and opinions do affect what questions get asked and what details seem important. But our bosses who own the papers and TV networks are mostly conservative, and they hire us anyway. Maybe they have confidence in our impartiality. Besides, most news is what it is. An airplane crashed, and 200 people perished. A zoning variance was granted to a mall developer. A murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment. Usually, you wouldn't be able to distinguish Ted Kennedy's report of these events from Newt Gingrich's, except on the opinion pages, where they might well find different things to deplore -- that airline-safety regulations are too lax or too intrusive, for example.
Generally, it's not ideology that skews the news. More often it's expert information that later gets supplanted by new understandings.
A former television reporter named Edward Alwood is researching what the media said about homosexuals a generation ago. By today's standards, it's ugly stuff. Homosexuals were called "sick," "perverts," "deviates" and worse -- not in tabloid rags, but in reputable newspapers and on network television.
In a 1967 CBS documentary, Mike Wallace explained: "The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. His sex life -- his 'love life' -- consists of chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits, and even on the streets of the city. The pickup -- the one-night stand -- these are characteristic of the homosexual relationship." And so on.
Mr. Wallace today is repentant. When the researcher telephoned to ask why the CBS report had been so harsh, he paused, then explained: "That is -- God help us -- what our understanding was of the homosexual lifestyle a mere 25 years ago, because nobody was out of the closet and because that's what we heard from doctors."
A definitive cause
Exactly. Doctors treated homosexuality as a pathology, and they understood its cause quite definitively -- or so they said. Male homosexuality, we were told, was produced in boys with a domineering mother and an absent or ineffective father. So what was Mike Wallace to do -- substitute his own notions for the considered judgment of medical professionals?
Actually, Mr. Wallace now says he wishes he had done that. "I should have known better," he told Mr. Alwood. "Two of my best friends at the time were homosexual, and they had been living together forever. But I found them -- at that moment -- to be the exception that proves the rule."
Note the interplay of bias and objectivity. Mr. Wallace's report perpetuated the anti-gay bias of the time -- because he suppressed his personal bias in favor of his friends and trusted what he took to be scientific impartiality.
Surely the lesson is not that reporters shouldn't try to sort out confusion and should simply pass on the hollering of those with the loudest voices. We must all -- reporters, "experts" and readers -- do our best to make sense of things, listening to each other politely, avoiding extravagant claims and mindful that what we know for certain today will seem arrant nonsense tomorrow.
Unfortunately, that calls for modesty -- not a signal American virtue.
Pub Date: 6/08/96
Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.