Via TPM: About ten days ago, Chris Cillizza, who blogs on politics at the Washington Post, wrote up a 'scorecard' on corruption scandals in politics. He said at the outset that he was going to limit himself to currently serving politicians, but stuck in Rep. Frank Ballance, who resigned in 2004, and whose corrupt act had taken place even earlier. As it happened, Ballance was a Democrat. Without him, the scorecard would have included 8 Republicans and 2 Democrats, and Josh Marshall speculated that Ballance had been included to make the list less obviously Republican-heavy.
Today, a reader asked Cillizza about this. Here's the question, and Cillizza's response:
"New York, N.Y.: In your recent corruption roundup, you set up some ground rules that you'll only deal with current members of Congress or governors. Yet, you broke your own rules by including Rep Frank Ballance (D) who resigned in June, 2004. You omitted Connecticut Governor John Rowland (R) who also resigned in June, 2004. Why break your own rules for one but not the other?
The only thing I can think of is that you made a list and found that there are a lot more Republicans than Democrats on the list. So in an effort to appeared unbiased, you had to find another Democrat.
Cillizza: This was an editorial mixup. In my original post, Ballance was not included since, as you rightly point out, he is not a sitting member of Congress. After an edit, Ballance was unnecessarily included for, frankly, balance. I did not read the final edit and therefore was unaware that Ballance had been added to the list. I apologize for my editor's error (he's been flogged). And let no man (or woman) say The Fix opposes full disclosure."
OK, Media: let's take this slowly.
What is journalistic objectivity? -- It is the attempt to present the facts neutrally and fairly, without allowing one's own view of how they should come out to color one's reporting. We recognize that this is an ideal, and that some degree of bias may always creep in, but we expect journalists to try to work against it.
Why do we care about journalistic objectivity? -- Because if journalists allow their own preconceptions to distort their presentation of the facts, then their readers cannot trust what they read. Readers should be able to assume that the facts presented by journalists are, by and large, accurate; to the extent that journalists shape their reporting of the facts to fit their preconceptions, we cannot do so.
Does journalistic objectivity require making it look as though both sides have a point? -- No. It requires presenting the facts impartially. If the facts favor one side over the other, then that does not show that the journalist is biassed. It shows that the facts favor one side.
Gosh, you're right! Isn't the attempt to make reality look evenhanded actually the antithesis of journalistic objectivity? -- Yes. It is an attempt to make reality look as though it fits the journalist's preconceptions. It is just as bad to create an illusion of balance where none exists as to create an illusion of one-sidedness where none exists. The journalist's job is to report the facts, not to make them seem the way s/he wants them to seem. And this is just as true when s/he wants the facts to look 'balanced' as when s/he wants them to favor one side.
If there are eight Republicans and two Democrats currently embroiled in scandals, that makes it look as though Republicans have a bigger corruption problem than Democrats do, at the moment. That impression is caused by reality, not by reporting. When an editor decides that this is an 'imbalance' that needs to be 'corrected' by including on a list Democrats who do not meet the criteria for inclusion, s/he is basically saying: the way things really look is not the way I think they should look, so I am going to fiddle with the facts until I get things to look the way I think they should.
It is, to me, no different than reporting that Tom DeLay is actually an independent, on the grounds that this would be "fairer" than saying that the Republican ex-majority leader is under indictment. In both cases, you falsify things to create an illusion of fairness.
I'm glad Cillizza (or someone) flogged his editor, and Cillizza deserves credit for talking about this openly. Because this is just plain wrong. If editors want to make the Republican party look as though it has less of a corruption problem, the way to do it is to get involved in Republican party politics and try to change the party. It is not to distort journalists' stories to disguise a problem that really exists.