Wednesday, March 16, 2005

At The Bottom Of The Slippery Slope

One of the blogosphere's favorite topics is the faux "journalistic objectivity" achieved by presenting every story as if it had two equal sides - as wickedly illustrated by The Daily Show :
STEWART: Th-that's not a spin thing, that's a fact. That's established.

CORDDRY: Exactly, Jon, and that established, incontravertible fact is one side of the story.

STEWART: But that should be -- isn't that the end of the story? I mean, you've seen the records, haven't you? What's your opinion?

CORDDRY: I'm sorry, my *opinion*? No, I don't have 'o-pin-i-ons'. I'm a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called 'objectivity' -- might wanna look it up some day.

STEWART: Doesn't objectivity mean objectively weighing the evidence, and calling out what's credible and what isn't?

CORDDRY: Whoa-ho! Well, well, well -- sounds like someone wants the media to act as a filter! [high-pitched, effeminate] 'Ooh, this allegation is spurious! Upon investigation this claim lacks any basis in reality! Mmm, mmm, mmm.' Listen buddy: not my job to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me.
Taking that particular journalistic tactic to its logical conclusion, C-SPAN's Book TV has refused to air a talk by Deborah Lipstadt, the noted historian who successfully defended herself against a Holocaust denier's libel suit - unless her talk is "balanced" by the Holocaust denier himself. As Richard Cohen explains,
The word balance is not in quotes for emphasis. It was invoked repeatedly by C-SPAN producers who seemed convinced that they had chosen the most noble of all journalistic causes: fairness. "We want to balance it [Lipstadt's lecture] by covering him," said Amy Roach, a producer for C-SPAN's Book TV. Her boss, Connie Doebele, put it another way. "You know how important fairness and balance is at C-SPAN," she told me. "We work very, very hard at this. We ask ourselves, 'Is there an opposing view of this?' "
Sadly, this is not a new experience for Lipstadt. In her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, she details the ways in which Holocaust deniers have successfully exploited American values of free speech and open-mindedness to cast themselves as a legitimate "other side to the issue," which must be represented in public fora in the interests of fairness. In the preface to the second edition she reports that, time and again, news producers asked her to participate in debates with Holocaust deniers or to appear on an equal footing with them in "he said/she said"-style broadcasts. She quotes Montel Williams urging viewers to stay tuned to learn whether the Holocaust "is a myth or is it truth."

Holocaust deniers intentionally blur the distinction between the First Amendment right to speak freely, without government restraint, and the right to publicity, an audience, and scholarly consideration. Unfortunately, both in the media and in academia, far too many people have been taken in by these tactics. However repellent the ideas of Holocaust deniers, they argue, it would stifle intellectual freedom and journalistic objectivity to... well, apparently, to insist that the truth be presented as the truth.

The Lipstadt case is such a monstrous caricature of journalistic fairness that it's provoked outrage from The Washington Post's Richard Cohen, who has himself been far too prone to engage in the faux-balanced, "on the other hand"-style commentary that passes for moderation these days. I'd like to believe that his column will spark careful media reflection on journalists' responsibility to differentiate truth from obvious lies - but if Lipstadt's experiences in the early 90s are any indication, well, I shouldn't be holding my breath.