Thursday, September 28, 2006


Washington is currently engulfed by one of the manufactured controversies in which it specializes, this time over the implications of a national intelligence estimate that was leaked to The New York Times. One of its conclusions, which frankly was already blindingly obvious to anyone with a room-temperature IQ, is that the Iraq war has been a tremendous recruiting tool for the jihad. Many of the writers of press accounts further indicate, explicitly or otherwise, that the war for that reason should be judged a failure. Should we believe them?

The trouble with most modern reporting is not just that it's biased, but that the bias results not just in printing things that may be false but in not printing things that are true. In this example, the first thing the responsible citizen should be concerned about is the agenda of the leaker. He has access to all kinds of documents, and his interests may cause him to leak some but not others. What the citizen really needs to see is all the information that the intelligence service possesses, but of course classification laws (sometimes for good reason, sometimes not) make this impossible. Failing that, he needs a representative sample of the evidence, or a full set of conclusions, if not necessarily the intelligence sources and means, that will allow him to decide for himself. But the leaker with an agenda leaks only information that supports his side of the story.

And it onto this is the agenda of the journalist. If journalists are biased (and they are), they may selectively frame the secret information they receive so as to further their own interests. The journalist will argue that his ethics code prevents him from doing that, but he would not take that argument seriously if a judge he suspected of corruption offered it.

So the citizen faces two sources of internal bias in all the reporting he sees. It is theoretically possible to correct for this, but then the information becomes almost completely worthless; it has so little probative value that it is not worth reading it to begin with. One solution is the one the British press employs, and that is to concede up front that newspapers have agendas. The Guardian is a paper of the left, The Daily Telegraph is a paper of the right. This is not a complete solution, but the reader knows to expect that these papers will be more likely to report certain kinds of malfeasance and ignore others. (Those with enough experience can do the same with "objective" media sources, but this is a lot of work, all carried out as the newspaper is insisting the whole time that it is not biased.)

Especially in the American model then, leaks and the reporting of leaks, particularly when they are leaks about reports that people in the government have written about government policy, should be treated with great skepticism. They are neither comprehensive nor representative, and are about as trustworthy as anonymous accusations about a company from a disgruntled employee leaked to a union long critical of that company – they may be true, but there is no good reason to take this report as evidence.

The New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse recently got into trouble with some of her fellow journalists for giving an anguished speech in which she offered several explicit opinions on political issues. She was criticized by an editor of The Oregonian who said that she "was asked to speak, as wonderful as she is, because she works for The New York Times. In that situation, any of us has to be careful between our own personal views -- which we no doubt have -- and whether it casts doubt on our own work or on the credibility of the institution we represent."

This is exactly the wrong attitude, I think. Journalists should be encouraged to offer their political beliefs in as many public forms as they can, and perhaps even to be allowed to take money from various special interests as long as it is disclosed. The problem, a newspaper faces is not that their "credibility" might be tainted, but that the skeptical citizen properly supposes that they have little credibility, and is primarily interested in figuring out what the nature of their biases is. The drawback of allowing them to take money is that it might persuade them to write stories that they otherwise would not write, in other words that the money might overcome rather than reinforce their biases. So the case for allowing journalists to take money is not as strong as that for allowing politicians to take bribes. But they should certainly be allowed and in fact encouraged to be as publicly political, as shrilly as they want (shrillness being a sign of extremism) and as often as they want.


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