COLORING THE NEWS
How Crusading for Diversity
Has Corrupted American Journalism
By William McGowan
Encounter. 250 pp. $25.95
In a preface intended for the first edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote that "at any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is 'not done' to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was 'not done' to mention trousers in the presence of a lady." Orwell, of course, was less concerned with sartorial observation than with the fog of intellectual fashions, the orthodoxies that could induce otherwise liberal and tolerant minds to censor public discourse of disagreeable facts and opinions. In what remains as a vivid defense of the freedom of the press, he concluded that "if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."
Many reporters, editors and publishers will not want to hear what former Newsweek journalist William McGowan has to say in Coloring the News. For this magnificent collection of awkward facts, troubling arguments and unfashionable opinion reveals a cloud of dubious orthodoxy behind the ostensibly just pursuit of diversity in the news and in the newsroom. In a study that almost serves as a primer on controversial social issues, McGowan looks at what major news organizations chose to emphasize and leave out in national news stories on affirmative action, immigration, race, AIDS and promiscuity, integration in the military and partial birth abortion. Animated not by ideology but by a desire to arrive at "a frank and fair rendering of the facts," McGowan demonstrates that, in a quest to do good, much diversity-minded journalism has prevented the airing of critical moral and philosophical conflicts. These points of dispute are essential, he argues, not only for justice to be seen to be done, but for social policy to be formulated under the kind of democratic criticism vital to its ultimate success. The irony here is that McGowan's charges do not disclose an incorrigibly liberal press, as conservatives would charge, but rather an illiberal press, which works to restrict the free market of ideas.
Take, for example, a brief extract from the reporting on the debate over bilingual education, which, McGowan argues, is mostly covered as vital and beneficial to the interests of a multicultural society. "Reporters just can't see this issue beyond their own ideological bent," says Alice Callahan, a left-wing Episcopal priest who works with Latino sweatshop workers in Los Angeles, most of whom supported Prop. 227, a California ballot initiative against bilingual education in 1998. "I have been surprised how unwilling they are to entertain a view of the issue different from their preconceived view no matter what the facts are."
As a reporter, McGowan grounds much of his criticism in this kind of detail; and for obvious reasons, the focus of the book is largely on what has been misreported rather than what has been reported well. While the New York Times takes a drubbing, for example, for its recent coverage of racial issues, there is no mention of its Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation of the Tawana Brawley hoax -- one of the ugliest examples of race-based politics gone awry.
As to why diversity has become stuck in the mire of orthodoxy, McGowan blames the decline of objectivity, thanks to the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida and other riders of the post-everything apocalypse; cultural relativism; and the dominion of the middle and upper-middle classes over the flagships of journalism.
Certainly, no journalism conference is complete without some genius making the objective claim that there is no such thing as objectivity. But while a God's-eye-view of how the universe really works is beyond the reach of mortal thought, the idea of journalistic objectivity never resided in such grand epistemological goals; its aim was fairness -- to ensure that readers hear both sides of an issue. Skepticism -- the permanent itch of the fourth estate -- derives from the corruptibility of facts and people, and not from academic unease with the metaphysics of being. It's a fair bet that Derrida expects fair and factual reporting in his morning newspaper -- otherwise, what use would news be?
There's a considerable subordinate irony here as well: McGowan has done nothing but deconstruct the idea of diversity throughout Coloring the News -- first, by showing the confounding effect of what doesn't get reported in diversity issues; and second, by exposing the bogus pluralism of newsrooms that try to mirror American demography in every way except for diversity in political, religious and class affiliations.
It is the last of these, class, that is possibly the most important. For it is less philosophy than emotion that guides journalists' guilt and pity -- the desire, as journalism schools keep reminding their expensively educated charges, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Once, the little guy went out to report on the little guy; now a professional class faces worlds far different and more troubled than the ones they grew up in.
Yes, it is of course noble to seek to comfort the afflicted; but this mandate also seems to make many journalists susceptible to politically therapeutic ideas, and risk-averse to anything that appears to challenge, criticize or offend those less privileged than themselves. As Coloring the News argues and demonstrates, it would be far better for liberal democracy in the long run for journalists to stick to the facts -- especially the ones that are the most difficult to hear. *
Trevor Butterworth is a research fellow at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Media and Public Affairs.