Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Bias even in the best sellers' list

Freedom News Service

In the battle over journalistic balance, both Left and Right uphold the thesis that it is the other side that’s biased. And since professional media bias watchers are themselves usually partisan, this debate is likely to continue for eternity.
However, in order to keep up to date, it is nice to cast a watchful eye on areas of reporting that do not deal directly with controversial topics. One would expect, for example, that reporting on what books sell best in the land would involve hardly any opportunity for bias. After all, one just tells what the book is about and states the numbers, period. No chance for distortion or show of partisanship, is there?
Well, think again. In the Sunday, Oct. 19 issue of The New York Times Book Review, Al Franken’s book "Lies" takes first place and Bill O'Reilly's "Who's Looking Out For You" takes second. But as the contents of these books is briefly identified, something creeps in that really should not. Consider that The Times' staff compiling the list states that Al Franken's "Lies" is "a satirical critique of the rhetoric of right-wing pundits and politicians," while it tells readers that in Bill O'Reilly's "Who's Looking Out For You," "the host of 'The O'Reilly Factor' attacks those individuals and institutions that he believes have let down the American people."
You may say, "no big deal." Yet the example is still illustrative of just how far the bias – "A preference or an inclination, especially one that inhibits impartial judgment" or "An unfair act or policy stemming from prejudice" – at The Times can go. One may ask, why not say of "Lies," "of what the author regards as the rhetoric ..." or of "Who's Looking," "those who have let down the American people"? That would have been fair and balanced. But, no! Instead the staff makes sure that readers do not miss the fact that in O'Reilly's book the author gives us what "he believes," as distinct from what is the case, while in Franken’s book we get the actual "rhetoric of right-wing pundits and politicians," as distinct from what Franken takes to be such rhetoric.
Such difference in wording isn’t negligible. Franken is given full credibility by it, while O'Reilly's isn’t. Franken is treated by the staff as actually reporting something, while O'Reilly is treated as if he were only venting his beliefs that might very well be only in his mind, with no solid foundations.
Perhaps one has to have the kind of eagle eyes I possess for these things to make much of The Times’ book review section’s transgression, but then one would have to be pretty finicky about language to report on the stuff we get from William Safire in his "On Language" column. Someone has to do the dirty work. And I volunteer. Why?
Because when bias is being discussed, it is important to look at whatever meager evidence we have at our disposal. The Times is a revered paper, by many considered to be the paradigm of American journalism. Though it is caught engaging in some malpractice now and then, its routine reporting is supposedly impeccable. And by its own declaration it is above board as far as letting bias color its work, except where such coloring belongs, on the editorial pages.
What about the op-ed section of the paper? Well, when it comes to publishing pieces that fit the characterization of "opposite the editorial page," The Times satisfies this only as far as location is concerned. Most op-eds follow party line. Yet, from the viewpoint of journalistic ethics, on the editorial and op-ed pages that’s unobjectionable. After all, in a country with a free press one can turn elsewhere for other opinions. (I recall back in the early '80s the editors of the op-ed section welcomed submissions even from the likes of me, so I had about eight pieces published there until the editor left and the next one began to reject every submission I sent without comment.)
But the best sellers’ list isn’t the editorial or op-ed page, so insisting on fairness and balance there is just the ticket.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu

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