Where’s the perspective?

Back in the ’80s, I was the news editor of the paper in Wichita, Kansas.
Part of my job was deciding what went on the front page every day. I made a practice of checking the wire advisories on what the nation’s largest papers were putting on their pages the next day — particularly The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times — in part to make sure they weren’t sneaking into the paper some scoop that they had withheld from their own wire services, to which we subscribed. I got a few last-minute strong lead national and international stories that way.
Over time, I came to respect the judgment shown by The New York Times in terms of the relative play they gave to stories on their front page. As I studied the decisions they made day after day, I saw them making very smart calls that weren’t immediately obvious — you had to read through the stories and reflect on them, you could see subtleties of judgment that were impressive. L.A. was a little too Pacific Rim-oriented, and The Post was too obsessed with inside the Beltway, to give a really balanced sense of what was important and what wasn’t. This was particularly reflected in their choice of the lead story on the front page. You could rely upon it to be the most important development in the world, once you really thought about it.
So imagine my disappointment this morning, when I saw the Times lead with yet another story about the ongoing culture war over stem cell research, while a certain story out of Ireland was played on the opposite side of the page. (The Times has a very formal and traditional definition of "lead story." It is always the story in upper right-hand corner of the page.)
OK, maybe I’m just less interested in stem cells than most people. But to me, it’s a debate between people who believe (but cannot yet prove) that embryonic stem cells are the cure to everything but global warming, and people who believe (but cannot prove) that the moral imperative of respecting pending human life outweighs the potential health benefits of this research.
And, just like every fight we have over the Supreme Court (and to a great extent, over the presidency), all this really is is a surrogate fight over abortion. In other words, I don’t even believe the controversy is about what it purports to be about, which is largely why I just can’t get into it. Just another way Roe v. Wade has distorted American politics.
Not to mention the way politics distort serious issues. Read the Times story. See the way it’s cast — as yet another course correction by Bill Frist in his marathon quest for the presidency. That’s something I can wait at least another couple of years to start reading about.

Whereas what happened in Ireland was that the IRA…

The headline actually says,

"Vows to Disarm"

Isn’t this what we’ve been waiting for? Isn’t this the concession the lack of which has held up the peace process for the last several years?
I mean, how long has this been going on? Never mind the generation of terrorism that we call "the Troubles." Go back to the Easter Rising. Go back to Wolfe Tone and the Fenians. Go back to Cromwell and William of Orange.
Be skeptical of whether the IRA is serious or not; I wouldn’t blame you. In fact, I think it’s doubtful the Provos, or whatever the most radical republicans are calling themselves these days, will stand for it.
But Tony Blair’s excited about it. "This is a step of unparalleled magnitude in the recent history of Northern Ireland," he said. And as usual, I’m with Tony. This is a major, historic development that goes in the opposite direction of what’s happened in Ireland my entire life — in fact, the entire life of anyone still alive, for that  matter.
And that’s just got to beat another skirmish of words in the culture wars. Doesn’t it?


One thought on “Where’s the perspective?

  1. Mike C

    Virginia Postrel, a smart cookie — here’s her home website — has related thoughts in a May 19, 2005 NYT column entitled “ Another View of News Bias, as Selling Point.” Her key point is summarized thusly:

    Some people say they want “just the facts,” and fault reporters for introducing too much analysis. Others complain that stories do just the opposite, treating all sides in a conflict as equally valid. The news-buying public seems to want contradictory things.
    But one person’s contradiction is another’s market niche. Those differences help answer an economic puzzle: if bias is a product flaw, why does it not behave like auto repair rates, declining under competitive pressure?
    In a recent paper, “The Market for News,” two Harvard economists look at that question. “There’s plenty of competition” among news sources, Sendhil Mullainathan, one of the authors, said in an interview. But “the more competition there has been in the last 20 years, the more discussion there has been of bias.”
    The reason, he and his colleague, Andrei Shleifer, argue, is that consumers care about more than accuracy. “We assume that readers prefer to hear or read news that are more consistent with their beliefs,” they write. Bias is not a bug but a feature.
    In a competitive news market, they argue, producers can use bias to differentiate their products and stave off price competition. Bias increases consumer loyalty.

    I find her analysis compelling, but incomplete, and cite the Wall Street Journal, one of the two great newspapers I subscribe to (the other is The State) as my example.
    I assert that, based on at least ten years experience, WSJ’s editorial page is clearly conservative, but its news coverage is fairly balanced: well written, and well-edited. One can rely on its straightforward reporting. I’ve noted many instances where the reporting did not fully support the editorial argument in the same issue. One pertinent recent examples is the neutral reporting on NY state AG Spitzer’s actions against various companies and the editorial pages’ lamentations and rending of garments over his actions.
    In days gone by the NYT the editorial page was clearly liberal, but its news operation — to include the emphasis exerted by the news editors — seemed to try to be balanced. Yet long before the Jason Blair fiasco some of the news items seemed to be colored with the hue that was splashed across the editorial pages.
    In fairness I should note the primary exception — Judith Miller’s reporting on Iraq’s WMD in the run-up to and during the early days of the war.

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