Telling the truth about the media

Joel Helfrich

II read with interest Audra Harpel’s Monday column titled “Daily ignores conservative viewpoints.” Harpel is correct to take on the meaning of the word “objective.” Given her concerns, I would urge Harpel and other journalism students to read and discuss “The Truth About The Right-Leaning U.S. Media: The Story Republicans Don’t Want You to See” and “The Myth of The Liberal U.S.A. Media: Conservatives Unfairly Dominate Today’s Media.”

Harpel and other journalism students might wish to consider Bill Moyers’ special on the media that appeared Feb. 21. What else on television looks anything like Bill Moyers’ “NOW” program? Perhaps the singularity of that show alone is noteworthy. Also worth a look is Edward Said’s book “Covering Islam.”

Perhaps Harpel should realize there are literally hundreds of worthy stories not printed every day. A good friend of mine works at the Star Tribune and works out at a gym with many of the Star Tribune’s news reporters. From what he’s said, there are numerous stories, for example, that could have made or broken Norm Coleman’s campaign. But, for whatever reasons, the stories in question were buried.

There are a great many reasons to be upset with the media. For example, what do ordinary citizens, as well as the media, make of the way in which President George W. Bush orchestrated his most recent press conference so he would only take questions from previously selected reporters? While this is a long-time practice, should we be outraged by the explicit nature in which this was carried out? Furthermore, what does it say about objectivity that the Department of Defense is working closely with journalists for the upcoming war in Iraq?

Every semester I teach English composition I have my students check out the following magazines and newspapers: The Village Voice, Mother Jones, The Boston Phoenix, New Internationalist, Z Magazine, Food and Water Journal, Ascent Magazine, Resurgence Magazine, Yes: A Journal of Positive Futures, Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, E Magazine, Green Anarchy, Anarchy: A Magazine of Anarchist Strategy and Culture, Auto-Free Times, Shambhala Sun, ADBUSTERS, Slingshot, Lapis, Wild Earth, Whole Earth, Orion Afield, indymedia.com, Earth Island Journal, Covert Action Quarterly and Bitch, to name but a few.

Clearly this list of publications is not exhaustive. After I tell the students Playboy and magazines like it are not alternative, they set out on their quest. The best chance they have to locate any of these publications is at May Day Books and Arise! Bookstore, as well as several food co-ops. Perhaps tellingly, few students (perhaps two in 25 each semester) have ever heard of these publications, let alone read them. Even with the Internet, they are bombarded by one viewpoint, as are most Americans, and they are rarely aware there are other places to obtain news and information. Even locally-produced publications such as the Utne Reader, Pulse and City Pages are not known to every student.

I ask the students to begin by finding an interesting article in one of these so-called “alternative” media publications first, and then look for an article on the same subject in a mainstream source. When the students find some current issue interesting to them, they go to find an article on the same subject in the other type of media. Obviously, the bigger or hotter the issue the easier this part is going to be. I remind the students they should be aware they might need to come up with several issues before seeking out the second source; otherwise, they might do much of the work over again.

The main point of the assignment is to find news articles that take very different approaches to the subject. The students read both articles carefully and compare the two. They analyze the articles, both independently and in comparison. As they compare various aspects of the two articles, and begin to observe (and write about) differences, they always ask themselves the question: “So what?”

Here are a few specific questions, or things to consider, I ask to get them started: Are the various aspects of the issue they cover and present the same, overlapping or completely different? Again: try to find articles that take very different approaches to the subject. Second, is the writing (tone, voice, style, etc.) different? Is the writing scholarly, academic, factual, editorial, personal or reportorial? Why do you think the writers made their particular choices? What effects do any such differences have?

I also tell them to consider carefully how the writers support themselves with evidence, statistics, interviews or photographs. Are there contradictions between the two articles? Can they be resolved or explained based on the information contained in the articles? Is one more persuasive than the other? How can you account for (or reconcile) the differences between the two? In view of these differences, whose (or, what) interests are served in each piece, and at whose expense? Keep in mind this is not necessarily a matter of conscious or deliberate intent on the writers’ parts. Or, is it?

Ultimately, students realize all news reporting – in whatever form – is biased. So, before we start dredging up old arguments about objectivity, we need to make students – indeed, all citizens – aware of the multiple places where they can obtain information about the present goings-on around the world. If I still read only Newsweek and the Daily, would I be the best informed member of the community that I can be? We need to be aware of who controls the media. We need to be aware of the paucity of grass-roots media organizations. And, we need to have students and ordinary citizens recognize and articulate what it means to be on the right or left side of the political spectrum. Students should be cognizant of the issues that they believe in that are not being properly addressed by either major political party. These are far greater concerns. Let us not kid ourselves. There is no so-called “objective” media. Nor is there a “liberal bias” in “the media in general” as Harpel asserts in her column.

Objectivity is dead, but subjectivity and politics are not.

Joel T. Helfrich’s usually columns appear alternate Tuesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]