Journalistic free speech
Journalists, especially pundits, should not be barred from expressing their political opinions
Everyone is biased, and journalists are no different. It is unreasonable to expect them to be otherwise. Consequently, I was surprised when MSNBC temporarily suspended Keith Olbermann for contributing to political campaigns, both because NBC News's policy for reporters only applied to pundits and because of the way in which NBC News decided to apply that rule to Olbermann. Cavalier Daily ombudsman Tim Thornton wrote a piece ("Crossing the Line," Nov. 8) soliciting opinions about the rules of journalism ethics. As an opinion columnist, I thought it was natural to respond because I would not want The Cavalier Daily to follow NBC News's example and limit my participation in politics.
It is important to note that the media in this country began with the partisan papers of the early 1800s. Newspapers such as The National Intelligencer and the Gazette of the United States were the mouthpieces for the political parties with which they were affiliated. The media intended to argue for one side from the onset. Fast forward to modern day, and one can see that MSNBC and The New York Times represent the left whereas Fox News and The Wall Street Journal support those on the right.
Also, a great deal of people's perceptions of the media is determined by how it treats individuals. Take our esteemed founder Thomas Jefferson for example. Before holding national office, Jefferson said, "Our liberty depends on freedom of the press." A few years down the road, after dealing with years of criticism as president, Jefferson wrote in 1807 that "the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them." This is also true with the way in which the media treats the political views of its audience. The average liberal probably does not think much of the objectivity of Fox and the same is true of the average conservative's view of MSNBC. Whether news is objective is merely a subjective opinion of he who watches or reads the news.
What struck me about the NBC News rule Thornton quoted in his column was that anyone working for NBC News who participates in political activities may "jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest." The word "appearance" suggests NBC does not care for objectivity in the substance of writing as much as the outward persona of its staff. The lack of political involvement is no guarantee that a journalist's work will be objective. On the contrary, political involvement does not mean that a journalist's work will be biased because of that involvement. NBC News is wrong to focus merely on appearances.
The actual work of the journalist matters more. A news reporter can be the most partisan, unyielding person, but why should his actions outside the threshold of his company matter as long as his opinions do not affect the quality of his work? The need for journalistic impartiality is to ensure that the information provided by the media does not mislead the public. Did NBC News actually care whether a lack of objectivity was misleading the public or was the leadership merely keeping up appearances? The terms of Olbermann's suspension confirms the latter. A two-show suspension is merely a slap on the wrist.
Furthermore, it is not clear why participation or financial contributions in political campaigns or groups is any more biased than simple forms of political participation such as voting. To go a step further, it is not clear why a reporter's lack of participation would guarantee impartiality. On the other hand, if a news reporter who happened to work for a particular candidate was covering the candidate's congressional race, then there would be a clear conflict of interest that ought to be banned. But a reporter should not be prohibited from covering a particular race if he is not directly affiliated with it.
The freedom of a political pundit to engage in political activity should be even clearer. It is important to distinguish pundits from regular reporters because these people are paid to have opinions. After all, their job is to be subjective. It is doubtful to think that Olbermann's campaign contributions changed anyone's opinion of him. He was a well-known liberal commentator and his contributions to Democratic congressional candidates only affirmed his obvious political leanings. People do not pay to watch or listen to pundits who objectively provide the facts; rather, they pay to listen to pundits who provide different perspectives and opinions.
A biased news media is here to stay. To pretend otherwise is to mislead the public. NBC News and all other media outlets should recognize that their pundits are not objective - and should not be. More important, they should recognize that the very art of reporting, the framing of the primary source, is a biased practice.
George Wang's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.