Margaret Sullivan does a great job as the New York Times’ public editor, but I often find her equivocating, much like her employer. I was struck particularly by her Friday post about a number of New York Times turns of phrases that have been met with criticism, namely the uses of “targeted killing” in lieu of murder or assassination, and “harsh interrogation techniques” instead of torture. She’s previously written about the Times’ reconsideration of the use of “illegal immigrant,” another term I’ve been critical of.
In the Friday post, Sullivan quotes extensively from two Times’ employees, Scott Shane, a national security reporter in the Washington bureau, and Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, to address some reader concerns.
'Assassination' is banned by executive order, but for decades that has been interpreted by successive administrations as prohibiting the killing of political figures, not suspected terrorists...
The debate over the word “torture,” he said, has similar implications to the one Mr. Shane described with assassination. “The word torture, aside from its common sense meaning, has specific legal meaning and ramifications,” Mr. Corbett said. “Part of the debate is on that very point.”
Basically, the above arguments are saying: These terms have particular legal implications, and “The Times wants to ‘avoid making a legal judgment in the middle of a debate.’”
The problem is that by refusing to use terms that imply a particular judgement, you are making the judgement that those terms don’t apply. You are deciding that it is not “torture” or an “assassination,” as laid out in those executive orders.
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor and media critic at NYU, calls this the “View from Nowhere.” And The Atlantic addresses the media’s problem with “False Equivalence.” It’s essentially summed up as follows: The process of striving for objectivity is itself a biased process. The result of aiming for objectivity is never actually obtaining it. Journalists often frame issues solely as “he-said, she-said” debates:
The essence of the false-equivalence mindset is the reflexive assumption that "reality" is halfway between whatever two contending sides assert. Maybe that reflects early immersion in the Goldilocks saga. ("This one is too big. That one is too small. This one is just right!") Maybe it's a holdover from the age of Walter Cronkite. Perhaps it's the D.C. worthy-person's mantra, familiar from conferences and talk shows, that "partisans on both sides" are the main threat to progress. Whatever. We see it all around us now.
The decision to frame an issue as halfway between two sides is a bias, and the result is placing equal weight on two arguments that aren’t really equal. This chronic inability to see their own “bias towards balance” as a problem muddies the issues for everyone -- it’s also a significant contributor to the stalemate we have in Washington. If Democrats are being ridiculous, say so. If Republicans are being ridiculous, say so. If it’s torture, call it torture.
But pretending you don’t have a view -- while the way you frame a piece suggests you do -- just leaves everyone wandering around in the wilderness.
James DiGioia is the social media coordinator for the International Business Times, follow him on Twitter: @JamesDiGioia