Op-Ed: Media Bias and the Erosion of First Amendment Ideals
The role of the media in a constitutional democracy is not only to provide information, but also to monitor the affairs of government by exposing excess, hypocrisy and corruption at the highest levels. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press to facilitate this function. But the media can only fulfill its mission if it rises above the partisan and maintains a bright line between objective reportage and editorial comment.
It cannot do so when reporters’ biases affect their presentation, when opinion is stated as fact or when information at odds with the publisher’s views is distorted or suppressed. Sadly, mainstream reporters seem to have little use for journalistic objectivity when it conflicts with their editorial prejudices or political allegiances. Rather than simply report facts, the media often shapes them in order to influence public opinion; and its partisan predilections are evident in the way it covers all news, from domestic affairs to foreign policy.
The press has been referred to as the “Fourth Estate” since at least the eighteenth century to acknowledge that it was separate and apart from the “Three Estates of the Realm,” but no less important for the proper functioning of society. In America, the appellation signified its independence from the three branches of government, which would enable it to act as an impartial observer and report facts at odds with official government positions. But journalists today are frequently blinded by ideological loyalties that undercut their independence and neutrality. News reports are often skewed to favor specific candidates, elected officials and political agendas, and unbalanced diatribes are frequently presented as objective analysis. Thus, content published by the traditional media outlets often resembles public relations copy more than news.
During the recent U.S. election, the mainstream media was transparent in its support of Barack Obama and did its best to depict Mitt Romney as unflatteringly as possible. It downplayed Mr. Obama’s dismal economic policies, ignored his crippling divisiveness, glossed over his apologetic treatment of Islamists, and excused, misreported or altogether avoided commenting on his myriad foreign policy blunders. The failure to critically probe the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya offered but one of the most glaring examples of the media’s bias – although by no means the only one.
Though the fallout from Benghazi continues, the media’s coverage has been marked from the beginning by a reluctance to investigate facts unfavorable to the administration and a tendency to take official statements at face value even when they conflict with facts already known. The press expressed no skepticism regarding the convenient timing relative to the election of the administration’s ludicrous story that the consulate was sacked and four Americans killed, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, because of an internet video critical of Islam. Instead, it avoided critically parsing that part of the story for as long as possible because any discussion of a planned terrorist attack by an al-Qaeda affiliate could have compromised Mr. Obama’s chances for reelection.
Nevertheless, testimony before Congress revealed that the intelligence community – and presumably the White House – knew almost immediately that the assault on the consulate was a terrorist attack meant to coincide with the anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy. The testimony further revealed that there were no demonstrations outside the consulate, that U.S. intelligence never reported any such demonstrations, and that the consulate staff had repeatedly asked for enhanced security before the attack. In light of this testimony, the White House’s narrative – i.e., that spontaneous demonstrators protesting a supposedly offensive video simply ran amok – was clearly false at the time it was first disseminated.
Of course, reporting what really happened – that an al-Qaeda group executed a pre-planned terrorist assault on September 11th – would have undercut Mr. Obama’s attempts to portray himself as strong on foreign policy by claiming that the death of Osama bin Laden had crippled al-Qaeda into irrelevance.
It stretches credulity to believe the White House did not intend to obfuscate when it sent Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on a television talk-show junket to pitch the ridiculous story that four Americans were killed in a spontaneous riot over an anti-Islamic video. The White House’s simultaneous efforts to deny that it was engaging in disinformation were inconsistent with Ambassador Rice’s actions and those of its own State Department, which among other things took out advertisements in Pakistan condemning the video. That it took FOX News’s consistent coverage to prod other networks and print media finally to acknowledge the scope of the story, albeit grudgingly, speaks volumes about the mainstream’s inclination to shield Mr. Obama from political embarrassment.
Even after acknowledging the story, the mainstream press declined any probing inquiry as Mr. Obama’s narrative began to unravel. Though the White House’s strategy of lambasting an inconsequential video was recognized as drivel from the start, the media was reluctant to question the story’s veracity so close to election time.
When it became impossible to ignore during the Presidential debates, the media threw Mr. Obama a lifeline in full view of the millions watching on television. Specifically, CNN’s Candy Crowley, moderator of the second debate, assisted Mr. Obama after Governor Romney had chastised him for failing to identify the attack as terrorism in a Rose Garden press conference the day after. In response to Governor Romney’s comment, Ms. Crowley suggested that video of the press conference showed the president had indeed linked the attack to terrorism. However, footage of the Rose Garden conference in its entirety shows that Mr. Obama never specifically labeled the incident terrorism and that Governor Romney had in fact spoken accurately.
The President’s Rose Garden performance was consistent with his interview for the CBS program “60 Minutes” the day after the attack, in which he was asked directly whether it was terrorism. Mr. Obama hemmed, hawed and responded that it was too early to draw such a conclusion. But consistent with their pro-Obama bias, the editors of "60 Minutes" suppressed that portion of the interview when the program aired five weeks later. The president’s refusal to implicate terrorism the day after the attack was certainly newsworthy, particularly when contrasted against his later claim that he almost immediately identified it as a terrorist act. Nevertheless, the deleted segment was reinserted on the network’s website only the day before the election, quietly and with no fanfare.
In truth, Mr. Obama would not discuss the possible role of terrorism until more than a week afterward; and his team continued implicating the video for some time thereafter. But as more people testified before Congress, including former CIA Director General Petraeus, it became clear that the official “talking points” prepared by the intelligence community had originally identified the incident as an al-Qaeda terror attack, but that references to al-Qaeda and terrorism were deleted from the text used by the White House.
Despite the timing of these events in relation to the election, the mainstream media refused to question whether the talking points had been altered to assist Mr. Obama in his campaign efforts. If the press were doing its job, however, it would have asked why the President and his proxies continued to offer false explanations about Benghazi, which seemed designed to preserve the fanciful narrative that al- Qaeda was destroyed, terrorism was no longer a threat, and Mr. Obama was a strong foreign policy leader.
The press had not taken such a deferential approach during the Iran-Contra Affair years earlier, when it accused the Reagan administration of malfeasance and criminal conduct. Neither did it pull any punches when it accused former President Bush of intentionally lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify war in Iraq – although reliable intelligence reports showed that inaccurate information concerning Iraq’s weapons capabilities actually came from factions within Iraq seeking to topple Saddam Hussein, not from “war-mongering” Republicans, and that chemical weapons did exist but were likely spirited out of the country to Syria.
In addition to its pro-Obama boosterism, the media’s coverage of Benghazi has been colored by the typically unbalanced approach it takes in reporting on the Mideast in general.
News outlets such as the New York Times routinely slant their reporting to portray Islamist extremism as a consequence of Israeli actions and employ moral equivalence to rationalize terrorism against the West. They pander to those who boycott and delegitimize Israel but never question the mythology underlying Palestinian national claims, the doctrinal antisemitism that bars permanent peace with a Jewish nation, or the history of Arab-Muslim rejectionism and extremism. Moreover, they validate a left-wing that vilifies Israel as a Jewish nation, promotes the myth of global Jewish conspiracies, uses historical revisionism to authenticate Palestinian claims, and find common cause with those who call for Israel’s destruction and the extermination of her people.
The media treat Israel’s friends as reactionary simply for supporting her right to exist, and accuse Israel of impeding peace by defending herself, retaliating against terrorists, building in towns and cities derisively labeled settlements, and exercising autonomy over her capital in Jerusalem, a city that never had an Arab majority or served as the capital of any Arab or Muslim nation.
Mainstream reporters consistently ignore the unrequited concessions Israel has made in the naïve quest for peace. They also denigrate the Jews’ historical connection to their homeland, ignore the doctrinal prohibition against the recognition of a Jewish state, disregard the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to amend its charter calling for Israel’s destruction, and rationalize Palestinian incitement as a reaction to Israeli intransigence – despite the PA’s oft-stated commitment to the phased destruction of Israel. Likewise, the press ignores the antisemitic rhetoric that freely flows from the Arab-Muslim world and from leftist news sources that are never properly vetted.
Then there is the compulsion for publishing blood libels, such as the debunked Mohammed al- Dura hoax, in which a French television station used edited film to suggest that Israeli forces had killed an Arab child being shielded by his father during a supposed standoff with the Israelis. As was proven in a French court, unedited footage showed that the scene was staged, that Israelis were not shooting in the boy’s direction, and that he was not killed or even injured.
During the recent hostilities in Gaza, CNN ran a similar story, implying that an Arab child had been killed in an Israeli rocket attack. Unfortunately for CNN, the alleged attack was reported to have occurred during an extended period when Hamas was firing hundreds of rockets into Israel but the Israelis were withholding fire – facts that were corroborated by other media outlets. Even the New York Times, usually a font of anti-Israel disinformation, was skeptical enough to refuse to run the story.
The media’s bias is not limited to misrepresenting dubious allegations as true. It also uses apologetic tones when discussing Islamist terrorism and shows unskeptical deference to an administration that officially refers to Muslim terrorist acts as “manmade disasters,” considers the Muslim Brotherhood a moderate organization despite its jihadist goals, and seeks rapprochement with Islamist dictatorships. Ironically, it has no problem condemning Israel for the simple act of self-defense or describing her as an apartheid state, though her Arab citizens have full political, social and economic rights.
One would think the media has an obligation to report accurately, and in fact the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists (“SPJ”) instructs its members to “seek truth and report it.” The SPJ’s Code, among other things, states that “[j]ournalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information…,” admonishes them to “[t]est the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,” and warns that “[d]eliberate distortion is never permissible.” But these dictates are advisory only and routinely flouted. In fact, the SPJ takes the position that it cannot legally enforce its code, as explained in the following advisory comment:
“The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of “rules” but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.”
This disclaimer is very convenient for relieving SPJ members of real responsibility. It also constitutes a glaring misstatement of Constitutional law. Specifically, the First Amendment only prohibits the government from restricting freedom of expression and the press (although there are exceptions). It does not bind private citizens, organizations or associations, particularly those claiming to enforce professional standards. The SPJ’s position that the First Amendment prohibits the enforcement of standards by a voluntary association is simply not true. However, this rationalization bespeaks a much larger problem.
Though journalists see themselves as members of a distinct profession, they require no required specialized academic training and have no mandatory standards of conduct. Whereas traditional professions, including law, medicine, engineering and accountancy, have licensing requirements and enforceable standards, journalism has none; and its practitioners claim to be prohibited legally from enforcing any. Yet there is no basis for asserting that the Constitution prohibits groups such as the SPJ from implementing professional or ethical standards.
Unfortunately, though, the Constitution is often misquoted by those seeking to evade responsibility for exercising restraint. In more extreme circumstances, it is even used to defend hate speech, including antisemitic expressions masked as political criticism of Israel. Still, there is nothing in the First Amendment that would prevent news organizations from administering their own professional standards, as long as the government is not involved in enforcement.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution contemplates a free and open press to provide accurate information to the public and scrutinize the doings of government. It does not prohibit the press from enforcing standards of fairness, honesty and accuracy.
By failing to require such standards, and by permitting the manipulation of news in order to support specific parties, candidates and causes, the press falls far short of the lofty goals envisioned by the Constitution.
While there certainly is and should be a place for pundits, commentators and diverse opinions in the universe of journalism, reporters should never be permitted to misstate facts to advance their own partisan agendas. In so doing, they transform news into propaganda and abdicate their role as impartial watchdogs of government.