“Objectivity,” “Both Sides” as Code for White Bias in Mainstream Media

A couple of years or more were consumed by my research, writing, and then related public work on school choice, anchored by my book Parental Choice?

The topic of school choice made me aware of the significant gap in credibility along support for and concerns about parental choice as a mechanism for spurring education reform: advocates of choice tend to be from outside the field of education while many who challenge school choice are educators or educational researchers and scholars.

On several occasions, I was invited to debate school choice, but I refused because the pro-choice representative was always someone without real credibility. My position was that to commit to a forum based on pro versus con immediately gave legitimacy to a side that was not, in fact, credible.

Many years before this problem was skewered by John Oliver, I was invoking the Oliver Rule.

The circumstances of debating school choice, I believe, raise issues of credible agents of positions, but school choice is itself a legitimate topic of debate—although the evidence is pretty well tilted against the effectiveness of choice as a reform mechanism.

More recently, I have made strong public statements against corporal punishment, putting me in a slightly different context: physical punishment of children, based on a comprehensive body of research, is not a debatable topic.

And while I did agree to speak on a panel of advocates for and against corporal punishment, I am deeply concerned about venturing into a debate when allowing debate lends credibility to both positions (as opposed to the agent of the position).

As Oliver lampooned, the mainstream media is complicit in both lending credibility to people who have little or no credibility and allowing “both sides” of an issue to be viewed as having equal moral weight and/or equal validity in terms of research or evidence.

I have, then, more often than I would prefer to examine called for a critical free press—one that makes the distinctions about who is credible and what positions are credible.

In the wake of the racist massacre of nine blacks peacefully assembled in their church, the mainstream media have once again revealed themselves to be incapable of any sort of critical awareness of either the issues they cover or themselves, notably the white/privileged bias of objective journalism.

In Room for Debate (The New York Times), which also regularly fields debates on education among people with little or no credibility in the field of education, Does the Confederate Flag Breed Racism? frames the flag issue in SC as having two credible sides—which it doesn’t.

Simply presenting a topic in a civil format with smiling well-dressed advocates for their causes is a corrosive mismanagement of both journalism and human decency.

But more offensive still was the Meet the Press segment from 21 June 2015, featuring David Brooks as a spokesperson on moral character.

As if that isn’t offensive enough, the segment included an extended clip of only black criminals talking about gun violence:

‘Meet The Press’ panelist and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson pointed out the apparent disconnect.

“I thought that was a very powerful piece,” he said. “One small thing I would mention, because I haven’t seen the whole piece, is there wasn’t a terribly diverse set of people who were talking. Right now, we’re talking about a horrific crime committed by a white man. We’re talking about the search for two escaped murderers who are white men. So, we should point out that this is not just an African-American problem.”

Todd responded that “it wasn’t intended to be that way.”

At the root of both the NYT and MTP being complicit in perpetuating racism is the journalistic standard of the objective pose, the mostly adolescent view of the world that insists on airing “both sides” of an issue.

However, there is nothing neutral about framing a question when no question remains, and there is nothing objective about calling for the audience to set aside race (Todd made an equally tone-deaf attempt to suggest the gun violence segment can be viewed as only about gun violence, arguing the racialized facts of the clip were not meant to “cloud the discussion of the topic”).

The mainstream media in the U.S.—like partisan politics—exists in a moral vacuum of market ethics.

Without a critical free press, we are left with well-spoken (written) and clean-cut talking heads who are in the service of the highest bidder—our puppet media and puppet politicians.

In 1946, George Orwell lamented: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”

So it goes.

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