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May 21, 2004

why you should read the newspaper

We're told that the President of the United States doesn't read beyond the front page because he detects a hostile ideological bias in most reporting. He says:

My antennae are finely attuned .... I can figure out what so-called 'news' pieces are going to be full of opinion, as opposed to news. So I'm keenly aware of what's in the papers, kind of the issue du jour. But I'm also aware of the facts. .... It can be a frustrating experience to pay attention to somebody's false opinion or somebody's characterization, which simply isn't true.

Meanwhile, I have known many colleagues who think that all reporting and commentary in the "corporate" press is false and deliberately misleading. These leftists would be just as happy as Instapundit to see the word "lies" spray-painted across the New York Times.

I'm a consistent critic of the major newspapers myself--and TV news is beneath contempt. But I don't see how you can be a responsible observer of the world unless you use the raw material that the mainstream press provides. Sometimes the quality of coverage is poor. But to reject it all is to walk in that "absolute night when all cows are black." If you despise the most detailed sources of information, then you can make no distinctions except on the basis of your original prejudices.

Besides, sometimes we distrust the news because it's uncomfortable stuff. Conservatives don't like to read about incompetent Republican presidents or about the prevalence of poverty and racism. Liberals don't like to read about the real failures of government and the real costs and limits of regulation. Centrists don't like to read that there are legitimate arguments between right and left. Yet real progress comes from facing these difficult facts.

I'm increasingly worried about a kind of criticism that I suspect George Bush employs, along with many other Americans. Chris Betram puts it well: readers look for "symptomatic silences" and "accuse people of indifference or lack of balance for failing to mention some event or incident."

It's easy to play this game. You make up your own mind about what's important (based on reading some news source) and then assess other publications--including editorial columns and blogs--to see whether they accord an appropriate amount of space to each story. I guess that's an acceptable way to criticize newspapers that claim to report "all the news that's fit to print" (or the equivalent). However, it should never be an excuse for failing to read the news. Even if a newspaper devotes the wrong amount of space to each item because of a systematic ideological bias, we can still get lots of information from reading it. To assume that other people will be miseducated because editors emphasize the wrong stories is to hold our fellow citizens in rather low regard.

For my own part, I can't figure out how to assess charges of left-wing or right-wing bias in the press. There's too much diversity in the coverage, and the political spectrum is too poorly defined today. [Follow up: see Jay Rosen's latest post on the same subject.] I do detect a disturbing set of professional biases in favor of ....

  • conflict rather than consensus

  • deficits rather than assets

  • political strategy rather than policy

  • motives of political actors rather than quality of decisions

  • campaigns rather than government

  • federal government rather than states

  • government rather than civil society

  • the US rather than the rest of the world
  • These are problems, but they don't excuse us from reading the news.

    Posted by peterlevine at 3:40 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    the Nuremberg defense

    I have long supported the Nuremberg Doctrine: soldiers are individually responsible for war crimes, and following orders is no excuse. Nor is it an excuse to say that an action seemed acceptable and triggered no feelings of bad conscience. War often suppresses our conscience or turns it upside down, causing us to view mercy as a tempting form of weakness that we are obliged to avoid. Nevertheless, when we carry guns, operate prisons, or give orders, it is our responsibility to make sure that our conscience is working right. As Hannah Arendt observes, "politics is not like the nursery." A person with a gun is not a child who knows that he is good if only he is obedient. One can follow orders without meaning to violate a law, and still be culpable.

    However, I now see a complication. In the military, you are legally required to disobey illegal orders, but you are equally obligated to obey every legal command. A mistake in either direction can send you to a court martial. In civilian life, we have much more margin for error. If someone, even my boss, tells me to do something, I can say, "I don't know if that's legal (or moral), so I won't do it." Or I can make an arbitrary excuse to get out of doing something that I fear may be wrong. The worst that can happen to me if I avoid making a yes-or-no decision is losing my job. Because we have this leeway, we should be held fully accountable for participating in any illegal acts, even if we don't understand the law or realize that we're doing something wrong. It's our responsibility to do the right thing, and if we're not sure, we can duck the issue.

    But soldiers are in a much tougher position. They must obey or disobey--immediately. It may be genuinely difficult to see that a grievous wrong is illegal under the hellish circumstances of war. Both historical evidence and experiments in social pyschology show that most people will do the wrong thing in hellish contexts. They will kill and maim other human beings out of duty, even though they don't want to harm anyone. If most people will act this way, then I must assume that I would, too. And if I have no leeway, no opportunity to get myself out of the situation, then I am especially likely to make the wrong choice.

    Thus it seems to me the rule ought to be: Don't obey patently illegal orders. Indeed, this appears to be the legal standard. It is then a hard question whether the despicable acts committed at Abu Ghraib were obviously illegal. If the accused soldiers were free-lancing--deciding on their own to humiliate and abuse prisoners, and hiding their actions from their superiors--then they are guilty. If they were following orders, even vague ones, then I am open to a verdict of "not guilty," as long as their commanders are held accountable.

    Posted by peterlevine at 9:31 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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