in defense of the right to report one party’s misdeeds without including, comparing or degrading another party’s activities
Shortly after publishing yesterday’s lead story, referring to a speech by former US vice president Al Gore as a “non-partisan” event, I received a complaint from a Bush supporter, upset by the “partisan” nature of such a report. I took the complaint to heart, and examined the article and the context, in an effort to ensure that Sentido’s open, but principled news reporting not be categorized as having a political agenda.
What I believe is the underlying problem in this situation is that the reader who wrote the complaint simply believed that 1) anything Al Gore says must be classified as partisan, and 2) references to questions about the validity or legality of acts by a politician he supports must be classified as opinion, and so cannot stand as fact.
I should start this analysis by saying, it seems unreasonable to assume that under no circumstances could a —some might say “no longer practicing”— politician give a speech not aimed to push a partisan agenda. It is unreasonable, because such appearances have occurred:
The president’s own father, former president George Bush, and his successor Bill Clinton, once bitter rivals, have repeatedly appeared in unison to raise awareness about humanitarian disasters, like the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina, this past year, and they have not forwarded any partisan political agenda by doing so.
But one example does not make a rule. So it would be instructive to take the issue in a broader perspective: Sentido aspires to report news, including politically-charged events —especially those with a broader philosophical base than any one party’s platform, and significant historical relevance— without being branded as supporting a partisan agenda.
Obviously, Sentido aspires to report as much information as possible about the political realm and about the existing power-wielding aparatus of government, without spurring an irrational movement against the publication on the grounds of an imagined or even apparent bias.
Sentido exists in large part to navigate the troubled and turbulent waters of the current American media culture. What we are seeing recently in American media coverage, especially where political events or issues are concerned, is a dramatic shift away from the reporting of fact.
Whether it is fair to say we are seeing an anti-fact bias emerge is harder to say categorically, but the tendency is to minimize the role of fact in reporting increasingly swayed by the assumption that all text and all language are opinion. This gives rise quite naturally to a radical perversion of the “fairness doctrine”.
According to this new market standard, all stories, no matter how evidentially sound or well-defined, must include reference to at least one assertion that contradicts the lead story, no matter how evidentially void this oppposing assertion. This method renders the truth almost undetectable in much of the national reporting in the US media.
Instead, the reader or viewer is left with the impression of perennial “controversy”: one side believes x, but the other believes y. By definition, anyone believing z must be on the “fringe”, but whatever the case, everyone is sure to leave the public with the impression that x is no more than one point of view on a sliding scale of politically-driven opinion.
Some people don’t want to see certain facts as fact, because they have decided they are more comfortable treating such facts as opinion; it allows for a more vigorous perpetuation of confidence in the essential virtue of an opinion they in turn hold, and often hold to be fact.
It is a complication of reporting, and of “knowing” an audience, that some —in fact, many— people seem to prefer to assign an essence to their understanding of reality… normally, one’s preferred politician is good in essence, as a matter of natural character, and his opponents are, in the same essential and irrevocable way, sinister.
It is a complication, because one should not have to consider such bias when deciding the content or the style of one’s reporting. One should report what happens, or even a prevailing mood, if it is palpable, probable facts, along with evidence, or sources, if these can be shared, or an analysis of what facts are more or less probable, but not infuse a report of fact with one’s political agenda.
A clear, if absurd, example of such an undue infusion might be a case where a reporter’s personal views on abortion rights colored a story on sport; obviously, the quality of sports reporting would suffer by the injection of an irrelevant political issue into the writing.
So how do we approach the issue of former VP Al Gore’s speech on extra-judicial wiretapping? We can look first at the facts: 1) We know the wiretapping is extra-judicial; the plan was precisely that… 2) We know that the 4th Amendment to the Constitution expressly prohibits search or seizure without a warrant… 3) The 4th Amendment even specifies that judges should not issue warrants except “upon probable cause”, further constraining the permissibility of searches and seizures by the state…
4) FISA specifically prohibits spying on American citizens in the US without approval of the FISC, the court set up to handle those warrants… 5) FISA permits warrants to be issued retroactively in case of emergency —which means that if national security were really at stake, and emergent circumstances were genuinely driving the surveillance, the government would be able to secure legal authorization for the searches afterward… 6) We know that the administration did not seek warrants under this special provision, so that it intentionally left these wiretaps with no legal authority supporting their use…
7) The president more than once in the last year assured the public that such searches would constitute a violation of US law… 8) The president also assured the public that his administration was not engaging in any such extra-judicial surveillance… 9) The attorney general has reportedly acknowledged that the administration sought to change the statute in order to make the program legal… 10) When Congress refused, the program went ahead without legal support…
These facts more than make the case that the factual basis of Mr. Gore’s speech is sound. His position as stated calls for process, for a legal and judicial process to investigate, to review the facts and to flesh out what the system of laws which governs our country should do in response to the apparent violations that took place.
It has been noted that people involved in the program, at the White House and in particular, the attorney general, have objected to the characterization of their actions as contrary to US law. This is true, but they made these defenses only after a New York Times story had revealed that they were engaged in the activities in question.
The fact is, then: the factual claims in Mr. Gore’s speech are substantiated by information already in the public domain, and well-reported, though much remains secret and unreported. The former politician acted on this occasion as a political voice, but not a partisan one: he reported a series of facts involving political figures and the rule of law, and he urged actions not born of his own will, but which the law already prescribes for such occasions.
Ultimately, what matters most is that the alleged misdeeds of one party are simply not relevant to the misdeeds of another. “Two wrongs don’t make a right” goes the maternal proverb. So it is. One cannot expunge from history actions which violate the rule of law by alleging that one’s critics may have known people who shared the same tendencies. Wrongdoing may beget further wrongdoing, but it does not excuse it.
The issue, both in the Gore speech and in its reporting is executive abuse of power, apparent or in fact. Whether there has been a real violation of law will have to be decided by the courts. But for now, we who report events as journalists cannot be limited to the impossible standard of never reporting events if they cast one political faction in a more negative light than others.
And what is Sentido’s editorial position on wiretapping? Sentido agrees with the rule of law: wiretaps that do not have judicial consent violate the constitution and violate FISA. That’s the only fair standard to hold anyone to. Citizens have rights, both under the law, and against arbitrary use of governmental authority to constrain any basic liberties.
The rules are different for the government. The government does not have rights; it is restricted to the powers assigned to it, and it does not embody any power not explicitly laid out in laws which abide by the Constitution’s provisions. It will be up to the White House —or the attorney general, when he testifies before the Senate— to demonstrate that the eavesdropping policy had a basis in law; so far, they have not presented any explicit authorization in law, and judicial precedent is against them.
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Originally published January 18, 2006, at CafeSentido.com, then Sentido.tv