TV News & the Neutrality Principle
Almost unremarked, we have passed a turning point in journalism, particularly as journalism is practiced on television. Exactly when this happened is unclear—although by the 1980′s there were hints—but American broadcasts from Baghdad while American warplanes flew overhead finally made it certain. The old journalistic ideal of objectivity—the sense that reporting involves the gathering and presentation of relevant facts after appropriate critical analysis—has given way to a more porous standard. According to this new standard, reporters may—indeed should—stand midway between two opposing sides, even when one of the two sides is their own.
This is no academic matter. Neutrality is now a principle of American journalism, explicitly stated and solemnly embraced. After Dan Rather of CBS reported from Saudi Arabia last August that “our tanks are arriving,” the Washington Post gave him a call: wasn’t it jingoistic, perhaps xenophobic, to say “our tanks”? Rather apologized and promised he would never say such a thing again. He should have known better in the first place. After all, Mike Wallace, Rather’s CBS colleague, made the new standard clear well before the Gulf crisis started. At a conference on the military and the press at Columbia University on October 31, 1987, Wallace announced that it would be appropriate for him as a journalist to accompany enemy troops into battle, even if they ambushed American soliders.1 And during the war itself, Bernard Shaw of CNN, explaining why he had refused to be debriefed by American officials after he left Baghdad, declared that reporters must be “neutral.”
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