MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. Neal Conan is on assignment.
From time to time, we check in with NPR's ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin to see what's on our listeners' minds. Today, he'll join us to tackle a topic that is much discussed in media circles as well as, we think, among the broader public, balance in journalism.
In the current polarized political environment, it seems that almost all issues, from the war in Iraq to global warming to gay adoption and evolution, are framed in terms of left and right. Talking heads on either side of the cultural divide have become a dime a dozen. We often find them paired off against each other on television and, yes, we'll admit, radio talk shows.
But how did this get to be the conventional way to talk about something? What if there are more than two sides to the story or if the sides aren't equal? Does the ideal of balance actually distort our news? How is a reader supposed to wade through the he said, she said? We'll talk about all this with our own Jeffrey Dvorkin as well as two other analysts who have thought a lot about how the media operate.
There are some provocative ideas to discuss, and we'd like to hear what you think. Is there such a thing as balance or objective news? Do you ever find journalism with an opinion more useful than straight-up news? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And our first guest is NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. He joins us here in studio 3A, welcome.
Mr. JEFFREY DVORKIN (NPR Ombudsman): Nice to be with you, Michel.
MARTIN: Do we still say that we are aiming for balance as part of our mission here, or do we say something else?
Mr. DVORKIN: Well, I think we imply that when in public radio we say that our aim is to provide the most reliable and contextual information possible, and that has come to assume that we are balanced, and then we try to put that into practice in all the stories that are heard on the radio. But increasingly, I'm getting a sense that this is not sufficient for a lot of listeners.
MARTIN: What do they say they want?
Mr. DVORKIN: Well, they want a lot of things. They want to hear their own opinions reflected back to them, and they get really offended and upset when they hear an opinion that isn't their own, and I think that this is part of the nature of the culture of journalism today. A lot of it has been established in part by talk radio and in part by the cable news shout fests where you have people of strong opinions yelling at each other and not getting to the point of it.
And I think that because journalism in general has been under such close scrutiny, by the blogs, by advocacy groups, that journalists have tended to be put in a defensive crouch. And so they tend to think that the best way to do journalism is to present both sides and then to step back and say, okay, we've done our job, that's it. But in many instances, the public is saying that's just not enough for us.
MARTIN: That seems curious to me because we live in an age when part of our cultural attitude is who are you to tell me? So in essence, you're asking, you're saying that the listeners want more authority. They want the journalists to me more authoritative, say, look, this isn't just what he said or she, this is actually true. Is that how you read that?
Mr. DVORKIN: That's exactly it, and I think that a lot of listeners to NPR, to public radio, are saying, okay, you've given us the facts. Now why can't you draw a conclusion? And often there are circumstances where a reasonable conclusion based on the fact-based reporting can be done, but often we are left in a position where we won't do that because somehow this might contravene our sense of, or our perceived sense of fairness.
MARTIN: Now, as a person tasked with helping to shape the standards of what we do here, what do you make of that desire on the part of the listeners? Is that a desire that should be met?
Mr. DVORKIN: Not all the time. I think that we're in a very fractious moment in our political and journalistic culture. The war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other things have created a level of tension that a lot of people in American media have said hasn't been seen since the war in Vietnam, for example. And so we are, a lot of journalism tends to back off from drawing conclusions for fear of inciting the wrath of the listeners, viewers and readers, but I'm not sure that the listeners, viewers and readers are well served by that attitude.
MARTIN: Do you find that this desire for, to hear one's own opinion reflected is coming from one side or the other? I mean, is there a group of folk who feel more sense of ownership of NPR, and therefore, they are especially keen to have their points of view reflected, or are you getting it from all sides?
Mr. DVORKIN: I'm getting it from both sides. It's really a case where people who are on the left say they're outraged when they hear a point of view from the right, and they of course accuse NPR of caving, whatever that means, and then people from the right say, well, I'm hearing people from the left on NPR, which just confirms my suspicions that NPR is biased to the left.
So I am getting it from both sides, and it depends on the story, of course. Some stories evoke more response from people who self-identify as conservatives, and others from people who identify themselves as liberals.
MARTIN: And over the course of your career in news, have you seen a change in this kind of complaint? Is this, is there more of this now than there was when you started out?
Mr. DVORKIN: Yeah, it's getting worse. I think part of it is that the public has less patience and has less trust in the media, overall, and they are, they often assume the worst of us. They often assume that we have an agenda and that we're going to flog our own personal political ideas and that they intuit that certain reporters or hosts have a political point of view that they are subtly, or not so subtly, inflicting on the public. And in public radio that is largely not the case, but I think that is seen, certainly, on talk radio and on cable television.
MARTIN: This seems like a good time to broaden out the discussion. The issue of balance is one that all news outlets grapple with, not just NPR, and it seems to consume more of their attention now than ever before, as Jeffrey was just telling us. So joining us now to talk a little bit more about that is Brent Cunningham. He's the managing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and he joins us from the studios of the NPR bureau in New York. Welcome, Mr. Cunningham.
Mr. BRENT CUNNINGHAM (Columbia Journalism Review): Nice to be here.
MARTIN: And what about Jeffrey, what Jeffrey just said? Is this common to news organizations these days, folks saying I don't, well, he said several things. He said that people are insisting that they want to hear their own point of view validated and that they are also asking people to cut through the he said, she said and get to, tell me what's really true and is that something you're hearing from other news organizations?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I am. I mean, I think this is something that's been kind of consistently talked about now for several years, at least. I mean, it's, it goes much further than that, though, but I think it's a dangerous idea if we have a media that, if the media does start to fracture along you have your facts, I have my facts and, you know, neither is more legitimate, because I think there is a certain amount of intellectual honesty that's called for when we, when any journalist goes about looking at any story.
But I always find that this debate over objectivity and balance is a little, it tends to be oversimplified because we talk about both sides of a story, well, I think you said in your setup, that there are more than two sides to most stories, and this isn't just a left-right issue, and I think those terms have become very loaded.
And so I think that the question of balance is a lot more complicated and a lot more slippery than it comes across in most debates. But yeah, I mean, it's huge, and I think it is something that the public is interested in and probably could use a little more transparency from the media world on.
MARTIN: You used both the words balance and objectivity in your last comment. Are those words interchangeable in your view? Is one more the current word than the other? Is there a difference?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I don't think they're interchangeable, but I think they are kind of, of a piece, if you will, I think that to be traditionally, to be an objective journalist requires you to write a balanced story or present a balanced account of something. And I guess my problem with that was always that the world is not a balanced place. There are, you know, stories that we cover today are increasingly complicated, they are complex. You know, the truth and falsity of information is difficult to know. And, but I think it's incumbent upon journalists to use their access, to use their research skills, to use their kind of mission to discern these distinctions, when it's possible.
And I think, more importantly, and we can talk about this later, I think, to let readers, viewers, listeners know how much they don't know and how much they can't kind of explain. You know I think that's part of the transparency issue that I think would go a long way toward, toward kind of, I don't know, diffusing the rhetoric around balance and bias and that whole debate.
MARTIN: You took on this issue at some length in a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, called Rethinking Objective Journalism. But why does it need to be rethought?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well I think for some of the reasons that I mentioned and your ombudsman mentioned, it seemed like an ideal that the journalism world was never quite at ease with, and yet they couldn't quite figure out what to do with it either. I mean, if you go through the history of it, it's been from the time it kind of appeared as a defining ideal of journalism in the mid- to late-19th century, there have been problems with it and people have been critical of it. I mean, and the coverage, one of the more famous examples is the New York Times' coverage of lynching in the South after the Civil War and how they treated it as kind of a, well on the one hand, people say this is bad, and on the other hand, people say, you know. So when --
MARTIN: But, I'm sorry, if there was as disgusting as we would see this now, is there, if there was indeed that point of view that this was defensible conduct, didn't they have to report it that way?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I think you, I think, yes, you have to include that, but I don't think it's a matter of kind of a false equivalency. You're setting up a false equivalency between things. I mean, it's probably not the best example, because most of the things that we're talking about when we talk about balance today are not quite as clear-cut as lynching.
But, you know, just to take a situation that's more recent, the debate about good news/bad news out of Iraq. I mean, on the one hand you've got schools being rebuilt. You've got progress being made. But if you look at the totality of the situation in Iraq, there are things that are discernibly true and discernibly false about the situation in Iraq, such as the growing number of insurgents, the growing number of foreign fighters, the lower levels of electricity and home fuel production. These things go to the very essence of security and stability in this society and that is, that's the story there right now.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break. We're talking about balance and objectivity in journalism, what is balance and how important is it to you? We're taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. You can send us e-mail. The address is email@example.com. I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michelle Martin in Washington. We're talking about balance in journalism. Is it important? Is it even possible? Our guests are Jeffrey Dvorkin, the ombudsman here at NPR, also Brent Cunningham. He's managing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. You're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And I'd like to go to a caller in Vernon, New York. Cynthia, what's on your mind?
CYNTHIA (Caller): Hello, folks. Hello, Jeffrey.
Mr. DVORKIN: Hi there.
CYNTHIA: Just a frame of reference, I'm a librarian, and when I went to school at Syracuse University, we had two wonderful professors, one a refugee from Nazi Germany, one from a communist Hungary. Those professors were wonderful. They taught us that freedom is everything, that we need to know all of the news and all of the truth. And I would just like to make a couple of points and have you discuss them.
There are some things that cannot be balanced. The idea of torturing another human being, there cannot be any pro or con for torturing if you accept yourself as a human being. And I think that it's not a question of left or right about what people want. Their opinion to be okayed by NPR, because NPR is supposed to be, I think, the whatever it is, the charter says that you're supposed to discuss controversial issues.
And the last point is, I can't understand how people in our country can still believe that Iraq did something against us and bombed the Twin Towers and we bombed them, when there was no connection between Iraq and that terrible, horrible tragedy and catastrophe. How come the people in our country still believe that myth?
So I'll just listen, okay?
MARTIN: Okay. Thank you Cynthia.
Lots to work with there, Jeffrey. But the question of whether torture is ever defensible and how can you even present another side to that?
Mr. DVORKIN: On the op-ed pages of major American newspapers, you do read opinion which says that anything that can be done to safeguard Americans is legitimate. This is a pretty good indication of how, how fractious and divided the opinions of people are. And I think that in NPR's case, NPR has an obligation, which is to report what has happened and then to inform that information with solid opinion.
But I agree with Cynthia that you can't say there's a, there are two sides to the massacres in Rwanda, or there are two sides to the killings in ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. These are, there is only one side to those sorts of moral issues.
What we're talking about, and which is more complicated, is when that kind of moral line is a fault line, and if you cross that, then something else is implied or inferred. And that's why I think the issue of balance is such a limited, is such a limited idea. I think there are times in which journalism can go past balance and say, based on our reporting, we can draw a conclusion.
MARTIN: Jeffrey, do you mind? I'm going to take issue with one. I'm going to argue with you on one point. In that we've all confronted, well, many of us have confronted situations where we have interviewed distasteful persons.
Mr. DVORKIN: Absolutely.
MARTIN: And that does not mean that one is validating their conduct, but I think sometimes the listeners, viewers take issue with the fact that you even speak to these people. And I just think that part of our journalistic mission is to help people understand the logic of persons who engage in distasteful conduct and ask them why they did it. Just as say in Rwanda, as you pointed out, there's no justification for slaughtering 800,000 people, but to achieve a fuller understanding of the event, don't you have to ask some of these people why they did it?
Mr. DVORKIN: Yes, but not always. I think there are times when the someone who is, has created something so appalling and so distasteful that by interviewing that person, you run the risk of validating what has happened. And that's a very tricky moral place to go. And as a journalist, I would say that more information is better than less information. But I'm still very uncomfortable with the idea of interviewing someone who has committed something truly horrible.
MARTIN: But then how do we ever understand the logic of their conduct? Like a Timothy McVeigh. I know that the reporter that interviewed Timothy McVeigh, a couple did before he was executed for his role in the Oklahoma City bombings that were heavily criticized for this. But don't you think that provided some insights into how it is that a person who, on the one hand could swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which he did as a member of the armed services, could then turn around and commit such an act?
Mr. DVORKIN: Yes, I think that there is a journalistic reason for interviewing someone like Timothy McVeigh, but maybe there is also, we need to ask the question, how is our society served by hearing from a person like this? And that's where I think there's a more difficult, it's a more difficult question to answer. If I were still a reporter, and this were another time, and I was told, you know, you'd be able to interview any villain you chose, I'm not sure that I would think that I would serve the public well by interviewing someone who has created such, such a monstrous situation.
MARTIN: According to a report last month from The Project for Excellence in Journalism, the perception of bias in the media has been on the increase, and in response many news outlets are working to make their processes more transparent to their audiences, something that Brent Cunningham talked about a few minutes ago. Well there are some radical ideas out there about how to do this.
Jeff Jarvis is a blogger at buzzmachine.com and the new media columnist for The Guardian. He's thought a lot about how reporters can be more honest with the public. And he joins us from NPR's New York bureau.
Welcome Mr. Jarvis.
Mr. JEFFREY JARVIS (buzzmachine.com): Hey there.
MARTIN: What about your idea of how journalists can be more honest with their audiences?
Mr. JARVIS: I think the key word here is transparency. Balance and objectivity. Balance is a fine thing. Objectivity is a false god of, I think, a temporary time in our business. And the real issue to me is that we've got to be straight with the public we serve.
And, you know, Jeffrey said before, something about saying the truth. I don't think we own the truth. We are merely stewards of facts, and it is up to the public to decide the truth. We've given the best information we can. We give them balance where we can. But in the end they're going to decide. And part of that process is also to understand our own perspectives. To act as if we're objective and don't have opinions is really a lie of omission. It's to say that, no I'm not going to tell you what I really think, because I don't trust you to know that.
And I do believe that journalist should be very transparent, as transparent as you'd be to your neighbor about your own perspectives. I don't mean that everyone has to put up a statement saying exactly where they voted in the election, but if you are covering politics, I think that's relevant.
The example I like to give is that we've just passed a smoking ban in New Jersey. If the reported who covers that ban smokes, should we know that? If you catch him outside, catching a toke off a Chesterfield, do you feel you've got him, and should we be in the position of gotcha in our business?
We should be as open as possible. We should be sharing the process of journalism, our perspectives on journalism, and I don't think we should be in the position of saying that, oh, we sanitized it, we made it balanced for you, we made it objective for you, here is the truth, because it isn't. Here's what we know from what we could find out, from our perspective. And we have to be more open about that.
MARTIN: So every journalist is a blogger, in essence. Sort of a statement of where I'm coming from prior to --
Mr. JARVIS: And every blogger a journalist. I think it's a mistake to talk about journalism by the person who does it, because that gets us in the danger of certifying people.
MARTIN: But isn't that what you just said?
Mr. JARVIS: Anyone --
MARTIN: That that's what you're asking people to certify themselves. Well, no, I understand what you're saying.
Mr. JARVIS: Not certifying.
MARTIN: You were talking about licensing and sort of getting a card, I'm a journalist, you're not. But, but --
Mr. JARVIS: I'm saying that anyone can --
MARTIN: But setting aside the question of how does one do that? How would that be --
Mr. JARVIS: Well, on my own blog, I have an About Me disclosure page. And I was a, you know, I was a reporter and a columnist and an editor all around the country. And this is hard for me to flex this muscle. But I sat down and said, okay, money meet mouth. And sat down and said okay, here's who I voted for, here's where I stand on the Iraq war, here's the stocks I own, here are the companies that I've consulted for, here's the places where I have friends, because why shouldn't the readers of my blog know that? They have every reason to.
MARTIN: Okay, Jeffrey Dvorkin?
Mr. DVORKIN: Well, I have a lot of respect for Jeff Jarvis, and I read his blog from time to time, but I have to disagree with you, because I think that what you're basically saying is that none of us are capable of doing a fair job of journalism. We're all creatures of our passions, of our past. We're captured by these things. We're incapable, in fact, of doing anything professionally.
And I think the implication of the blogosphere in general, and there with some very good exceptions, is that you know, we are all just opinion mongers, and what difference does it make, and there's no way we can find out the truth of anything so let's just push everything through the sieve of our own backgrounds and politics.
And, Jeff, I actually disagree.
Mr. JARVIS: No, I'm not saying that. I'm not saying that. Because I admire The Guardian and work for The Guardian full disclosure there. The Guardian comes out and says, we are liberal. Okay. Now that you know that, we are going to give you the best reporting we can possibly give.
This controversy about Meredith Vieira having said that she opposed the war, and how can she now be on The Today Show? And some former executives on CBS on Howie Kirsch's show, a week ago, said that that's a real problem. I say, no. Here it is. Here's her opinion, she has it. Having said that, now judge her not on that opinion, but judge her on the quality of the reporting and the interviewing that she does.
Mr. DVORKIN: That's very idealistic, though. I don't think that happens.
MARTIN: Hold on, Jeff Jarvis. Hold on, Jeffrey Dvorkin. Let's let Brent Cunningham back into the conversation.
Brent, what do you think about Jeff Jarvis' suggestion that everybody's got a button, in essence, that he or she wears that lets everybody know where he or she is coming from?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I mean, I agree with Jeff in the sense that we are creatures of our biases and that true objectivity is humanly unattainable. However, I'm not really sure where you draw the line because I don't think the only relevant information about a journalist in terms of the things they cover are political or even financial.
I mean, this gets into the issue of class, and I don't want to really go there, but I mean, you know, I think that is an issue in journalism today. And what was the socio-economic background? Where did you go to college? You know, did you study abroad?
I mean, all these things go into shaping our world view, and I guess I don't know practically where you would draw the line on something like that. I mean, I'm not, in theory, opposed to that kind of transparency because I agree with Jeff that it is a problem. But you know, there's a lot of relevant information and I don't know what, how you would decide which bits to include and which to not.
Mr. JARVIS: Here's the example with the problems with our business. Is you have a story about the African American community, oftentimes, an African American correspondent is assigned that story. Now, there's two arguments about that. One argument is that's pandering and stereotyping. The other argument is, no, that person because of their background has a better ability to report that story. And I can argue with that both ways. But in this case, you can judge that person's background in this sense by knowing their race.
MARTIN: Well, by that standard, Jeff Jarvis, by that standard, the only people who can ever cover Poland came from Poland, the people who can ever cover Moscow --
Mr. JARVIS: No, no. I didn't say that. You know, Michel, you're putting words in my mouth. I didn't say that. What I said was that you know their perspective and their background. If you're covering abortion, should someone know that you're Catholic?
Mr. DVORKIN: But wait a minute --
MARTIN: Okay. Hold on a second. Let's bring some callers into the conversation. Let's let, let's broaden it out here. Let's go to Blacksburg, Virginia, and Jim. Jim, what's on your mind?
JIM (Caller): Hi. Am I on the air?
JIM: Hi. The discussion of objectivity, you're thinking about two things, personal objectivity and then institutional objectivity in the media. So, when you look at institutional objectivity, say, at NPR, you're saying that, it seems like, even at NPR, people confuse objectivity with turning off their critical facilities.
So, for example, with global warming, it's always reported that something's, that's controversial is when the overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity. But there are a few, and I hate to have to call them this, industry shills who represent global warming as not coming or not happening or not coming from human intervention.
NPR, under the guise of institutional objectivity, always reports it as a controversy, which does an enormous disservice to both the American people and the scientific community. Because the scientific community is forced to do more and more studies, spend millions and millions of dollars, to offset these few people that are able to make it into a controversy because of NPR's institutional objectivity.
MARTIN: Okay, Jim, thank you for calling.
MARTIN: Jeffrey, I'm going to have you answer that in a moment, but first I need to take a short break just to say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Jeffrey, that's been a very common criticism in recent months of, not just of NPR, but of other news organizations, that they're giving equal weight to points of view that are just not valid. And that they are actually promoted by people with financial interests. What do you say to them?
Mr. DVORKIN: Well, I will approach Jeff Jarvis's position, but very gingerly. I think that, you know, we'll dance a little bit, but I'm not going to spend the rest of the evening with you, Jeff.
I think Jeff Jarvis is right to the extent that it's important that journalists be honest with themselves and with the public so that they can do a better job of journalism. But I don't think, and on the case of global warming, I think it would be fair to say that there is an undeniable amount of scientific information that says that it actually exists and that NPR may be a little ginger about this issue for reasons that perhaps I should write about in a column one of these days.
But I also think that we, if we are so candid about ourselves, we tend to limit our ability to do any kind of journalism because there will always be half of the people in the audience who will dismiss you because you are, you know, a left handed diabetic and therefore unable to do stories on left handed diabetics or right handed diabetics.
And I think that this does a disservice to journalism in general. It may be of value in the blogosphere, where this kind of candor and self regard may be of value, but I don't think it's of value outside the blogosphere.
MARTIN: Jeff Jarvis, can I ask a question here, which is that, have you ever changed your mind about something?
Mr. JARVIS: You bet. I was a sixties -- let me finish the question.
I was a sixties pacifist and 9/11 happened. And I was there that day. And I became what I call a liberal hawk. And that transformation occurred in public on my blog. And it was very hard for me as a journalist to do that, but I actually am very glad that I have and I can now point back to it. I can also say that where I've stood on the Iraq war and I can say where I've stood other places.
I can still, then, deal with the facts. I'm a journalist. I'm trained as a journalist. I'm a journalism professor. So, I can still deal with the facts with fairness and balance, but I think that that is part of the story that my readers deserve to know about me.
MARTIN: But are you ever reporting on something that isn't inherently interesting to you. Which strikes me as that's one of the differences between the blogosphere and the so-called mainstream media, is that in the blogosphere, one tends to have the ability to choose one's topics in a way that perhaps everybody in the other traditional outlets do not.
I mean, you don't get assigned, I mean, you don't ever get assigned to write about something that you're not inherently interested in and the mere fact of pursuing that leads you to thoughts that you had not previously considered. And I just wondered how, if the notion here is that all knowledge comes from who one is to begin with, how does that inquiry --
Mr. JARVIS: I'm not saying all knowledge comes from that. I'm not saying that. I'm not saying that at all, that all knowledge comes from that. I'm just saying that is relevant. It is part of the picture. And that's all it is.
And no, it doesn't have to come from personal experience. There's a lot of stories about which I don't have an opinion, true. And when I was a journalist, I tried to gravitate toward the areas where I did have an opinion and I did have an interest. Most journalists do. I don't cover sports because I don't know a darn thing about it. And I'd be really bad at covering sports, even so.
Mr. DVORKIN: Well, I think that's a good reason to assign you to a sports beat, just to see if you'd get a fresh idea.
I have an idea that, people at NPR come up to my office, which is away from the newsroom and they say, I've got very strong feelings about something. Or someone. And I want to, and do you think I'm able to report on it? And I say, well, it depends how strongly you feel.
MARTIN: We need to hear more about that after we come back from a short break. A last word on balance and objectivity in the media plus the Pulitzer prizes are awarded today. Who won? How will becoming a Pulitzer prize winning journalist impact the winners? That's after the break. I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Today, we're talking about finding balance in journalism. Our guests are Jeffrey Dvorkin, the NPR ombudsmen, also, Brent Cunningham. He's the managing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. And Jeff Jarvis, blogger at buzzmachine.com and new media columnist for The Guardian.
And before the break, Jeffrey Dvorkin, you were talking about reporters here who, sometimes consulting you about personal, their personal opinions and how that would affect their ability to cover questions.
Mr. DVORKIN: Sure. And journalists have a tendency to come chat with me up in my office, which is away from the newsroom, so there's a kind of confessional quality, I guess, to it. And they say, you know what, I've got very strong feelings about this, and I want to go out and demonstrate or I want to be an activist, or I want to be engaged in some kind of lobby work. And I have a first amendment right to do so, they say.
And my answer to them is that, yeah, they have a first amendment right to that, but they don't have a first amendment right to work at NPR and to do the kind of journalism that an organization like NPR wants to do. And people have to choose. They can go off and express their opinions and, I guess, be a blogger or an activist or they can be a journalist and feel that there is another kind of calling. I wouldn't say a higher calling, just a different kind of calling, to do the journalism that provides reliable information in which the reporter is not an issue in covering the story.
Mr. JARVIS: But Jeffrey, they still have those opinions anyway. Even if they choose to tamp them down, they're still in there and readers are going to, viewers, listeners are going to wonder what those opinions are, and that's the issue.
Mr. DVORKIN: Only if you raise them, Jeff.
MARTIN: Well, if somebody's the theater critic, for example, Jeffrey, if somebody is the theater critic, does it matter if he or she has strong views about the Iraq war?
Mr. JARVIS: Possibly, but your engaging that person to be a critic. You're not engaging a reporter to use NPR or any other media as their bully pulpit for their own personal ideas. And I think that we have to be very clear with our listeners what is opinion and what is fact-based reporting. And there's nothing wrong with either of them. We just can't conflate them.
MARTIN: Let's go to a caller in Redmond, Oregon. Rocco, what's on your mind?
ROCCO (Caller): Thanks for taking my call. My question is this, I'm wondering how can we expect to have complete news reporting when half of listeners or readers are going to be, the bulk, I'm saying, on the left and the other half on the right? How can we expect to be satisfied with the reporting instead of thinking it seems like a sort of common denominator-ized, if that's a word, so that everyone's happy and no one turns the channel off or doesn't listen to that anymore, doesn't read that newspaper anymore?
Mr. JARVIS: I think that that's just part of the nature of living in a democracy, is that you will have facts that will be discussed and debated and argued over and that's the nature of an open democracy. In a place where you don't have that kind of debate, it's called a totalitarian society. And --
ROCKO: With that in mind, we need to be very careful about how we interpret our news.
Mr. JARVIS: Absolutely.
MARTIN: Brent Cunningham, what about you? What's your thought about what Rocco has to say?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Well, I guess I don't feel like the nation is divided quite that neatly, and I think, between left and right. And I think, again, I don't want to keep beating a dead horse, but I return to this notion of disclosure. Of what's to be disclosed and what isn't. And I guess one of the things that I wanted to say about Jeff's proposal is that, again, I don't know where you draw the line. Because if it's just --
He mentioned a case of an African American reporter going to cover some event involving African Americans. I mean, I think, yes, you can learn a lot about someone based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation, but I think it also is really a dangerous proposal when you start suggesting that you can know, make assumptions about that person, where they're from, what their views are based on those very superficial qualities.
MARTIN: I have an interesting real-world example of that, Brent, if you don't mind.
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Sure.
MARTIN: When I was a political reporter for the Wall Street Journal, they employed focus groups every now and again to explore political topics. And we had, and of course a focus group is like 12 people, generally, and they're sort of broadly representative because, you know, how could 12 people be representative of the entire United States? They can't.
But you generally use it to supplement, you know, polling data that is richer, just to make it kind of a richer discussion. Well, two of the 12 folk in the focus group were African Americans. This was a year when Jesse Jackson was running for president. They were both, I don't know how this happened, they were both extremely conservative republicans. They were both small business owners. They had no patience for Jesse Jackson at all.
And so it was kind of, it was interesting to hear their views about why. But it wasn't helpful at all in figuring out why Jesse Jackson, you know, won democratic primaries in eight states. That happens.
Mr. DVORKIN: One of the things that you have to do in any news organization is you hire for smart, you hire for potential, and you hire across the board, and in the most diverse way you can. And then you blend those qualities to create a news organization that is both intellectually curious and generous. And somehow through that you end up with a place where the journalism is good.
MARTIN: Oh, let me ask Rocco, Rocco, are you still there with us?
MARTIN: Would you find it useful, you've been following our discussion about reporters disclosing their, I guess their demographic information, their intellectual sort of points of view. Do you think that you would find that useful?
ROCCO: Well, you know what, it's funny you ask that because I think I would. And present company excluded, I think that most of us, though, are just consumers of what we see and hear and that we don't have, we're not sort of label-readers of our news, you know? We don't really care where it comes from. It's just that we hear that and we, it just kind of washes over us and then we assume that that's right or we start saying those facts or, you know, part of put that into our sort of political rhetoric of the day or the week. So I would find it helpful. Absolutely.
Mr. DVORKIN: You know, I have to disagree with Rocco. I don't think our role is to be, is to be either, you know, sort of intellectual or political strippers on behalf of the audience. It is called a secret ballot for a reason. And I think that there is nothing really gained by anyone knowing how I vote or where I go to pray.
MARTIN: Rocco, thank you for --
Mr. DVORKIN: If I do go to pray.
ROCCO: I wouldn't say that it's mandatory. I'm just saying it would be useful for me.
MARTIN: Okay, Rocco. Thank you for calling.
ROCCO: Thanks for taking the call.
MARTIN: Brent Cunningham, do you believe that there is such a thing as objective reporting? Is that possible?
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: No. But I'm going to use this phrase again. I do believe there's such a thing as intellectually honest reporting. And I know that whatever my, as a reporter myself, whatever my view is on a subject, I feel pretty comfortable that in, as I report out that story, if I encounter information that contradicts what I believe about it, I will not ignore that information. I think good journalism confronts it and does its best to show why, you know, why you disagree with that or why a certain set of facts is more credible than another set of facts. But you don't ignore it.
And I think in the debate over bias, there's too much intellectually dishonest debate going on.
MARTIN: Jeffrey Dvorkin, same question. Is there such a thing as objective journalism?
Mr. DVORKIN: No, there isn't. There's just honest journalism. And I think that one of the issues that was raised is that if we are starting to assign reporters based on their politics, their ethnicity, or other things, then we come very close to getting into quota journalism.
And I think there are some advantages to having someone who's Italian-American go report on issues that are of concern to the Italian-American community, but there's also a danger that that reporter could be pressured and culturally influenced by the community that it's reporting on. There might be efforts to say, hey, you're one of us. You can't report anything bad about us.
So we, I think reporting and hiring and assigning for smart and talented goes a long way, and honest, of course.
MARTIN: Jeffrey Jarvis, very briefly, has to be the last word, is objective journalism possible even if you prefer not to practice it the way you like to do journalism?
Mr. JARVIS: No, but I think both Brent and Jeffrey are absolutely right. There is honest journalism and there is open journalism. And that's really what I'm asking for is that. If I were to, go back to the earlier example. If I were to suddenly interview Bin Laden, there is, to my mind, absolutely no two sides to 9/11 and what I witnessed that day. I would hate him. I would say that. But then at some point there is a morbid curiosity to hear what he has to say.
The mistake we make is to put ourselves up on a pedestal as if we can judge what's true, what's balanced, and what you need to know. We are just conduits and stewards of facts. And that's our job is to do that as openly and honestly as we can.
Mr. DVORKIN: But you're a cultural relativist, Jeff.
Mr. JARVIS: I've been called worse.
MARTIN: Jeffrey Jarvis, blogger at buzzmachine.com, a new media columnist for The Guardian. Thank you. Also we were joined by Brent Cunningham, managing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. Thank you.
Mr. CUNNINGHAM: You're welcome.
MARTIN: And Jeffrey Dvorkin, the NPR ombudsman, thank you for joining us today.
Mr. DVORKIN: You're very welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.