Christianity,  Culture

The simplest explanation for bias in the press

I really miss Richard John Neuhaus. His regular commentary in the “On the Square” section of First Things was worth the price of the journal. He could always see right through to the heart of an issue and then expound and reprove with wit and humor. There was no one like him.

In 2006, he wrote a short bit about bias among news reporters. It’s devastating and hilarious all at once. I bring it to your attention in case you have grown frustrated with the kind of reporting that we’ve had to endure in recent days. There is nothing new under the sun. Enjoy.

As you might imagine, I spend a good deal of time talking with reporters. I usually don’t mind it. It comes with the territory. With notable exceptions, reporters are people of good will working hard to write a story that will please their editors. It is true that they are not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. These days most of them have gone to journalism school, or j-school, as it is called. In intellectual rankings at universities, journalism is just a notch above education, which is, unfortunately, at the bottom.

An eager young thing with a national paper was interviewing me about yet another instance of political corruption. “Is this something new?” she asked. “No,” I said, “it’s been around ever since that unfortunate afternoon in the garden.” There was a long pause and then she asked, “What garden was that?” It was touching.

What prompts me to mention this today is that I’m just off the phone with a reporter from the same national paper. He’s doing a story on Pope Benedict’s new encyclical. In the course of discussing the pontificate, I referred to the pope as the bishop of Rome. “That raises an interesting point,” he said. “Is it unusual that this pope is also the bishop of Rome?” He obviously thought he was on to a new angle. Once again, I tried to be gentle. Toward the end of our talk, he said with manifest sincerity, “My job is not only to get the story right but to explain what it means.” Ah yes, he is just the fellow to explain what this pontificate and the encyclical really mean. It is poignant.

Wherever you go, you run into people who say they were disillusioned with the press when they saw how a story in which they were involved was reported. What they knew for sure had happened was grossly misrepresented. Frequently they say the reporter was biased or even malicious, and that is undoubtedly sometimes the case. But over the years of dealing with reporters—and, again, there are notable exceptions—I have been led to embrace something like an Occam’s razor with respect to journalistic distortions: Do not multiply explanations when ignorance will suffice.

(HT: Ben Domenech)


  • Don Johnson

    Every single time that I happen to be in a story in some way that is reported in the news, I get to see firsthand how the story was distorted to fit the agenda of the reporter, who is probably doing this because of the expectations of their audience. When it happens every single time, I detect a pattern.

  • James Harold Thomas

    I always chuckle when a mainstream reporter interviews an evangelical — “You mean you actually believe the Bible!?”

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