< The Objectivity Bias

Transcript

Friday, July 29, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

In a recent New York Times column about the coverage of the debt ceiling crisis, Paul Krugman was not reluctant to call out the press for failing to communicate what he saw as the dangerous intransigence of the Republican position. He wrote, quote, "What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism, no way for most voters who get their information on the fly, rather than doing careful study the issues, to understand what's really going on.

Ryan Chittum addressed the would-be objective reporter's conundrum in a recent post on CJR. org.

RYAN CHITTUM:

We do have a problem with dealing with extreme positions. Sometimes we just ignore them, and other times when they clearly have an impact we just don't know how to tell our readers that this is crazy, you know, that people are willing to sink the credit of the United States Government.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So are you saying it's all the Republicans' fault?

RYAN CHITTUM:

No, I'm not saying that at all. Harry Reid, he could have raised the debt ceiling when Democrats had control of Congress. He wanted the Republicans to share the political blame for it. That was a political calculation that backfired pretty spectacularly. And they bear responsibility for that for playing politics.

But the closer you get to D-day, the bigger the chance that it will spiral out of control. And I think that's what's happened here. The Democrats miscalculated and the Republican leadership has too. But the responsibility there is not equal.

When you're talking about making a political calculation eight months ago versus eight days out, they're — they're two different stories.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You know, it just makes anyone who goes down this road such an easy target for accusations of liberal bias. What do you say to people who know they're gonna walk down that road?

RYAN CHITTUM:

Our highest obligation is to find out the truth and, and to tell it, regardless of the consequences. If we don't do that, then we're not doing our jobs. The press has a real aversion to being accused of ideological bias or bias of any sort. You know, we're kind of above the fray. We're just going where the facts lead us.

I think the problem there is that it's easier to say he said, she said, rather than determining whether one side is telling the truth and one side is not. It's much harder to do that. It takes much more time.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Right now you work for the Columbia Journalism Review. You used to be a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

RYAN CHITTUM:

Right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Could you really report the way that you say people ought to report when you were a reporter for The Journal? And I don't even mean The Journal under Murdoch.

RYAN CHITTUM:

No, I — I don't think that this is something that the pre-Murdoch Journal was excluded from at all. This is the culture of American journalism, and The Journal's very much a part of that. This is a cultural problem. It's not something that British journalism, as much as we've criticized them over the past few weeks, has.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

That's because people expect British journalism to be, at least in part, ideological. And one reason why the Brits admire American journalism is that supposedly it's not. At least, the good stuff.

RYAN CHITTUM:

That's the dilemma, right? How do you split the difference between being milk toast and not willing to call people out, and being ideological? These are facts. I think you just have to report the context. You don't have to spell it out and say [LAUGHS], you know, Republicans are at fault. That — you know, that doesn't have to be your lead.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Ryan, thank you very much.

RYAN CHITTUM:

Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Ryan Chittum is the deputy editor of The Audit, which analyzes the business press for the Columbia Journalism Review