Journalism schools might proclaim in public that their mission is to mold young reporters into finding and dishing out the largest and most accurate amount of information they can uncover. But in modern times, maximum disclosure and descriptiveness are taking a back seat to the goal of ... sensitivity.
In October, the Society of Professional Journalists responded to the intensity of coverage after the terrorist attacks with a set of "Guidelines for Countering Racial, Ethnic, and Religious Profiling." It's to laugh or cry.
For example, the SPJ instructs its members to "Avoid using word combinations such as 'Islamic terrorist' or 'Muslim extremist' that are misleading because they link whole religions to criminal activity."
This kind of thinking assumes that the average newspaper reader or TV viewer is a complete moron. Just how many people will read the phrase "Islamic terrorist" and decide to beat up a Muslim? This degree of sensitivity not only doesn't clarify, it breeds the opposite of full disclosure. Instead of being descriptive and accurate, the media are counseled to fear the worst and be vague and self-censoring.
But not everyone merits a sensitivity air kiss. Earlier in the statement, SPJ urges journalists that "When writing about terrorism, remember to include white supremacists, radical anti-abortionists and other groups with a history of such activity." Whoa. Let's get this straight. If al-Qaeda fanatics plow planes into skyscrapers, we should necessarily remind people that five years ago, some psycho shot one abortionist? This doesn't serve a journalistic purpose. It serves a political one, and the kind of political purpose only Phil Donahue might understand.
Why didn't the SPJ include Earth First or the Unabomber on that list of "other groups with a history of such activity? Answer: Because in the eyes of the press they don't rise to that level. Reporters routinely demand that pro-life leaders distance themselves from abortion clinic murders, as if they cheered them on, or encouraged them with their "climate" of anti-abortion rhetoric. You'll never see that attitude toward Arab-American groups. Too insensitive.
Most of the SPJ guidelines urge the media to follow Gannett into the swamp of feeling that coverage is somehow not complete if a minority is not included. Photos and news stories are insufficient if they don't feature Arabs, Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, or, as the SPJ puts it, "olive-complexioned and darker men and women" into coverage. Somehow it's "wrong" if you can't find a dark face in every photograph or an Asian expert on anthrax in every news story. When it comes to good journalism, quotas trump quality.
SPJ's pandering to left-wing Arab-American pressure groups is most obvious in this recommendation: "Ask men and women from within targeted communities to review your coverage and make suggestions." Put aside the ridiculous formulation that Arabs are currently a "targeted community," as if American genocide is right around the corner. What self-respecting "independent journalist" invites interest groups in to critique stories and create a cozy sense of prior restraint? Liberal groups get this treatment, of course. No self-respecting journalist would ever countenance the same treatment to be given to conservatives.
For all of SPJ's pandering to Arab-American lobbyists, there's an important point they're either missing or refusing to face. The Arab countries they came from don't have a fraction of this sensitivity for their own minorities. Islamic countries have no tolerance for Jews or Christians. Why don't we ask Arab-Americans to take their sensitivity doctrines and write home first?
The media's problem isn't insensitivity to small minorities. It's insensitivity to the vast majority.
Look no further than the horrid statement by ABC News President David Westin at a gathering of Columbia University journalism students. Asked if the Pentagon was a "legitimate target" for terrorists, he answered, "I actually don't have an opinion on that ... as a journalist I feel strongly that's something that I should not be taking a position on."
Consider this: Westin never cared about the appearance of "taking a position" when he fired neoconservative William Kristol. He never worried about "taking a position" when he promoted Clinton spin doctor George Stephanopoulos as an anchorman-in-training. He saved his objective pose for passing on the proposition that it's bad that 200 Pentagon employees were killed by terrorists. (And it's noteworthy that no journalist in the room found this statement objectionable or newsworthy.)
If ABC had any sensitivity to the majority, they'd pay attention to the Vote.com poll wherein 91 percent said Westin's judgment was so awful he should resign. They ought to fire him and find someone who can muster an opinion over whether or not our government buildings, full of our fellow Americans, should or shouldn't be bombed.