The largely unexamined assumption many of us make when we pick up our morning paper is that reality is somewhere out there and the job of the journalist is to capture it, the way a hunter might truss up a lion, and deliver it neatly wrapped to our doorstep.
When we discover that's not a realistic assumption, we may adopt the opposite but equally simplistic view that there's no objective reality out there at all, but only different people's opinion of it.
But if all the news is subjective, discussion is reduced to shouting heads yelling past each other on your TV screen. Or the like-minded echoing each other's prejudices with no net gain in perception.
The most adept propagandists leave the impression that it is only those unfashionable others who spin the news -- the politicians, the bloggers, the tabloids, the ever despised Media . . . . In short, the always sinister They. It is only the trustworthy We who live in a spin-free zone. Kipling said it: "All good people agree,/And all good people say,/All nice people, like us, are We/And everyone else is They . . . ."
Think of the faux impartiality of The New York Times or a Lou Dobbs. They give their prejudices an air of objectivity, even expertise.
NPR is particularly good at it, too, and particularly annoying. The BBC and Fox News are less irritating because their biases are so blatant.
We keep being told about news coverage that is Fair and Balanced, or Impartial and Objective. Unfortunately, we tend to use all those terms as synonyms. They aren't.
Just quoting both sides of a debate and leaving it at that may be balanced, but it's scarcely fair to the reader. And there's nothing commendable about being so impartial between truth and falsity that we split the difference between the two and call it objectivity.
If the press just recites what the politicians say, we run the risk of being reduced to a bullhorn for their version of reality. Call it the Joe McCarthy Problem. Merely to retail a demagogue's propaganda and stop there, without examining it, is to become an accomplice to it.
Happily, the truth has a way of breaking through all our fair-and-balanced formulas. When a larger reality bumps up against our limited perception of it, a certain friction is created, a kind of buzz.
Call it cognitive dissonance. Things don't jibe. Some idea we've been carrying around in our heads for the longest time begins to crumble under the impact of actual experience. And the scales fall from our eyes.
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