Thomas Sowell

The British Broadcasting Corporation has made itself look ridiculous by issuing orders that its reporters are not to refer to Saddam Hussein as an ex-dictator. Apparently using the word "dictator" would compromise the BBC's neutrality and call its objectivity into question.

Unfortunately, the BBC is not alone. In much of the American mainstream media, terrorists are referred to as "militants" or "insurgents." Rioters are called "demonstrators."

As American flags went up around the country in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, even the wearing of little American flag lapel pins by TV journalists was banned by some broadcasters, with the notable exception of Fox News.

What makes all this straining for neutrality more than just another passing silliness is that it reveals a serious confusion between neutrality and objectivity. Such verbal posturing has been at its worst in some of the most biased media, such as the BBC.

During World War II, legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow never pretended to be neutral as between the Nazis and the Allies. Yet you would have trouble today finding anyone in the media with anything resembling the stature and integrity of Ed Murrow.

Honesty does not require posturing. In fact, the two things are incompatible. Nor does objectivity require neutrality.

Medical science is no less scientifically objective because it is completely biased in favor of people and against bacteria. Medical researchers are studying cancer cells with scientific objectivity in order to discover what the hard facts are about those cells, regardless of anyone's preconceived beliefs. But they are doing so precisely in order to destroy cancer cells and, if possible, prevent their existence in the first place.

Objectivity refers to an honest seeking of the truth, whatever that truth may turn out to be and regardless of what its implications might be. Neutrality refers to a preconceived "balance," which subordinates the truth to this preconception.

Journalists who reported the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps were not violating canons of objectivity by failing to use such neutral language as calling these places "residential facilities" or those who ran them "hosts."

Nor did the use of the term "dictator" to describe Hitler mean that World War II journalists did not come up to the supposedly high standards of today's media. What does the much-vaunted "public's right to know" mean when mealy mouth words filter out essential facts?

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate