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Missing the point

In the debate over news media bias, liberalism vs. conservatism cannot capture it; the debate is really over the nature of truth itself

Issue: "2004 Election: GOP's encore," Aug. 28, 2004

When Bob Edwards, the former host of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" program, visited our city several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ask him why he thought so many conservatives see NPR as a voice for liberalism.

Mr. Edwards was promoting his new book, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. Mr. Edwards has a good sense of humor, often at his own expense, but much more often that day at the expense of the Bush administration or of Fox News. He knew his audience-a group of about 120 people gathered for a fundraising luncheon for the local NPR station-and he was right to assume that virtually everyone there would happily call himself or herself at least moderately liberal.

And indeed, that's exactly how Mr. Edwards described himself that day as he responded to my question. "I like to think of myself more as a moderate than as a liberal," he said, with a pleasant touch of only slight defensiveness.

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But don't they all? And even while they scurry from that awful L-word, they highlight one of the key differences between a liberal and a conservative outlook on life. Liberals don't like being pinned down on much of anything. Conservatives relish it. To make that point is to say that the arguments between liberals and conservatives don't usually have much to do with the rightness or the wrongness of the position itself; they have to do instead with whether someone should even take a position on the issue.

For example, in the current setting a conservative will argue that marriage should be a relationship only between a man and a woman. But a liberal, instead of arguing for some other specific relationship, is more likely to say that it doesn't really matter, and that the issue should be left to be decided by the various individuals concerned. Such rising above the fray is, of course, portrayed as the moral high ground. And it conveniently spares the one who holds it any responsibility for defending the other side of the argument.

All of this has just taken on new significance because of a vigorous discussion about bias taking place within the journalistic community in our country. Editor & Publisher, which calls itself "America's oldest journal covering the newspaper industry," this month featured a blockbuster article-"The Bias Wars"-but fell into a bad trap in the process. The article, quoting several dozen journalists and journalism professors, spends most of its time worrying whether there are equal numbers of liberals and conservatives in America's newsrooms, and-if there aren't-whether those who are there are professional enough in their reporting to make the difference unimportant.

Carrying such a perspective to a remarkable extreme is Leonard Downie Jr. of The Washington Post, who told Editor & Publisher that since becoming the Post's managing editor 20 years ago, he has refused to vote. He also encourages his staff to back off in similar fashion. But why is it so hard for folks like Mr. Downie to see how such forms of noncommitment simply become a profound commitment of another kind? Bob Zelnick of Boston University's journalism department claims that the students he knows today don't care much about politics (is he saying that therefore we shouldn't really call them liberals?)-but that there are some values they hold dear, like environmental protection, gay rights, and a woman's right to an abortion. Some detachment from ideology!

But whether the two sides in any debate are equally represented in the pages of a newspaper is hardly the point. Far more important is what the reporters and editors think about truth itself, about reality itself.

In his revealing column last month-"Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?"-Times public editor Daniel Okrent answers right up front: "Of course it is." But he quotes his publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., as denying that "liberal" is the right term. Mr. Sulzberger prefers the word "urban," claiming that New Yorkers are "less easily shocked."

So Mr. Sulzberger, like Bob Edwards, chooses not to engage the specific, individual issues and arguments. They both scuttle sideways and change the subject to the matter of how many different points of view we are able to accommodate.

That's something a good conservative-particularly one grounded in the truth of God's Word-will never do.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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