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WaPo: ‘Error Has No Rights’

Though he didn’t use this precise verbal formulation, the 19th century Pope Pius IX, in his (in)famous Syllabus Of Errors, set forth the principle that “error has no rights” — this, to explain why religious freedom should not be tolerated. Over the weekend, the Washington Post‘s outgoing ombudsman illustrated how this principle works at his […]

Though he didn’t use this precise verbal formulation, the 19th century Pope Pius IX, in his (in)famous Syllabus Of Errors, set forth the principle that “error has no rights” — this, to explain why religious freedom should not be tolerated. Over the weekend, the Washington Post‘s outgoing ombudsman illustrated how this principle works at his newspaper — and, in my informed opinion, in the mainstream media — with regard to believers in traditional marriage. In a nutshell, when it comes to reporting on the debate and events around the same-sex marriage issue, the Post feels it has no responsibility to report fairly and accurately on people who oppose same-sex marriage, because they are morally wrong. Excerpts:

I get a steady stream of e-mails and phone calls from readers who assert that The Post has a “pro-gay agenda” and publishes too many “puffy” stories about gay marriage, and that it even allows too many same-sex couples to appear in the Date Lab feature in Sunday’s WP Magazine.

“The conservative, pro-family side gets short shrift,” as one reader recently put it, and The Post “caters slavishly to Dupont Circle.”

Indeed, that reader got into a vigorous three-way e-mail dialogue with a Post reporter and me over the issue, an exchange that goes to the heart of the question of whether The Post, and journalists in general, are hopelessly liberal and genetically tone-deaf to social conservatives.

Here are excerpts from that dialogue, with the reader’s and reporter’s names kept out of it at their requests.

The reader wrote that Post stories too often minimize the conservative argument: “The overlooked ‘other side’ on the gay issue is quite legitimate, and includes the Pope, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, evangelist Billy Graham, scholars such as Robert George of Princeton, and the millions of Americans who believe in traditional marriage and oppose redefining marriage into nothingness. . . . Is there no room in The Post for those who support the male-female, procreative model of marriage?”

Replied the reporter: “The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.”

The reader: “Contrary to what you say, the mission of journalism is not justice. Defining justice is a political matter, not journalistic. Journalism should be about accuracy and fairness.

“Good journalism also means not demeaning conservatives as ‘haters.’ ”

The reporter: “As for accuracy, should the media make room for racists, i.e. those people who believe that black people shouldn’t marry white people? Any story on African-Americans wouldn’t be wholly accurate without the opinion of a racist, right?

“Of course I have a bias. I have a bias toward fairness,” the reporter continued. “The true conservative would have the same bias. The true conservative would want the government out of people’s bedrooms, and religion out of government.”

That discussion is most revealing about journalists.

Yeah, you think? To the extent this opinion informs the Post‘s coverage — and I would bet my paycheck it does — it is a gross abdication of professional responsibility. The reader isn’t asking the Post to take the side of traditionalists; he or she is simply asking the Post to report the news in an evenhanded way. And the reporter refuses to do so. I suppose we should be grateful that the reporter doesn’t feel the need to make the preposterous claim that there is no bias; the reporter lays it right out there, saying that bigotry in news reporting against orthodox Christians and other marriage traditionalists is an act of virtue.

It’s not just the Post. I remember once speaking with a senior executive at another big newspaper about his paper’s agenda-driven reporting on homosexuality and the marriage issue. This wasn’t an accusation on my part; he admitted the bias, and was proud of it. I brought up the likelihood that his paper’s bias could alienate many socially conservative readers, at a time when all of us who worked at newspapers were hemorrhaging readers. The executive said, indignantly, “We don’t need bigots for readers.”

Well, he certainly has a lot fewer of them today than he did when we had that conversation. So does the Washington Post. I wouldn’t claim that newspapers have lost readers because of their bias on reporting the marriage issue, but to the extent readers have lost confidence in the ability of newspapers to report the news with as much fairness as is possible (knowing that total fairness isn’t possible), and are therefore unwilling to spend their money to be lied to and to have people like themselves defamed, then yes, it plays a role.

Over the years, talking to fellow conservatives about media bias, it has usually been my place, as one who worked in mainstream media, to tell conservatives that they’re wrong in some significant way about media bias — not its existence, but the way it works. Most reporters and editors, in my 20 years of experience, do not set out to slant stories, and in fact try to be fair. The bias that creeps into their coverage is typically the result of a newsroom monoculture, in which they don’t see the bias because everybody, or nearly everybody, within that culture agrees on so much. In the case of gay rights and the marriage debate, though, they don’t even make an effort to be fair. I have heard some version of the “error has no rights” claim for years now. They honestly believe they are morally absolved from having to treat the views of about half the country with basic fairness in reporting. And they are shocked — believe me, they really are — that these people view them and the work they do with suspicion, even contempt.

I really can’t improve on the hiding that M.Z. Hemingway at Get Religion gives the Post over this. Excerpts:

Here’s what needs to happen. Right now. Every reporter — no matter the beat, no matter how much in the tank for redefining marriage, no matter how close-minded they’ve been to this point — every reporter needs to stop what they’re doing and read “What is Marriage.”

It’s a very easy-to-read book that succinctly explains the traditionalist arguments surrounding marriage. Refusing to learn the arguments of those who oppose changing the law must end. It simply must end. The ignorance and bigotry with which reporters have covered this topic is a scandal. It’s destroying civil political discourse, it’s embarrassing and can’t continue.

Reporters don’t need to change their deeply-held biases in favor of changing marriage law. But they do need to learn even a little bit about the arguments of those who oppose such a change.

No reporter working today should ever make the error of comparing arguments against marriage redefinition with anti-miscegenation laws. It’s clownish and easily disputed.

I thank Pexton and this unnamed reporter for revealing their ignorance and bigotry when it comes to coverage of this topic. It is helpful to have this transparency. But the solution lies not with zealous indoctrination by media types about how “fairness” requires redefining marriage. The solution to the problem of the bigoted way that reporters handle this topic lies with reporters themselves. Reporters: open your mind to the actual (not imagined) arguments of your opponents. Learn to report their views as accurately as you would want someone to report your own beliefs.

When it comes to news writing — and not voting or op-eds — stop thinking of people who retain traditional arguments on the institution of marriage as your opponents. And, most importantly, start doing your jobs.

Yeah, start doing your jobs — while you still have them.

I read the Get Religion item over the weekend, and the Post ombudsman’s column, and I declined to comment at the time, in part because this stuff just burns me up. I love journalism, and consider it important. But when it comes to reporting on the culture war, my profession is deeply corrupt, and profoundly self-righteous. The contempt with which so many within newsrooms hold social conservatives and traditional Christians is real. Stories like this one temper my sorrow over the demise of my profession. They really do hate people like me, and consider us not worthy of the basic fairness they would use in approaching their reporting on criminals and terrorists.



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