Feb 1 2006

The Language of Extra!

Reflections on fairness and accuracy

A major focus of my research is the way language can be used to oppress or empower, and I have applied this perspective to media discourse in my writing for Extra! magazine. This has given me an opportunity to reflect on what it means—for media critics as well as for those we scrutinize—to be precise, independent, reasonable and evenhanded. By examining the work of fellow writers for Extra! over the past 20 years and in learning from my own assignments, I have altered both my own approach to criticism and my definitions of key terms.

My first project for Extra! was to analyze the mainstream media coverage of the slavery reparations debate. In my initial search, I of course uncovered many examples of biased coverage from the Fox News Channel. Yet focusing solely on the right-leaning Fox, as my editor aptly pointed out (and as numerous articles in Extra! have documented), was not comprehensive. As I broadened my analysis to include other outlets such as CNN and NPR, I discovered common trends among media entities that are frequently assumed to be ideologically different. In effect, I learned that the definition of “mainstream” for writers and readers of Extra! runs counter to the term’s usual meaning, and points toward common, pervasive tendencies among many outlets.

While many in the mainstream media would have us believe that their approach is nonpartisan and representative of a full range of views, the pages of Extra! suggest that the mainstream represents deference to the politically and economically powerful, skewing coverage to favor elite viewpoints, avoiding challenges to those with influence and excluding marginalized voices. Mainstream media too often uncritically parrot the rhetoric of official and corporate interests, and rely on sources that represent dominant constituencies. Reporters who violate these unwritten rules may be punished and silenced.

Mainstream outlets often avoid negative coverage of corporations, and may even laud particular products or businesses because of implicit or explicit influence by advertisers. In some cases, reporters have either shaped their coverage according to the directives of corporate or governmental representatives or explicitly agreed to terms set by them. (See FAIR’s annual “Fear and Favor” series, starting in Extra!, 5-6/01.) Although mainstream coverage generally tends to support the interests of conservative political actors, there are notable exceptions. Viacom-owned CBS, for example, as Peter Hart and Julie Hollar reported (Extra!, 3-4/05), promoted Bush administration critic Richard Clarke on 60 Minutes “without disclosing that his book Against All Enemies was published by Free Press, another Viacom subsidiary.”

Media’s slanted “balance”

The mainstream media’s conservative slant and its exclusion of various viewpoints are frequently hidden; many in the media suggest, in fact, that they are even-handed and inclusive. Such claims are frequently disingenuous, of course. As various reports in Extra! have demonstrated, it’s common to have “debates” in which one side is clearly more forceful (a nightly occurrence on Fox’s Hannity & Colmes —see Extra!, 11-12/03), or interviews in which a reporter blatantly favors a particular view. Those of us who research and write for Extra!, then, often find ourselves suggesting a complex definition of balance that depends both upon what is absent and upon the management and characterization of what is present.

At times, a lack of balance can be demonstrated by examining media sources beyond mainstream outlets; my study of the reparations debate (Extra!, 5-6/02) noted numerous examples of facts, perspectives and contexts that appeared in black newspapers that were omitted in mainstream discussions. In other cases, we are called upon to show what is missing by examining the spectrum within mainstream media sources themselves. These investigations have shown that when an ostensibly comprehensive array of views is offered, the spectrum often ranges from right to center. Mislabeling allows a right/center range to falsely suggest a full continuum of views, with centrist sources deemed to be the “left,” and progressives labeled as radical or extreme, so they can be declared by the media to be outliers rather than true participants in public debate.

Context is also vital; balance does not mean merely allowing members of often-underrepresented groups to show up. The media frequently limit these subjects’ participation by limiting which group members can speak and what they can speak about. In other cases, progressive voices are given so little airtime that their views are trivialized. Equally unbalanced are reports in which groups are spoken for rather than allowed to speak for themselves, a “pattern of exclusion” that Jeff Cohen noted as one of the reasons for the founding of FAIR (Extra!, 6/87).

Drawing the line on fairness

It is challenging to determine whether statements made by media commentators really are fair. As scholars of language affirm, no discussion of any issue can be completely dispassionate; when commentators are asked to provide their opinions on controversial subjects, where serious real-world consequences are at stake, we cannot and should not expect media spokespeople to be disinterested. Still, we do hope for and have a right to expect fairness. Drawing the line between the two is difficult, yet imperative.

Consider, for example, a revision suggested by my editor in an early draft of my article on the media’s treatment of progressive African-American leaders (Extra!, 3-4/03), including Cornel West, a professor and cultural critic whose departure from Harvard for Princeton garnered much media attention. I cited as “unfair” an article by Newsday’s Sheryl McCarthy (4/18/02), who, after reading some of West’s writing and auditing one of his classes, concluded that his work was “no big deal.” My editor rightly questioned me; McCarthy was providing her own opinion and presenting it as such. Indeed, she and others should scrutinize the words and actions of leaders of all races, and give their honest reactions. What, then, does it mean when Extra! critiques coverage as unfair?

Fairness does not forbid pundits or analysts from expressing controversial opinions; to the contrary, if anyone finds they agree with every opinion expressed in a news outlet, that outlet probably isn’t doing its job. Yet criticisms of people or discussions of issues that rely on sexual or racial innuendoes, ad hominem attacks or gratuitous insinuations cross the line. In the case of the media’s treatment of progressive African-American leaders, for example, to give one’s opinion about Cornel West’s work, Jesse Jackson’s stance on political issues, or Al Sharpton’s civil disobedience is fair; to label them “con men,” “minstrels” or “hustlers,” or to mock their appearance or speech patterns is not.

The key is in whether the intent is to further evenhanded discussion or to forestall it by rendering spokespeople ridiculous. That the latter intention often plays into common stereotypes is significant; when the media fall back on prejudices about minorities and underrepresented groups, they reinforce societal biases as well as inequities in the media.

Fairness also requires that spokespeople are clearly identified. When a source represents a particular perspective—either directly or ideologically affiliated with a political party, corporation or agency—this connection should be stated. In practice, though, the media frequently fail to label experts as politically aligned, or portray as neutral or independent those who actually represent government or industry. These omissions have particular consequences, since the illusion of objectivity renders normative a conservative or corporate point of view.

Similarly, the media exhibit a lack of fairness when they rely on loaded terms and false dilemmas, framing questions in such a way that there is only one answer. For example, as Jennifer Pozner noted in her critique of PBS’s National Desk series on “the gender wars” (Extra!, 9-10/99), the question the series sought to address—“whether the advancement of women in virtually all areas of society can be achieved without a retreat, in some way, on the part of men”—was asked in a fashion that requires “a resounding ‘No.’” Seth Ackerman (Extra!, 3-4/01) demonstrated that when CNN’s Howard Kurtz questioned various media figures on Reliable Sources about whether U.S. media coverage of the Middle East was anti-Israel, he posed the question in ways that fished for an affirmative answer and continued until he got it.

The uses of inaccuracy

Accuracy may seem a more straightforward concept than balance or fairness; after all, errors usually can be clearly established. However, writing for Extra! is not merely a matter of fact-checking. While researching the media’s coverage of Liberia, for example (Extra!, 11-12/03), I discovered the erroneous statement by many in the media that Liberia was founded by freed slaves, and in writing about Hurricane Katrina (Extra!, 11-12/05) I found that rapper Kanye West’s criticism of the Bush administration was frequently misquoted. While troubling, these errors are not in and of themselves the main issue for writers and readers of Extra!. Rather, the key is the ways that media use such inaccuracies to endorse particular ideological positions and to further dominant perspectives.

In the former case, imprecise history was used to downplay the influence of colonial power and U. S. intervention on Liberian affairs; in the latter, commentators sought to depict West as extreme and therefore, in media terms, unreliable.

In assessing accuracy, we are called upon to make a crucial distinction. A commentator’s opinion, however controversial or potentially offensive, is not inherently inaccurate. Yet when pundits use false claims to bolster those opinions or make unsubstantiated accusations against others, FAIR calls them on it. In my report on the coverage of progressive black leaders (Extra!, 3-4/03), I criticized Rod Dreher’s review of Al Sharpton’s book Al on America in the National Review Online (10/8/02) not because it was negative, but because Dreher’s characterization of the book’s treatment of education was erroneous. Steve Rendall’s report on the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism (Extra!, 5-6/05) did not claim that panelists on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country should not have defended Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Rather, Rendall rightly condemned MSNBC’s guest who claimed that the influence of anti-Christian “secular Jews” who purportedly control the media establishment drove the response to the film.

Context is also a crucial component of accuracy. Reporters and pundits, we have found, sometimes edit the quotes of progressive experts and take them out of context to make them seem incomprehensible or to misrepresent their views. Similarly problematic is the omission of key information that would enable readers to correctly assess claims. Seth Ackerman examined (Extra!, 5-6/05) the media’s deceptive “encomia to the Bush administration’s commitment to Iraqi democracy,” which omitted “the buried history of how the first free elections in Iraq’s modern history actually came to be,” a context that complicates professions of the administration’s success. In other cases, the absent context would reveal serious limitations to a commentator’s credibility. Rachel Coen (Extra!, 3-4/03), for example, documented ABC’s John Stossel’s omission of his own obscene and harassing comments during a rally at Brown University against sexual assault.

In addition, accuracy requires that pundits and commentators avoid coverage that, although technically free of explicitly false statements, is tailored to lead readers, listeners or viewers to dubious or invalid conclusions. A report may not directly make the false claims that poor women have children in order to receive welfare, that welfare fraud by minorities is rampant or that the birth rate among African-American teenagers is rising, but the terms used, “experts” interviewed, and anecdotes or visuals relied upon may say as much. Of course, defenders of the mainstream media might protest that if commentators do not directly promote falsehoods then they are technically truthful. Those of us who critique the media know, though, that accuracy goes beyond what is said to encompass how it is stated and what is implied. Language is the key tool of those in the media, and they cannot plead ignorance of its power with impunity.

Writing for Extra! has challenged me to rethink the ways in which I see the discourse of others as well as my own. I have learned that criticizing the media’s reporting means not only that facts must be checked, but also that we must examine the influence of power and privilege. I have discovered that separating my reaction to someone else’s language or arguments from my assessments of the validity of their statements is imperative if I hope to grant to others the same right to their perspectives that I seek. I have found that I must be wary of generalizing assessments and must give credit to various reporters and commentators for their groundbreaking analysis and investigation (all the more so in a climate in which innovators are often silenced or punished). And I am constantly aware of the irony that, if those in the media were held to the standards by which I and my fellow writers for Extra! are judged, we would ultimately have a lot less work to do.