Maybe it was never true, but I have this sense that we’ve lost something in American public discourse over the last century. We’ve lost the conception of having an opinion and still being fair. It’s like we just can’t imagine both being true in the same brain. After watching the President’s speech tonight I realized that I feel seriously inhibited in what I say publicly because I want to maintain an impartial image so that people see GovTrack as an impartial source. Am I over concerned? I doubt it. This mistaken concept also underlies “professional journalism”, which is the style of most news operations now, and I think is perhaps the second greatest contributing factor to the downfall of news (after “The Internet”). More on that below.
People often mistake me as a liberal. And others mistake me as a conservative. Here’s a story about someone that did both. I’ve gotten some amusing feedback from people who mistook my GovTrack experiment in collaborative letter writing, for which I delievered an anti-gun-control letter to congressmen, as representing my own views. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If it were up to me, guns would be illegal. I explained this contradiction to someone who wrote me a letter. He said:
Julles: But don’t you see the similarities between what this administration is doing and what was done in Germany in the 30’s?
Then I replied:
Me: I really get personally offended sometimes. To compare a president who is trying to improve health care to a regime that killed however many millions is to belittle the damage and suffering done to anyone that experienced it. Disagree on policy all you want, but don’t belittle one of the world’s greatest tragedies.
And he replied:
Julles: HR3200 is a BAD bill . . . Open your eyes, kid.
(H.R. 3200 is the health care bill.) Expressions about eyes always strike a chord with me. But more to the point, I never told this guy I thought H.R. 3200 was a good bill. And, quite honestly, after the President’s speech tonight, I am not so enamored by where health care reform is going. In particular I wonder about the constitutional authority to require everyone to possess health insurance. I suspect it will be turned into a tax penalty to avoid a straightforward law and side-step constitutional questions.
I don’t have an agenda. But if I have an opinion, I may jeopardize the perception of fairness and accuracy in anything I do in the world of civics. Can I have an opinion and still be trusted to be fair when I put my nonpartisan hat on? I’m not even partisan. I vote Democratic, but so does most everyone else in the places I’ve ever lived. Am I allowed to say that? Have I lost credibility merely for being more open about my views?
And this is what I imagine journalists go through. They vote too, I hope. If they write for the New York Times, they probably live in New York and vote like most New Yorkers. But then they turn off their passion when they put their fingers down to the newsroom keyboard. And we suspend disbelief for a moment as we read their articles that journalists can’t have opinions and be fair at the same time. They make it easy for us to suspend disbelief because they write like they’re dead. No interest in the outcome. They’ve got to write a few words because they need to pay for the electricity that keeps their computers going, but if newspapers paid them to write a summary of the tax law they’d do that too. It doesn’t matter to them, at least as far as we can tell from reading.
This is ridiculous and, worse, counterproductive. I’d be more interested in news if articles pleaded with me that the issue was important, that it isn’t a conceptual exercise but that it even matters to the reporter. This is, apparently, how news used to be 100 to 250 years ago. It’s how the most compelling documentaries and long-form video news segments are today. Of course, it was also not very reliable 100-250 years ago. But I don’t think that dichotomy has to be so today. If we opened ourselves up to the idea that a reporter could have an opinion and still be fair, we wouldn’t need to suspend disbelief. Reporters wouldn’t have to die each time they start writing the next piece.
I don’t want reporters to die. Save the reporters. (Ironic hyperbole.)