Caught in the Crossfire  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   December/January 2004

Caught in the Crossfire   

Viewing journalism through an ideological lens

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Related reading:
   » Star Power
   » The Women

I've been accused of many things, but this was a first.

The editor of AJR, said the e-mail, was clearly an "ultraliberal."

I'm not sure who found this more hilarious: my wife, my daughter or my managing editor.

This particular bit of fan mail was triggered by my appearance on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" to discuss the Los Angeles Times' article about Arnold Schwarzenegger's penchant for groping women.

My take was that it was a fine piece of journalism. It established a pattern of behavior that seemed clearly reprehensible. It avoided an anecdotal approach that might make for more compelling reading but at the same time suggest the paper had more firsthand knowledge than it did. This was, appropriately, a straight-on, hard-news approach.

The story explained why four of the six women the paper had interviewed were anonymous (nine more women came forward and allowed their names to be used after the first piece ran). It said explicitly that the reporters had found the women; none had approached the paper. And it said that none of the information had been provided by Schwarzenegger's political rivals.

The timing, of course, was an issue. The piece ran five days before California's recall. But that seems defensible in this case. Schwarzenegger's campaign ran all of 62 days, far, far shorter than a normal election, which compressed the reporting process. And it was a story that had to be done very carefully, not rushed into the paper. That takes time.

And what was the alternative? Suppressing solid information that the voters had a right to know about.

There are perfectly legitimate journalistic issues to debate. There are those who argue that, whatever the reasons for the delay, it simply was too late to run such a story. And while it seemed to me that the behavior portrayed in the story was fair game--part of the exploration of the character of the actor who would be governor--not everyone saw it that way.

To my mind Schwarzenegger's crude antics were awfully offensive, a far cry from, say, the Miami Herald's long-ago story about Gary Hart and Donna Rice, an affair between consenting adults. Yet I was surprised when a dinner companion dismissed the L.A. Times' story as no big deal. She had frequently been subjected to such behavior, if not worse; wasn't this just a case of retroactively applying today's political correctness to another, much more freewheeling era? she asked. Why waste the newsprint? (The voters of California were similarly unwowed.)

But sadly, little of the contretemps had to do with journalism. Critics of the Times saw the issue solely through ideological blinders. After all, the paper had editorialized against the recall and against Schwarzenegger's candidacy. Forget that alleged church-and-state wall between news and editorial; it had to be a political hit piece.

Conspiracy theorists had a field day. They insisted, with absolutely no evidence, that the article had been completed much earlier but had been held to do maximum damage. In fact, as late as two days before the story appeared, top Times editors weren't sure they had enough to publish (see "The Women"). But as is the way these days, thanks to talk TV and the Internet, unfounded allegations took on a life of their own.

Hardly anyone challenged the story on the facts (oh, those), including the new governor, who basically pleaded nolo contendere.

Given the increasingly nasty partisanship of our political discourse, it's inevitable that journalism gets caught up in the fray. But, hard as it seems for some to believe, there are--luckily--many journalists who couldn't care less about the political overtones of their work. They believe their job is to unearth and lay out the facts without fear or favor, and let the readers do with them what they will.

Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie famously refuses to vote. L.A. Times Editor John Carroll, the bte noire of the Times' critics, has launched a crusade to free his paper's pages of bias, of any suggestion that liberalism or political correctness is shaping its coverage.

It's doubtful that many of those Washington reporters who flogged the Clinton/Lewinsky story were soul mates of Richard Mellon Scaife. And I'll bet the L.A. Times reporters would have aggressively pursued the groping story whether its subject was Arnold, a liberal Democrat, a Libertarian, a Green Party member, a Maoist, a Baathist, a vegetarian, an existentialist or a member of the Taliban.

As they should.

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