Former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel rocked the proverbial boat in November. Responding to Keith Olbermann’s brief suspension for making a few undisclosed campaign contributions, Koppel wondered why MSNBC was bothering to feign a lack of bias.
…when Olbermann draws more than 1 million like-minded viewers to his program every night precisely because he is avowedly, unabashedly and monotonously partisan, it is not clear what misdemeanor his donations constituted. Consistency?
Koppel railed against the trend in news media toward opinion-shaping and away from the reporting of fact. Koppel hit a nerve, evoking defensive replies from the cable news crowd.
Now, in an unwitting vindication of Koppel’s argument, The New York Times sees fit to knight The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart for “advocacy journalism” on behalf of the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010.
Though he might prefer a description like “advocacy satire,” what Mr. Stewart engaged in that night [devoting a show to the bill] — and on earlier occasions when he campaigned openly for passage of the bill — usually goes by the name “advocacy journalism.”
Stewart is compared with self-conscious exaggeration to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
“He so pithily articulated the argument that once it was made, it was really hard to do anything else [but pass the bill],” Mr. [Robert J.] Thompson [a professor of television at Syracuse University] said.
“Advocacy journalism” is, of course, a blatant oxymoron. A journalist cannot both advocate and report. One task will succeed at the expense of the other. An advocate will present, omit, or exaggerate facts in order to support his position, while a journalist will report as inclusively and objectively as possible.
The New York Times demonstrated this inverse relationship between advocacy and journalism in its coverage of the bill in question. In an article titled “Republicans Block U.S. Health Aid for 9/11 Workers,” reporter Raymond Hernandez crafted a lead which implied that Republicans do not want 9/11 workers to receive health care.
Republican senators blocked Democratic legislation on Thursday that sought to provide medical care to rescue workers and others who became ill as a result of breathing in toxic fumes, dust and smoke at the site of the World Trade Center attack in 2001.
Several paragraphs in, the real issue receives a brief obligatory mention.
Republicans have been raising concerns about how to pay for the $7.4 billion measure, while Democrats, led by Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, have argued that there was a moral obligation to assist those who put their lives at risk during rescue and cleanup operations at ground zero.
Clearly, the debate was over how to fund care, not whether to. That is not the impression conveyed by the headline.
While absolute objectivity is impossible, its approximation is certainly desirable, especially from sources which claim to be journalistic. The New York Times lauding of “advocacy journalism,” and equation of unapologetic policy prescription with hard news, demonstrates how far from actual journalism they have fallen.