Off the Cuff: June 2013

The press' response to Benghazi and the Kermit Gosnell trial proved that we no longer live in a world where journalism means chasing the facts of the story to wherever they might lead. What happened?

I’m beginning to question my own sanity. It seems that whenever a major news story breaks, it immediately becomes layered with what we want to believe about it, rather than a pursuit of the truth. I grew up in this business—my father was a newspaperman—and all my life I’ve admired a basic tenet of journalism: that chasing the facts of a story, no matter where they lead, is paramount. But that mind-set has changed. Now, even an august publication like the New York Times—and certainly most mainstream media—doesn’t take the risk of chasing stories that might lead to uncomfortable truths. Instead, our media present the world as journalists and editors and talking heads would like it to be. Which is a very dangerous thing indeed.

Consider two current stories. The Obama administration’s response to the storming of the Benghazi embassy where Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were murdered was largely uncovered by the liberal press. The attack happened eight months ago, but unless you watched Fox News, you probably didn’t hear much about it until the recent congressional hearings featuring the “whistleblowers.” It is clear that the Obama administration—and Hillary Clinton—was being protected by the press, who censored anything derogatory about their idols. They dismissed it as a Republican witch hunt, until the evidence of a major cover-up became so overwhelming that they could no longer avoid the issue.

In Philadelphia, the trial of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell has been woefully underreported by the national media; some days at that trial, the media was virtually absent. I’ve heard the argument from some of my own staff that this story is essentially local, a crazed doctor doing horrible things. Yet two other facts are obvious, at least to me: Abortion is an issue the media is highly selective over, and an abortion story in which a woman and babies die in horrific circumstances is far too risky for a liberal, pro-choice media that avoids pursuit of that story, wherever it might lead.

I keep wondering how we got here, how it is that the current media landscape is so loaded with an agenda. Recently, a Wall Street Journal profile of a retiring Yale professor named Donald Kagan, a scholar of ancient Greece and a man of long perspective, gave me an answer of sorts. Back in 1990, Mr. Kagan—alarmed at students’ ignorance of their own history—attempted to implement a special Western Civilization course. He was called a racist and a purveyor of “European cultural arrogance,” as the student newspaper opined. It is probably needless to say that the course got shot down.

In Mr. Kagan’s view, our college students are being indoctrinated with one perspective of the world. Their teachers attended college during the ’60s and ’70s, when equality was becoming much more important in American society—a necessary change. But that shift has led to a monolithic way of thinking. Now, Mr. Kagan says, when he considers his colleagues, “You can’t find members of the faculty who have different opinions. … ”

“At the university,” he says, “there must be intellectual variety. If you don’t have [that], it’s not only that you are deprived of knowing some of the things you might know. It’s that you are deprived of testing the things that you do know or do think you know or believe in, so that your knowledge is superficial.”

That’s a broad and serious problem in American higher education—not liberalism run amok, but liberalism as the only viewpoint. It’s a mind-set that graduates into many professions; I certainly see it throughout mainstream media (and on my own staff). The scary thing—and this is what is making me crazy—is how most journalists are not even aware of their own biases. Obliterating whole points of view out of ignorance, they are accidental censors—which might just be the scariest kind.