The British Broadcasting Corporation has made itself look ridiculous by issuing orders that its reporters are not to refer to Saddam Hussein as an ex-dictator. Apparently using the word “dictator” would compromise the BBC’s neutrality and call its objectivity into question.
Unfortunately, the BBC is not alone. In much of the American mainstream media, terrorists are referred to as “militants” or “insurgents.” Rioters are called “demonstrators.”
As American flags went up around the country in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, even the wearing of little American flag lapel pins by TV journalists was banned by some broadcasters, with the notable exception of Fox News.
What makes all this straining for neutrality more than just another passing silliness is that it reveals a serious confusion between neutrality and objectivity. Such verbal posturing has been at its worst in some of the most biased media, such as the BBC.
During World War II, legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow never pretended to be neutral as between the Nazis and the Allies. Yet you would have trouble today finding anyone in the media with anything resembling the stature and integrity of Ed Murrow.
Honesty does not require posturing. In fact, the two things are incompatible. Nor does objectivity require neutrality.
Medical science is no less scientifically objective because it is completely biased in favor of people and against bacteria. Medical researchers are studying cancer cells with scientific objectivity in order to discover what the hard facts are about those cells, regardless of anyone’s preconceived beliefs. But they are doing so precisely in order to destroy cancer cells and, if possible, prevent their existence in the first place.
Objectivity refers to an honest seeking of the truth, whatever that truth may turn out to be and regardless of what its implications might be. Neutrality refers to a preconceived “balance,” which subordinates the truth to this preconception.
Journalists who reported the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps were not violating canons of objectivity by failing to use such neutral language as calling these places “residential facilities” or those who ran them “hosts.”
Nor did the use of the term “dictator” to describe Hitler mean that World War II journalists did not come up to the supposedly high standards of today’s media. What does the much-vaunted “public’s right to know” mean when mealy mouth words filter out essential facts?
During the Cold War, the confusion between objectivity and neutrality led many journalists to balance negative things said about the Soviet Union with negative things said about the United States. In the circles of the media anointed, a phrase like “the free world” was disdained because it violated this verbal neutrality.
Journalistic sophisticates referred to “the so-called free world.” Meanwhile, for decades on end, in countries around the globe, millions of ordinary human beings broke the personal ties of a lifetime, left behind their worldly belongings, and took desperate chances with their lives, and with the lives of their children — all in order to try to escape to “the so-called free world.”
One of the pious phrases of the mealy mouth media is that “the truth lies somewhere in between.” It may or it may not. Only after you have found the truth do you know where it is.
For years, there were people who denied that there was a famine in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and others who said that millions died during that famine. Did the truth lie somewhere in between?
The leading scholar who argued that millions starved during Stalin’s man-made famine was Robert Conquest of the Hoover Institution, often described in the media as a right-wing think tank. When Mikhail Gorbachev finally opened the official records in the last days of the Soviet Union, it turned out that even more people had died during the famine than Dr. Conquest had estimated.
The truth is where you find it — and you don’t find it with a preconceived “balance” expressed in mealy mouth words.