Sunday, March 27, 2005

# Posted 1:44 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HE SAID/SHE SAID JOURNALISM, THE SAGA CONTINUES: The linchpin of the liberal defense against conservative accusations of media bias is the theory of "he said/she said" journalism. Briefly, the theory states that even if most journalists are liberal, it doesn't matter because they always report every issue as if it had two equal and opposite sides.

By extension, most liberals argue that it is conservatives who benefit from this situation, since their unjustifiable attitudes toward social security reform, bankruptcy reform, etc. are given the same status as rational, evidence-based liberal arguments.

It is with all this in mind that I read an article in this morning's WaPo entitled "Past Arguments Don't Square With Current Iran Policy". Mind you, this wasn't an analysis column or anything like that. It was straight news. And in case you think it's just the headline writers who like to wax interpretive, here are the opening grafs:
Lacking direct evidence, Bush administration officials argue that Iran's nuclear program must be a cover for bomb-making. Vice President Cheney recently said, "They're already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas. Nobody can figure why they need nuclear as well to generate energy."

Yet Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and outgoing Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz held key national security posts when the Ford administration made the opposite argument 30 years ago.
Thankfully, the article does point out that 30 years ago, Iran was an American ally. (You might say the WaPo did the White House a favor by not mentioning that, back then, Iran was a reactionary dictatorship. Or to be more precise, a reactionary dictatorship very different from the one now in Teheran.)

The WaPo is also fair enough to point out that 30 years ago, there were serious questions about whether Iran had enough oil to satisfy its long term needs. The Post suggests, however, that the situation is not much different today.

So all in all, what this story boils down to is that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz are a lot more concerned about what might happen if one of our enemies, rather than one of our allies, had the capacity to build nuclear weapons.

Now, it certainly doesn't look good that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz are now arguing against the exact same position they were arguing for 30 years ago. In fact, it's probably an important enough story to be in the WaPo.

But should the thrust of the story be that there is an apparent inconsistency in the arguments made by American policymakers? Or should there be a greater focus on the empirical issue of whether Iran needs nuclear power to supplement its oil reserves? Because it just might be the case the situation now is very different than it was 30 years ago, so it may be perfectly sensible for Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz to have switched sides in this debate.

So what I'm trying to say is not that this is a bad article, but that it is an article with a definite perspective, rather than one that treats both sides of the issue as having equal merit. In fact, one can make a pretty strong case that journalists should identify which side in a given debate has greater merit.

But journalists can't have their cake and eat it, too. They can't insist on their own neutrality and detachment while taking an interpretive approach to their subject. Nor can the defenders of mainstream journalism on the center-left continue to defend the he said/she said theory of American journalism if it doesn't describe the actual behavior of journalists.
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