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Bias Then and Now

October 27th, 2009 - 12:52 pm

Thirty-forty years ago, when living in Rome, I used to buy seven newspapers every morning.  There was no pretense at “objectivity” by any of the papers.  Each represented an interest.  Il Corriere della Sera was the Milan industrial/financial establishment, La Stampa was Fiat, l’Unita’ was the Communist Party, and so forth.  Each had a very clear point of view, and each pushed the “news” that was most congenial, and spiked anything that didn’t fit the paper’s “line”.  I figured that if I read it all, somehow “the truth” would emerge from the conflicts between the various accounts, and I believed that my judgment was good enough to sort it all out.

Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t.  Some of the really big events remain obscure to me, like the bombing of the Bologna railroad station and the “anarchist” bombs in Milan.  Every now and then somebody gets convicted for them, and actually goes to jail, but then the case gets reopened and somebody else gets convicted, and on it goes.  This is particularly frustrating when it comes to the scandals that brought down the political class in the eighties;  it’s clear that many innocent people were convicted.  There are many important cases in which I still don’t know who was guilty, and who was framed.

But I digress, the point here is the press.  In those years, Watergate was happening over here, and I was very proud that American journalists were, as I then thought, simply reporting the facts about the Nixon Administration, and eventually Nixon had to resign.  I thought that showed a dramatic difference between our press and theirs.  One night at dinner, some Italian journalists said to me “that’s nothing;  we could bring down the entire system here if we wrote what we know.”  So I asked them why they didn’t.  They said “because we don’t see anyone or anything better.  So it makes no sense to bring this down.”

I didn’t like that at all.  I didn’t think it was their job to out think the destiny of the country, and I said, “but your job is to report the news, not to make political decisions.  Just tell the people the truth, and they will figure out what they want to do.”

I was wrong about the American press.  Watergate was highly political.   But even so, there was plenty of room in our leading newspapers for real reporters, and a single newspaper could carry stories that were variously good and bad for the two parties and for politicians of different political stripes.  You didn’t have to buy seven newspapers to try to figure out what was true.  And it was generally considered bad form for newspapers to carry stories that were blatantly political.

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