Ed Driscoll

The Banality of Bias

After quoting from Ron Rosenbaum’s 1999 debunking of Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” formulation (which itself is well worth your time reading), James Taranto writes, “while Rosenbaum seems correct in rejecting “the banality of evil” as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power:”

“Faceless little men following evil orders” surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell’s clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.

It’s also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell’s employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they was born, rather than to “snip” them after they “precipitated” to “ensure fetal demise.”

Today’s New York Times story, like the one last month, refers to the infants Gosnell is accused of murdering as “fetuses,” although it also refers to them as “babies.” This is another fascinating slip. Abortion opponents resolutely adhere to the convention of calling unborn children “fetuses” so as to conceal the similarity between (at least late-term) abortion and infanticide. By using the terms interchangeably, the Times unwittingly defeats this pro-abortion obscurantism, revealing what it means to conceal.

The Washington Post has also started covering the Gosnell trial, and in its first news story it is careful to observe the distinction between babies (the alleged murder victims) and fetuses (human remains of mostly indeterminate developmental stage that were found at the clinic). Meanwhile in the Style section an article by Paul Farhi asks: “Is Media Bias to Blame for Lack of Gosnell Coverage? Or Something Far More Banal?”

The banal “something” is simple ignorance of the story, which is executive editor Martin Baron’s explanation for the failure to cover it. “We never decide what to cover for ideological reasons, no matter what critics might claim,” he says. “Accusations of ideological motives are easy to make, even if they’re not supported by the facts.”

Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s public editor, says something similar:

The behavior of news organizations often owes more to chaos theory than conspiracy theory. I don’t think that editors and reporters got together and decided not to give the Gosnell trial a lot of attention because it would highlight the evils of abortion.

I do think that it wasn’t on their radar screen–and that it should have been. The murders of seven newborn babies, done so horrifically, would be no ordinary crime. Any suggestion, including mine on Friday, that this is just another murder trial is a miscalculation. And it’s certainly possible that journalists who were more in touch with conservative voices and causes would have picked up on the importance of this trial sooner.

Do liberal journalists really think that accusations of bias amount to a “conspiracy theory”? That seems to us a lazy assumption, and sheer laziness is surely a major element of media bias. Others are prejudice against ideological outgroups and hubris, which leads newsmen to make categorical assertions like “we never decide what to cover for ideological reasons” rather than reflect on whether that’s really true.

Laziness, prejudice and pride are ordinary human failings. As we’ve seen from the press’s treatment of the Gosnell story, they can lead those whose calling is to bear witness to avert their eyes from radical evil. Call it the banality of bias.

Curiously, Marc Lamont Hill of the Huffington Post was willing to drop the mask:

“For what it’s worth, I do think that those of us on the left have made a decision not to cover this trial because we worry that it’ll compromise abortion rights. Whether you agree with abortion or not, I do think there’s a direct connection between the media’s failure to cover this and our own political commitments on the left. I think it’s a bad idea, I think it’s dangerous, but I think that’s the way it is.”

“Strong words from a host on a left-leaning outlet,” adds Erik Wemple of the Washington Post — another “left-leaning outlet,” which will also admit its ideology from time to time in its more unguarded moments.