Add a bit of bias to get at the full story

A Matter of Opinion
June 16, 2006

The young gunslinger overseeing the relaunch of The Spectator and the august editor rejigging the New Statesman are the ideal readers of this book, but anyone interested in the public sphere or merely in good journalism will find it engrossing.

Victor Navasky's energetic account of a quarter of a century at the helm of the highbrow, left-of-centre American political weekly magazine The Nation , makes the case that "balanced reporting" in newspapers is dishonest and stupid. Candidly labelled, well-informed, opinionated pieces in magazines such as his are far more useful to the reader. Navasky edited The Nation for 17 years, and in 1998 became its publisher, a job he combines with teaching journalism at Columbia University.

He is a nuts-and-bolts man - good on subjects such as libel lawsuits, money troubles and editorial independence - but he has a soft spot for the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, whom he calls "the unlikely Boswell" of highbrow weeklies. Habermas provides a theoretical framework for Navasky's instinctive belief that The Nation and its kin are far more important to the democratic conversation than the size of their readership might suggest.

In 1711, when the first issue of The Spectator hit the street, readers embraced "the art of critical-rational public debate". Instead of the Government or the Church as the unquestioned authority, the "authority of the better argument" asserted itself. And, says Navasky, in a healthy society, it still does. He sees the opinionated weeklies as crucial to civilised dialogue. These magazines - which admit their bias - better serve readers than do mainstream newspapers, which falsely claim to report the news objectively.

"In the mainstream media, economics and politics are presented as if they have nothing to do with each other. You don't read stories on the relation of the capitalist system to pollution or the homeless, on the role of multinational corporations in shaping American interventionist policy abroad. You do read stories on what 'official sources' say. Official sources define the news," he writes. But reporting a politician's speech deadpan, as the news agencies and most US newspapers do, gives undue weight to the politician's words, thereby better serving those with power (including the leadership of the Opposition) than those outside the Establishment.

In British newspapers, the line between news and opinion is increasingly blurred. Journalists know they are not stenographers. Their job is to re-spin the story, though ideally on the basis of analysis rather than the proprietor's prejudice. However, lip service is still paid to the idea of balanced reporting and to being fair-minded and as objective as possible.

The tradition of "balanced reporting" - presenting both sides of an issue - is strong. The principle is still taught in journalism schools, but any able journalist knows how to provide balance that does not actually balance. Yet our newspapers separate the news and opinion pages.

Today, The Nation has a strong international presence online, and, like its British equivalents, is an antidote to parachute journalism, printing first-hand perspectives and sometimes scoops by writers with personally known frontline sources. The New Statesman 's Guantanamo lawyer's revelations and Shadow Higher Education Minister Boris Johnson's intelligent musings in The Spectator on the ridiculously low salary of his old friend, the university teacher, have an authenticity hard to match in the mainstream.

Far from being outmoded, at a time when opinion has been debased to which flavour yogurt you prefer, we need these loci of rational debate more than ever. Rants one finds everywhere, but high-quality, informed news analysis is all too rare.

Adrianne Blue is senior lecturer in international journalism, City University, London.

A Matter of Opinion

Author - Victor S. Navasky
Publisher - The New Press
Pages - 458
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 1 59558 053 0

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