By Michael Miner
It's Their Party
I did some research over the weekend and came up with something astonishing--a correlation that contradicts everything we've been taught about the intellectual seriousness of the American media. You'll agree, I'm sure, that who a newspaper believes would make a better president and how that same paper believes the highest court in the land should conduct its business are two very separate matters. There's no reason under the sun why a competent bunch of thinkers like an editorial board would allow the second of those issues to be influenced by the first.
Yet I fear no less has happened.
Playing a wild hunch, I took a look at what several leading American papers had to say about last week's 5-4 Supreme Court decision ending the presidential race. Then I noted whom they'd supported for president in the first place.
"The court's ruling was fractured, baffling, and dissatisfying," said the St. Petersburg Times, which had endorsed Al Gore. But across the bay, the Tampa Tribune, which had joined George W. Bush's camp, declared that the Supreme Court had "averted a constitutional crisis."
Merely a coincidence? Read on.
"The court majority has a strong and quintessentially conservative respect for following clear rules," said the pro-Bush Providence Journal. While the pro-Gore Atlanta Constitition, which made its feelings known as soon as the Supreme Court halted the recount in Florida, said that if that order were to stand--which it did--"history will record that the will of the American people had been thwarted through legal gamesmanship, that the truth lay in ballots that were silenced, and that the U.S. Supreme Court shamefully assented to, and abetted, that silencing."
Some papers made a show of evenhandedness while arriving at predictable conclusions. The pro-Bush Detroit News didn't disagree with the court's ruling, but was willing to call it "a murky mix of the theoretical and practical." The pro-Gore Washington Post wished the court had let Florida solve its own problems, yet conceded, "The justices had no clearly good choices." The pro-Gore Detroit Free Press complained mainly about the "confusion...perpetuated" by the split decision, though the headline over its editorial cut to the chase: "Court dropped the ball, failed to solve election problems." The pro-Bush Dallas Morning News asserted that the justices "could not duck the clear inequities being paraded before them" but did allow that the court settled the election "in a convoluted fashion." The pro-Gore St. Louis Post-Dispatch worked hard at seeing both sides before concluding that the four dissenters on the Supreme Court "appeared to have the better of the argument."
I expected to find a lot more of this queasiness. I expected an argument over whether the court took a bullet for Bush or a bullet for the nation. But many pro-Bush papers didn't seem to notice that the court had suffered any wounds at all. "The court had no choice but to live up to its responsibilities under the Constitution," said the Chicago Sun-Times. "The U.S. Supreme Court justices simply wouldn't tolerate a violation of the notion of equal protection," said the Chicago Tribune. Both papers had endorsed George W. Bush. So had the Indianapolis Star, which assured its readers last week that "the Supreme Court made the best decision it possibly could, given the circumstances it was confronted with." The pro-Bush Arizona Republic concluded that "the system worked in very trying circumstances, producing a principled result."
Meanwhile, other papers that had supported Gore for president excoriated the court. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called its ruling "reckless...tortuous...unpersuasive...overreaching." New York's Daily News asserted, "The American people look to the Supreme Court as the guardian of democracy. Last night, it failed." George Bush, declared the Denver Post, "has been handed a hollow victory, based more on the ill-concealed partisanship of the justices than on the merits of the law and facts." The Boston Globe, which had endorsed Gore, said the court "has left the presidency compromised and its own reputation sullied." And the pro-Gore Seattle Post-Intelligencer endorsed, "with sadness," Justice John Paul Stevens's dissenting observation that that the ultimate loser was "the Nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."
The ultimate loser in the 2000 election, aside from Al Gore, appears to be the myth of objectivity. A friend of mine says not to worry, and he's probably right. He says the myth will recover, that objectivity's much too important not to believe in. He was thinking principally of the courts. The objectivity of the editorial page has never been taken seriously by anyone but the editorial page.
Beaten Into Submission?
Tribune correspondent Hugh Dellios was covering the fighting in Jerusalem two months ago when he got into a bad situation on the Temple Mount. As he and a Canadian journalist were interviewing some Israeli Arab women, a hostile Arab crowd formed, push came to shove, and Dellios and the Canadian were both knocked to the ground.
At this point, Tribune foreign editor Timothy McNulty tells me, some Palestinian ambulance drivers and security people stepped in and saved the fallen journalists from a serious pummeling or worse.
A few weeks later I received a letter from an Evanston reader who'd heard that Dellios had been beaten. "Is that newsworthy?" wondered Evan Winer. "Could such an incident lead to unbalanced reporting? Should readers be informed when a journalist is involved in such an incident? To my knowledge, nothing has come out about this. And it certainly hasn't been reported by the Tribune."
Would a reporter beaten by one side of a running battle be inclined, even subconsciously, to favor the other? What worried Winer was the opposite. "The intimidation of journalists has a long and sordid history, particularly in the Middle East," he wrote. In his view, reporters might favor the side they fear.
The rule of thumb at newspapers is to keep their reporters' own adventures out of the story. A newspaper isn't a letter from camp. McNulty did some research and told me that the day Dellios was attacked 9 Palestinians were killed and about 100 injured in the fighting, while 24 Israeli policemen were wounded. McNulty said Dellios had one story in the next day's paper and three the day after that--his point being that Dellios had much more important things to write about than a scuffle that didn't even slow him down.
When I talked to Winer he agreed that it sounded like a minor incident. But his larger point stands. Journalists can be intimidated, and readers should know when they might be. Winer had in the back of his mind a much more serious incident that a few papers--but not, so far as I can see, the Tribune--reported on. When two Israeli reservists were captured and lynched by Palestinians in the West Bank town of Ramallah in October, the film and videotape of journalists who witnessed the lynching were confiscated and destroyed on the spot. But one roll of film and one piece of videotape were sneaked out and subsequently shown around the world.
The TV footage had been shot by an Italian network, RTI. To the embarrassment of his bosses back in Rome, a Jerusalem correspondent for a rival Italian network, RAI, wrote the Palestinian Authority to make it clear his agency hadn't been responsible. "We respect the rules of proper journalistic work with the Palestinian Authority," said the letter, which wound up in a Palestinian newspaper. "Be assured we would never do such a thing."
The correspondent was quickly recalled to Rome, while the RAI bureau chief in Jerusalem called RTI and apologized. But in a Washington Post article on the episode, the bureau chief offered perspective by noting that the correspondent had been beaten by Israeli Arabs a few days earlier and that another RAI correspondent had received a death threat after the Ramallah tape aired.
"The media's most dramatic images are being used as partisan propaganda" by both sides, the Post reported. "Around Jewish West Jerusalem, for instance, posters of the Palestinian who raised his bloody hands in triumph at the lynching have been plastered on walls with the comment 'The Hands of Oslo.'"
The Big Fix
Each Christmas Eve, after the waffles and wassail, my friend A.E. Eyre and I retreat to the backyard and watch for Santa Claus. Our Santa Claus alert is an ancient tradition, and during this vigil we talk.
I tell Eyre what a good year I've had, stressing developments on the home front, where the children pile up accomplishments while the wife expands her business empire. These matters leave Eyre cold. Not a man of sentiment, he has set his heart on literary renown, a prospect never any closer in December than it was the previous January. So Eyre broods.
One recent Eve I was so moved by the sight of a million stars twinkling in the firmament that I carelessly exclaimed, "How inconsequential we all are!"
"Speak for yourself," said Eyre.
I took a nip of Irish coffee. "You're at least as inconsequential as I am," I told him.
"Nevertheless, I see the infinite for what it is."
"Proof of a higher power."
That surprised me. "I thought all you fierce intellectuals subscribed to the notion of a vast, absurd, meaningless nothing."
"I'll give you absurd," said Eyre.
Far above us, a blinking red light flew west. It was merely a jet plane descending on O'Hare.
"I'll give you vast too," he said. "The universe is vast and absurd. Yet not without its governing principles."
"Like the first law of thermodynamics?"
"I mean like Eyre's Law."
He had me. I said I hadn't studied that in school.
"Your grandchildren will," said Eyre. "It's an excellent law. It explains why things happen that are so unlikely no one in his right mind would believe they happened by themselves. Your daughters, for example--you've bragged ad nauseam about the excellent schools they attended, exclusive places where many apply and few are accepted."
"We were extremely fortunate," I said.
"Don't take me for an idiot," said my friend.
I asked for a less personal example.
"When a contract is awarded to repave a city street, or build a subdivision, or operate a concession at O'Hare, miraculously the deal is always signed with a contractor who grew up down the street from the mayor."
"So it is," I allowed.
"Probability has nothing to do with how anything really works. So here is Eyre's Law. The longer the odds against getting what you want in a way that's legitimate, the more likely it is that there's another way to get it that isn't."
"A way that involves..."
"A higher power," said Eyre.
We gazed for a time at the heavens, across which Dasher and Dancer had yet to course.
"My epiphany," he said, "occurred one day when I was asking myself if I wished I'd never been born. And I realized that if I hadn't, I'd never have known the pleasure of my own company."
"That's some silver lining," I agreed.
"And then the question became, so why was I?"
"Lesser minds than yours maintain we're all just cosmic accidents," I said.
"Remember Eyre's Law," he said. "Take a long look at those stars and try to calculate the infinitesimal odds against our own existence. Not against just our own conception but against our mother's and our father's and all the prerequisite conceptions of our ancestors back into the primal soup of time. Those are odds you don't beat just because you're lucky. No one's that lucky."
"Yet here we are," I said.
"And there's only one possible reason. Because some higher power--maybe just for laughs--put in the fix."
"That's some theory," I said.
"It's no mere theory," said Eyre. "It's the Chicago school of theology."