Monday, March 17, 2003

On the Fence: Biased, a Little Slanderous, and Proud of It
[Well, this column's a little outdated, but I hereby stick it up for yer benefit.]

It’s not really in my nature to kick a man when he’s down, but I do think there are a couple of interesting points to be made about the fiasco that is the crash and burn of Saeed Fotuhi’s SSMU campaign.

On Monday, President-wannabe Saeed Fotuhi printed up a bunch of posters that read “Slanderous and Biased” and placed them on and around McGill Daily stands around campus. Saeed was angry about The Daily’s decision to pithily denounce his candidacy and to print a letter from noted correspondent Lawrence W. Cinamon that referred to Saeed as a “schmuck.” (No word on whether Saeed was upset about my suggestion last week that he run for the presidency of the “Lame Society of Lameness.”)

Okay, Saeed’s presidential aspirations aside, is The Daily a biased paper? The answer is, of course, yes. And that is fine.

It amazes me that the old trope of journalistic objectivity is still being tossed around, as if the media has ever been anything but biased. Newspapers started out as the organs of political parties. The emergence of the penny press at the turn of the century simply switched editors and publishers’ allegiances from parties to commercial interests.

The occasional bit of brilliant, incisive journalism does occasionally slip through this imperfect system. But even these pieces can’t be said to be unbiased. In these most sophisticated articles, the bias is hidden in the style, format, layout, and structure of the piece.

But, let’s not single out poor Saeed for his naiveté. At the debates last week, it was presidential frontrunner Naeem Datoo who said, “the media is the media, and if it’s biased, it’s useless.” I would argue that a biased media is very useful, but it is only ethical when the bias is transparent.

What is nice about The McGill Daily is that it wears its politics on its sleeves. At the beginning of the year, it publishes The Daily Statement of Principles, which lays out all of its biases for the reading public. Similarly, The National Post may not publish a right-wing statement of principles, but it does gleefully revel in its neo-conservative bias; there is no effort to conceal it.

The actual danger to our relatively free press is in initiatives like CanWest Global’s national editorials in all the Southam newspapers. What is so unethical about them is that they try to conceal what they are: comment pieces written by the publisher. They disguise these corporate editorials and try to pass them off as something that they aren’t.

People like to pretend that the journalists they read or listen to or watch are unbiased, just like they enjoy pretending that their politicians are really speaking their minds. It’s a useful and perhaps necessary illusion to comfort us, but when push comes to shove we should recognise it for what it is – an illusion.

As for The Daily being “slanderous,” I believe le mot juste that Saeed was searching for was “libelous.” But why kick a man when he’s down?


There was an interesting exchange in the Letters section of The Daily a few weeks back, after I used the word Palestine in an article denouncing the CSU’s jerking around of Hillel. At first, I ignored the debate figuring these letter-writers were missing the forest for the trees. But no, this was not the usual esoteric gobbledygook about obscure UN resolutions and boundary minutiae; it was about something that I actually care about – language.

It is important for writers to define the words they use. Back in 1948, Orwell lamented the increasing meaninglessness of words in political discourse; imagine if he was alive today to live in the era of globalisation, terrorism, regime change, and the only democracy in the Middle East.

Take the brouhaha that developed around the CBC’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Should Palestinians who blow themselves up in crowded Israeli cafes be called freedom fighters or terrorists? Are they martyrs, heroes, militants, extremists, rebels, suicide bombers, homicide bombers, ethnic cleansers, or performance artists?

I should not hide from specifics. I do not desire that the word Palestine become as semiotically blank as “Generation X.” When I wrote that I desired an end to the occupation in Palestine, I meant I desire peace and a fair two-state solution to that whole mess. Anything more specific I leave up to negotiators, professional letter writers, and Professor Rex Brynen to wrangle over.

Quote of the week
On Monday, MSNBC’s military analyst Dan Goure was comparing the massive strength of the American military to Iraq’s relatively puny forces. Said Goure: “It is so lopsided that it’s almost something you don’t want to watch, in a way.”

I wonder; if we all turn our televisions off, will this war go away?

On the Fence appears Thursdays.

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