How is this neutrality, exactly?

In January 1991, I was an undergraduate at University of Oregon.  UO is in the town of Eugene, one of the two places that Oregon liberals huddle together for warmth (the other being the core of Portland).  While I was there, the Persian Gulf War took place.  One of my wannabe hippie housemates was all over the story of a Marine who had just refused to fight.

I cannot find the story to refer to; I’m sure there were several such.  But people thought it was wonderful that the young man was taking a pacifist stance in spite of the inevitable trouble he was in because of it.  My housemate went on about how all the guy’s platoon mates were supporting him in his decision.

I said, “He’s got a good heart, but he’s stupid.”

“Why’s that stupid?  It’s standing up against killing people!”

“When he enlisted,” I asked, “just what was it he was under the impression that Marines DID for a living?”

I signed that contract myself.  Yes, I agreed to go off and kill people, should the United States tell me to do so.  It was far more unlikely that I, a female sailor, would be placed in that position in the mid-1980’s than it was that a male Marine would fifteen years later.  But it was a possibility, and I knew it going in and I agreed to it.

Would I have done it?  Maybe.  Maybe I’d have frozen up and gotten my ass shot off.  I do not know whether I would have refused, but, frankly, I doubt it.  I also doubt that I’d have been able to forgive myself afterward.  In any case, I didn’t have to.

But I hate the state the world is in that people barely post-childhood can be put in this position.  Even if we’ve been in that state since the dawn of civilization.

I bring this up because it has to do with knowing what one is agreeing to, what devils one is making deals with, before one signs a contract.

When I first heard about Keith Olbermann’s suspension, I was pissed.  He was disciplined because he donated to a political party?

In no way do I think the gravity or impact of these situations are equivalent.  But they are parallel.

Even members of the military can donate to the party of their choice!  Or the church, or the charity.  What they are not allowed to do is show public support.  Especially not in uniform.  Doing it in civvies is a gray area, but they are under no circumstances to represent themselves in any way as military members in support of a candidate or a political party.

I did not know that MSNBC’s rules prohibited its screen personalities from donating to candidates and parties, so I tweeted something along the lines of “Olbermann, sue those fuckers!”  The situation was quickly explained to me (on Twitter, everybody can hear you duh), whereupon I was even more pissed.

I wasn’t pissed about Olbermann, any more.  He knew what he was signing up for when he went to work for MSNBC, and he broke the contract he agreed to, just like that Marine.  The difference is that he was in no way naïve about what he was supposed to do, what he was actually doing, or the consequences of doing what he was doing.  He sent himself up shit creek, and you get what you get.  Besides, as I learned through reading about him a bit, he’s got a long history of this sort of behavior.

No, I was pissed because the rule exists.

Ethical political neutrality, in journalism, is not about being neutral; it is about behaving neutrally.  It is about reporting fairly and consistently without allowing one’s opinions and convictions to affect the message.  I could understand if the network did not want Olbermann to donate visibly, because this would compromise his neutrality.

But they WANTED him to donate publicly.  Or, more accurately, if he was to donate at all, they did not want it to be privately, but instead to be done openly and WITH THEIR PERMISSION.

How is that neutral?  How does it present a fair and impartial policy?

Even military members can donate privately.  To me, that is as important as a secret ballot.

Technically, yes, these donations must be made public record on demand.  But it’s not being flaunted, and that’s the point of ethical neutrality.  Whatever your personal feelings, you stay on point.

I am not angry that Olbermann was suspended for breaking the rules.  I am angry that he had to agree to these rules to work there.  I support him philosophically in the same way that, as I said on Twitter today, I’d support Bill O’Reilly if Fox suspended him under the exact circumstances.  And I have only disgust for O’Reilly.  It’s about principle, not political tendency.

Those of you who signed the petitions for Olbermann’s reinstatement: Setting aside for the moment that internet petitions are utterly ineffective, would you have signed an equivalent petition to reinstate Bill O’Reilly?

If I were to sign such a petition – I do not sign these petitions – I would sign it for either one of them.  If I thought petitions against war and killing were any more effective, I’d sign them, too.

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2 responses to “How is this neutrality, exactly?

  • lis

    I listened to NPR on my drive home today (my drive, which was almost 5 hours long) – and this was a strong subject of conversation for a good hour. I heard compelling arguments for and against the rule, and after giving it a lot of thought for the rest of the drive, I’m still a little fuzzy.

    I also have to adhere to these rules — directors (or other “influential persons”) of any charity can’t be overtly political. I can tell people to vote, for not for whom/what.

    I’ve always felt this is fine, for me — I like that because of it we are not a political organisation and can’t really be labelled into any major political category. I like that other groups also fall under this rule. It definitely keeps us out of the cycle that plagues so many political-driven organisations or projects.

    …But that seems different from reporting the news.

    As one person pointed out, no matter how hard we try to be neutral, nobody really is. Might as well make it plain and obvious what bias we have before reporting on something. I do believe I would appreciate that more than a thinly veiled claim of neutrality. For example, I rarely go out of my way to read anything from Huffington Post, but when I do I know the bias it has going into it and I find it easier to accept what I read at its face value — and then easier to go and find more information on the subject and see what other people say.

    But then, I do wonder, is this just turning everything into editorials?

    • mordantkitten

      There are very few pure news articles any more, because, as you said, nobody is really neutral, but also because few editors take the trouble to make sure their publications or networks report as neutrally as possible. Instead of focusing on how Olbermann disposes of his salary, I feel they should be paying attention to what he says, and whether he is careful to represent facts as facts, possibilities as conjecture, and opinion as just that.

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