Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Olberman the Biased

By now you know if you care. MSNBC suspended Keith Olberman because he donated to some congressional candidates. The reasoning was that those donations demonstrated bias on Olberman's part. Well yes they did and we would like our news people to be unbiased. That is pretty obvious and it will be no surprise that I disagree strongly with Olberman's views. However I also disagree with his suspension. In fact I believe all news people, judges etc. should demonstrate their bias so we can know what their real beliefs are.

The fact is that news people do have political beliefs, that is inevitable. The better ones try, often quite successfully, to keep those biases out of their work but they still have political beliefs. Wouldn't it be better if they were all up front about it so we could know where they are coming from?

A similar problem affects judicial candidates in many states. In Oregon, for example, judicial candidates are prohibited from expressing their views during their campaigns. A candidate may believe that criminals should not be incarcerated, or he may oppose the death penalty, or he may think that freedom of speech should be restricted. Voters should be made aware of those beliefs but under the current system he is not allowed to tell them what he believes. He may only list qualifications, endorsements etc. Aside from its first amendment implications, that restriction puts voters at a disadvantage.

Now there may be some reason for judicial candidates to be discrete in their campaigns. They should not express views on particular cases since the evidence will not yet be in. However they should tell us what they believe in general terms, things like if they support the constitution or specific laws etc.

I would support MSNBC if they suspended Olberman for expressing flagrantly biased views on the air. If they want to present unbiased information they should insist that their employees do just that (though it is questionable if that is MSNBC's objective). I would also support disciplining judges for allowing their bias to influence courtroom decisions. Judges are entitled to their beliefs but their job is to deal with the law as written, not to make or modify law (except when the law violates the constitution). However I cannot support institutional hiding of the beliefs of either judges or news people. That sort of policy withholds important information from the citizens.

If a news person is so biased that he will refuse to publish stories that go contrary to his belief, we have a right to know that.

If a judicial candidate is so set against the death penalty, for example, that he will never apply it, voters have a right to know that.

We need news people who can say openly, “I have these political beliefs. This story seems to contradict my beliefs but I also believe it is important to get the information to the public so I am publishing it.”

We need judges and judicial candidates who can say openly, “I believe this law is wrong and should be changed. However it is the law and until it is changed I must follow it.”

The problem is not when such people admit to their biases; it is when they allow those biases to affect their work. That problem is exacerbated when they are required to hide their biases.

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1 comment:

Bobkatt said...

I believe that Olberman was actually suspended because his contract stated that he must first run his desire to contribute by the management of his company and he did not do that. His bias is blatant in any of his reports that I have seen but I must admit that I don't watch his show regularly.
A good example of judge problem is the latest Supreme Court pick. It seems a waste of time to even have the Senate question these nominees as they are too skilled at avoiding the issues and using legal speak in order to obscure how they will actually rule.
One of our Representatives, Peter Defazio, is currently attempting to impeach justice Roberts for lying about something he said during his confirmation hearing years ago. None of them want that liability.