Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Political Reality Through a Glass Darkly

Jay Ambrose's opinion column yesterday, entitled "Don't Cry for Network Decline," left me with a few questions.

While I agree with him that the decline of the "news anchor" is not a bad thing and that the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" is good journalism, I am perplexed by his analysis of Dan Rather's liberal bias (yes, I am hammering this point).

After inserting into an otherwise compelling comment the "fact" of Rather's liberal bias (which was hidden by the 1/2 hour format of the show), Ambrose writes:

"The network-news format demanded these attempts at abbreviated insight, and I am guessing he saw political reality through the prism of an unreflective liberalism he mistook for unvarnished truth."

I read this sentence out loud to a few friends. One of them noted the "glass" metaphors at work here. And, I think this metaphor is helpful in illustrating what is problematic about this statement.

First of all, we have to ask the obvious question: what is political reality? Is this a super-sensible metaphysical realm that we can--once free from distorting optical instruments--grasp through intuition?

Sure, there are events, polls, numbers, pictures, agreements, votes, and a bunch of other data that we can use to put together a "picture" of what happened. However, are we to suppose that we can approach all of this data--some of which involves interpreting decisions that someone made--neutrally? Making sense of reality--particularly political reality--involves a healthy dose of interpretation.

Interpretation, likewise, draws upon a set of background conditions: where we live, what our own experiences have been, where we were standing when we witnessed something, what moral values we hold, what assumptions about human nature we inherited, ad nauseum. I am not sure how we can have a neutral or value-free standpoint from which to comprehend political reality (a phrase, btw, that I am still unclear about what it picks out).

Now, what I have just said is not a defense of postmodern relativism: all views are equally valid and the views of those in power are the ones that win out (see Book I of The Republic).

However, I am pointing out something that is, to my mind, fairly uncontroversial: that our perceptions of the world are "framed" by a set of background conditions (of which I gave some examples above).

Since an unvarnished truth is a pipe-dream, to my mind, what we do instead is form hypothesis about the available data in a way that gives the best account. We determine what is "best" based on how well it fits with the evidence and explains related events and/or can make reasonable predictions about future events. If another hypothesis comes along that does a better job than our own, we should shed our previously held hypotheses.

When Ambrose accuses Rather of framing his news with the prism of unreflective liberalism, are we to suppose that his own column, or his own view of "political reality" is unvarnished? When you criticize an anchor for being blinded by his unreflective views, does this mean that Ambrose's thinly veiled libertarian views are illuminating?

What concerns me here is the current pattern among conservative pundits to accuse reporters or anchors, who come to different conclusions about the available evidence, as viewing "political reality" as through a glass darkly. The implicit claim here is that these same conservative pundits--whose job is to twist, distort, and spin reality--are the only clear-eyed seers around.

UPDATE: Btw, if any of you want to point out that Rather did get the story wrong about Bush's military service (or, that he twisted the truth), check out this entry on Kos today about Right-Wing pundits (often posing as "journalists").