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theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer
Like a seizure that leads to the discovery of a brain tumor, the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro may finally have revealed to Western readers the cancer that has grown in our midst: a highly ideological press that, to varying degrees, tries and fails to hide its anti-Western bias.
While several Western leaders reacted to the news by releasing statements that were anodyne at best — none worse than Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose statement had non-francophone Canadians looking up the French word for “obsequious” — it is the initial reaction of the Western press that truly warrants more attention.
With rare exceptions, politicians are little more than a lagging indicator of culture. And anyone paying attention already knows that Western self-confidence and self-perception are deeply broken. The media, on the other hand, is an engine of that culture. While they react to the market like any other business, their editorial choices — and word choices in hard news stories are often highly, even if unintentionally, editorial — necessarily color the perceptions and opinions of readers.
And the editorial choices made by the Western press were as instructive as they were disgraceful. NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell uncritically tweeted that Castro was “the symbol of the revolution,” which strikes the reader as an interesting use of the word “the.” The Toronto Star, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Associated Press and many others called attention to Castro’s “defiance” of the United States and successive presidents. The L.A. Times called him a “charismatic icon,” while Agence France Presse settled for “revolutionary icon.” Even ESPN got in on the action with the headline “Fidel Castro dies; used sports to promote Cuba.” None of them led with the words “dictator” or “tyrant” or “oppressor” or “murderer.”
This isn’t merely burying the lede — it’s dismembering it in the basement, saving some of it in vats of acid, and stuffing the rest in the crawlspace. It is sickening, pathological, and demanding of further inquiry. Are the aforementioned descriptors used by the media defensible? Yes, they are. Castro was charismatic. He was a revolutionary. He was a symbol — of different things to different people. Defiance of the United States was, perhaps, his only real foreign policy. But do those words sum up the man? An equally factually defensible headline might read “Castro dies; hirsute cisgender male University of Havana grad often wore green.” But that wouldn’t really tell the story, would it?
And so, quite apart from the lamentably tardy death of Castro, the real news here is what the press would like us to know not about a dead Cuban dictator, but about ourselves. And, as most news accounts laudatorily framed Castro’s life in his “defiance” of the United States, those reports were necessarily creating the (sometimes not so) subtle impression that we are worthy of defiance. They want us to know that someone who defies American policy is to be admired. American policy is bad.
The media is populated overwhelmingly by leftists who are more likely to be deeply skeptical of American power and Western institutions and ashamed of American and Western history. While journalists as a group tend to be proudly skeptical — a trait necessary for exposing truths that powerful people may not want exposed — their suspicions seem, often, directed primarily at the open societies that most zealously guard the rights of a free press. Further typical of contemporary leftists, many in the press, when confronted with a poor and/or non-white actor in conflict with a rich and/or white one will reflexively favor the former. All of these are at play in the coverage of Castro. None of them are stated explicitly and the accusation will, no doubt, draw indignant responses from journalists whose biases are fairly obvious to all but themselves and those whose worldviews they reinforce.
Until we find something other than human beings to report the news, journalism will be — the best efforts of its best practitioners notwithstanding — susceptible to bias and perspective. In the meantime, the kind of subtle editorializing people do when they’re trying to be fair is, in many ways, more insidious than beating readers over the head with ideology.
We are in the midst of a historic upheaval in the way people receive news. Shouldn’t this upheaval also occasion a reconsideration of the way we produce it? Human beings have points of view. These perspectives color everything we do and the way we process and describe events. Rather than try to hide their biases — which has led to record levels of mistrust of the media — journalists should embrace and admit them.