Monday, August 3, 2009

Thinking about Cronkite, Human Rights Organizations, and the Ideal of Impartiality
by David Gilfix

Cronkite understood that as a newsman he could never compromise his standards of accuracy and objectivity. He never pandered to ratings by presenting non-news as news. However, Cronkite operated in an era when there was very little competition. Internet news services today pull viewers from traditional news sources, which in turn have been replaced by deliberately non-objective news sources such as Fox, MSNBC, Huffington Post, FrontPageMag.Com, the Guardian (London), The Washington Times, and so on. The Cronkite era of journalism, like the traditional newspaper, might be on its way out.

Today, many people bestow the same trust and respect once reserved for traditional news organizations to human rights organizations like Amnesty International. But why should we believe that workers from these organizations could more accurately analyze, assess, or discern fact from fiction than trained journalists? Why should we assume them to be less subject to ideological or financial bias than reporters?

As an example, recently the Wall Street Journal reported that the NGO “Human Rights Watch” was fundraising in Saudi Arabia, a country with abysmal records for respecting freedom of religion, the rights of women, and the rights of gays. Yet, instead of focusing on conditions within Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch promised Saudi donors that their contributions would help “expose” Israeli human rights abuses in Gaza. One wonders how Human Rights Watch could know that there were Israeli human rights abuses in Gaza before it had conducted an investigation.

A similar pattern of selectively focusing on Israel is common among other human rights organizations. Perhaps the most glaring example involves the UN Council for Human Rights which, according to Hudson Institute Scholar Anne Bayefsky, has passed more resolutions condemning Israel for human rights violations than any other country. In fact, The U.N. Council for Human Rights has adopted more resolutions condemning Israel than resolutions condemning all 191 U.N. member states combined. Are we really supposed to believe that Israel has committed more human rights violations than the sum total of 191 countries, including Sudan, North Korea, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Chechnya, Egypt, Syria, Iran, China, Cuba, and Afghanistan?

What has happened to the ideal of impartiality? Certainly, news and human rights organizations were never free from bias. But there was an ideal of impartiality, symbolized by Walter Cronkite, towards which the most respected information-gathering organizations carefully aimed. Perhaps part of our sorrow about Cronkite’s passing involves our re-embracement of that ideal, and an awareness of how much it has been trampled.

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