Ben Shapiro and the Blurring Line between Punditry and News

By News on the Record Archives
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Ben Shapiro, the conservative commentator, Daily Wire editor and host of the country's 33rd most popular podcast, had a meltdown.  Appearing on BBC Two'sPolitics Live on May 9th, Shapiro fielded a few questions from Andrew Neil, the British television presenter and chairman of Press Holdings Media Group (the owner of the conservative publication The Spectator).  It appeared, at first, to be a routine interview to discuss Shapiro's new book The Right Side of History, which was released in March, but then things got heated.

The quick-talking Shapiro didn't take it well when Neil played devil's advocate, opposing a few policy positions Shapiro is known to favor: "Why don't you say you're on the left?  It's a serious question," Shapiro asked Neil after one such line of questioning.  To which Neil, the longstanding conservative media person, replied, "Mr. Shapiro, if you only knew how ridiculous that statement is, you wouldn't have said it."  Things got more and more tense as Neil probed a few claims Shapiro makes in his book, with Shapiro even going so far as to attack Neil by saying, "I don't frankly give a damn what you think of me since I've never heard of you."  Shapiro then left the interview, ripping off his microphone, as Neil thanked him, "for showing that anger is not part of American political discourse."

The exchange, which is really worth watching in full, was notable for a few reasons.  Firstly, Shapiro, who was in many respects made famous for so decisively defeating others in debates, was shown not to be as invincible as once thought.  (George W. Bush, when awarding a Medal of Freedom to Milton Friedman in 2002, joked that his wife, Rose, was the only person ever to have beaten him an argument.  The same can no longer be said of Shapiro, the curator of the 2010's response to Free to Choose.)  Secondly, it showed that it is much easier to be a good sport when on the winning side of things.  But most fundamentally, it showed how journalism ought to work -- and how it so often falls short in the United States and elsewhere. Despite Neil being a conservative himself, he didn't pull a single punch because, in his capacity as a journalist on BBC, he was being just that: a journalist -- not a commentator or "an advocacy journalist."

To this effect, Neil tweeted two days later: "So now I'm an evil leftist AND a right-wing fanatic.  Who knew what drivel Twitter can descend to? Especially since I have not expressed a position on any matter of public debate for over a decade now, as befits a BBC presenter."  To suggest that this comes down to a difference between American and British political discourse is to miss the point, and the BBC, of course, is no stranger to criticism (including for primarily giving air time to the positions championed by the two mainstream political parties, Conservative and Labour, and, thereby, having a "pro-establishment" bias).  The British press, particularly on the print side, is notorious for its sensationalism, just as the goings-on in Westminster make the chambers of Capitol Hill seem like a train's quiet car.  Rupert Murdoch, to this point, fresh from London, found the American press almost dull -- given its efforts at impartiality -- during his earliest forays into American media in 1973.

The partisanship of American media has fluctuated over time. During much of the 19th century, there was arguably little distinction to be drawn between the political parties and the newspapers that aligned with them; editors at some papers, as told by journalism professor James L. Baughman, moonlighted as advisors to the very politicians they were covering.  But, by the middle of the 20th century, American media -- mostly driven by economic forces -- made it so "American political debate [was] increasingly conducted in a bland, even-tempered atmosphere and extremists of any kind are becoming rare."  (Some commentators have attributed this move to the middle as actually an aberration in the history of partisanship in media -- and driven by advertisers wanting to reach people of all political persuasions in the same outlet.)

But then came the end of the FCC's fairness doctrine in 1987, The Telecommunications Act in 1996 and the growing trends towards combining news reporting with analysis, arguably opening a Pandora's Box of blurred lines between reporting the facts and commenting on them.  Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and MSNBC rose in prominence, and now we have the partisan press of today.  So, it's little wonder Shapiro would have such a difficult time allowing for the possibility that someone questioning him earnestly would, in fact, be on his side of the political aisle.  As Neil mentioned during the interview, "I know that broadcasting in America is now so polarized that on one program you only have the left and on another one you just have the right.  My job is to question those who have strong views and put an alternative to them."  This all comes at a time when the Rand Corporation this month issued a report which argues that during the period of 1989-2017, "U.S.-based journalism has gradually shifted away from objective news and offers more opinion-based content that appeals to emotion and relies heavily on argumentation and advocacy."

"There are not many bucks to be made on the BBC, unlike American broadcasting," responded Neil to Shapiro's claim that the former was trying to make him look good bad for a "quick buck."  The BBC, after all, is funded primarily through the license fee paid by British households rather than advertising revenue -- not to mention the BBC's Royal Charter requiring some degree of balancing the viewpoints.  Perhaps that's part of the story.

No media outlet is perfect in its objectivity.  And, as has been noted, the BBC has faced as much criticism as anyone, from the previously mentioned point on a pro-establishment bias to its coverage of certain ethnic and religious groups (including Catholics) to the means by which it is primarily funded.  But sincere efforts at impartiality on the part of journalists should be rewarded -- no matter where they work.  Neil's questioning of Shapiro -- save for a few moments where it may have arguably ventured into "gotcha" territory -- was commendable.  Anderson Cooper's commitment to abstain from voting so long as he is in journalism is similarly admirable -- as are the rare occasions when broadcast journalists refrain from kicking someone who is already down.  Perhaps one day we will need a Profiles in Courage-style book written about those who, in the age of a polarized media, resisted the urge to join the partisan herd.  But until then, journalists would be wise to take a page from Neil and thoroughly question every interviewee, even those on their ideological team.  If they do, there's a good chance they both might learn something.

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