Objectively speaking, I made some errors

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Original column: There are worse things than committing journalism

This newspaper is not objective. In a minute, I'll tell you why that's a good thing.

But first, let me explain how it is we arrive at this point.

In words of one syllable: I put my foot in my mouth.

At least, that's what some folks think. I wrote recently (Dec. 6 in The Times) about a study that indicated many people consider the news media prone to factual errors. My column presented a tongue-in-cheek, wholly facetious "defense" of media that was, of course, rife with factual errors.

My "mistakes" were, it seemed to me, so obvious and outlandish no one could possibly take them seriously. But I was, well ... mistaken, as evidenced by the hundreds of folks who have since written or called to "correct" the errors.

So, for the record: Yes, I'm aware that Bob Hope did not become famous for saying, "I don't get no respect." That was Rodney Dangerfield. It's also untrue that Hope was once host of "The Tonight Show" or that Quincy Jones was ever the bandleader there. Walter Cronkite and Billy Crystal remain very much alive as of this writing. And the pope has never declared Patrick Buchanan the Antichrist. Although now that I think of it, I didn't see a single letter correcting that "error." For whatever reason, folks apparently didn't find it hard to believe Buchanan is an agent of Satan.

Nor did readers have a much higher opinion of news media. That was the overarching message of the missives I received. More than inaccuracy, people seemed hacked off by the bias they perceive. Self-described political conservatives, in particular, felt that media treat them unfairly. More than a few praised Fox, widely considered the most conservative of the major broadcast news outfits, for being more "objective" than its competitors. By which they apparently meant that its "spin" on the facts more closely paralleled their own.

But here's the thing: Objectivity is not spin. More to the point, objectivity ... at least in terms of news coverage ... is not humanly possible. And if it were, you wouldn't like it much. Because the news would become not just opinion-free, but also context-free and values-free.

A truly "objective" reporter would not call the events of Sept. 11 tragic because that is, after all, a judgment. Yet, judging is what human beings naturally do ... and they convey their judgments not just overtly but also in their body language, their choice of words, their vocal inflections.

Certainly, reporters should avoid inserting blatant opinion into their reports. Just as certainly, their work and our responses to it must be governed by common sense. When you remove that element from the equation, you wind up looking detached from reality ... as Reuters did when it stopped using the word terrorist under the theory that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. As ABC News chief David Westin did when he declined to offer an opinion on whether the Pentagon was a legitimate military target.

In neither case did journalists sound objective. They sounded, rather, like robots.

None of which is to trivialize the concerns of those who feel the media fail to give them or their beliefs a fair shake. In fact, one of the points I tried to make in the column that got me in all this trouble was that media are prone to marginalizing not just certain ideologies, but also certain races, regions, religions and one entire gender.

And that's a dangerous thing. Because it might be said without too much fear of overstatement that, in a world where media set the public agenda and drive the dialogue, those things media ignore may as well not exist.

So what are the solutions to media bias? They are myriad, but certainly public pressure is high on the list. Consumers of news ought to require of its disseminators not some fake, stilted "objectivity" that precludes calling a terrorist a terrorist nor just validation for the things they already believe but, rather, a greater commitment to simple equity. A commitment, in other words, to opening the public dialogue to those whose voices are seldom heard there. To seeing that all sides of the story are aired.

Because objectivity is not possible. But fairness just might be.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears Thursday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: leonardpitts@mindspring.com.