Contemporary Journalism suffers from many problems; to help us understand them, a quick imaginative exercise might be useful. Not too long ago, the South Carolina legislature had to decide on the emotive issue of whether to remove the Confederate battle flag from atop the state Capitol. The issues involved were complex, and too familiar to be recycled here, but for present purposes, let us imagine a newspaper story about the event to decide whether it goes beyond the bounds of proper journalism. Reporting on the diehard defenders of the flag, our hypothetical story proceeds as follows: “‘You see senators in tears—they know this vote may well be their last . . . I’ve never seen a vote that required more courage. . . . Many lawmakers have also described being appalled at the mail and phone calls they have received from opponents of the flag, who say the legislators are working for the devil and will go to hell and should forget about being reelected. . . . And in some cases, the threats appear to have backfired by convincing lawmakers of the depth and breadth of anti-flag feeling here, persuading them to vote for the flag. . . . Senator X, asked today if she risked losing her scat with her vote, said ‘All of us do, but so what?'”

Right away, anyone with the slightest knowledge of journalistic standards will be shaking his head and listing the elementary flaws in the piece. Most glaringly, only representatives of one side of the argument are quoted at all, never mind at any length; only flag defenders are portrayed sympathetically, and indeed, heroically; the subjects of the story possess an identity only insofar as they epitomize heroic or villainous causes; and unless we scrupulously note the location of quotation marks, it is all but impossible to tell when the writer has finished quoting those selected pols with whom he agrees, and when he is expressing his own personal opinion. Well, that gives the game away. The piece is so loaded, so repeatedly crosses any conceivable line between news and editorial, that it must be bogus. It cannot have appeared even in the most unreconstructed newspaper in the most conservative corner of the South. Something so tendentious must have appeared as a paper in a journalism class, the sort of endeavor which the professor marks with an admonitory “See me in office hours!”

Yet the article really did appear in almost exactly the form quoted, and in an actual newspaper, namely, the New York Times (“All the news that fits our ideology”), back on April 20. I made a couple of minor changes: The state involved was Vermont, not South Carolina, and the issue was not the Confederate flag, but same-sex civil unions (throughout the passage quoted, I substituted “flag” for “gay” or “civil union”); but otherwise, the quotations are faithful enough. In fact, I left out some of the more blatant bits of editorializing. One glorious example: “Several senators said hostile messages and phone calls made them think: if this is what it is like for me, what have gays and lesbians had to endure their whole lives. Self-evidently, gay civil unions must he approved immediately, even (or especially) in the face of massive resistance by that bunch of boobs and bigots we call the electorate. As journalist Carey Goldberg happily admits, total opposition to civil union is indicated by “public opinion polls, phone calls, letters and town meeting votes”; nevertheless, the only moral course is full speed ahead, and damn the democracy. And yes, in somewhat different words, that is the main thrust of what purports to be objective journalism in a major media outlet.

Of course, knowing the precise issues under discussion provides the key for understanding what is otherwise baffling, namely, how a reputable paper could have presented such a shamelessly partisan piece under die guise of news, rather than editorial. If you were to sit a group of journalists down and ask them to explain the difference between news and editorial, most of them could probably do it quite clearly and (in many cases) soberly. As they learned in college courses, news is meant to be a straight retelling of events or sayings, while political interpretation is properly left to the editorial page. But—and this a crucially important “but”—that distinction only holds when we are dealing with issues on which reasonable people can disagree. At some point, though, the word somehow goes forth that a particular issue has moved beyond legitimate controversy and into the realm of uncontested metaphysical truth, and thereafter, no form of objectivity is required or welcomed.

This practice of shifting stories to a higher plateau may go back to the desegregation crises of the early 1960’s, when virtually none of the national media felt that balance was appropriate, since the story was so literally black and white: There were good guys and bad guys, civil-rights protesters and Klan yahoos, Martin Luther King and Orval Faubus. A journalist did not have to make the slightest pretense of reporting on a white Southerner as if he were a human being with rational opinions on anything. Since then, the range of stories deemed unworthy of balanced coverage has expanded enormously to include women’s issues in the 1970’s, gays in the 1980’s, guns and tobacco over the last decade; and the label of “Obviously Correct” has now alighted upon gay marriage. Fifteen years ago, that notion was several leagues beyond flaky: Now, it’s required doctrine. Just when did that happen? I don’t recall being asked to vote on it.

Two questions strike me about this process of issue elevation. The first is technological: How exactly does it happen? Is there a day or a moment when an edict proceeds from some Media High Command Center, perhaps buried under a mountain in Colorado? The speed and uniformity with which objectivity is abandoned on a given issue both suggest some degree of coordination, though I genuinely find it hard to believe that anything so concerted exists. My second question is psychological. Do media people reporting on one of the Obviously Correct issues still believe that they are working within traditional concepts of fairness and objectivity? I have a horrible suspicion that they do, and they really see nothing wrong in the simplistic agitprop language they adopt in such cases (“Seeking to defend his vicious Neanderthal prejudices. Representative Y declared that . . . ” ). Here, surely, is an Orwellian phenomenon deserving intense research, namely, a whole profession of doubleplusgood duckspeakers, who don’t even acknowledge they are presenting a party line. The only thing worse than an officially controlled press is one that does not know it is controlled.