Years ago, when I landed in Sweden to serve a two-year mission for my church, I was surprised to learn that the newspapers there tended to be affiliated with political parties. Most people read the paper that best reflected their own view of the world.

That has since changed over there. Sweden's media are partially subsidized by the government, but for the most part they report objectively.

But now, for the first time, I'm no longer so sure if the same can be said for all media over here.

Two weeks ago, I listened to Brian Williams speak at a convention of the Society of Professional Journalists, to which I belong and am a former board member. Williams is set to replace Tom Brokaw soon as anchor of the NBC Nightly News. He wondered out loud whether the United States is heading toward a day when people can pick and choose the news they watch and read depending on their own political preferences. If so, he said, what would that do to our level of discourse as a people? What part of the American political experience — the two-party system that tends to absorb extremism or the more-or-less unified way we tend to see and appreciate basic rights — would be different today if we hadn't gone through roughly 150 years of a common view of things through unbiased reporting?

In the intervening two weeks, those questions have become more relevant. We can thank Dan Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, whose antics have left me and many of my colleagues speechless.

Before I get too far into this, let me acknowledge that for many of you, I may as well be speaking onstage at a convention for rotten-egg throwers. For a lot of you, the ship sailed years ago on the notion of an unbiased media. You're still sore about Vietnam or Watergate, and you haven't cut much slack to those nattering nabobs of negativity since then.

You have plenty of company throughout U.S. history, dating back to George Washington, who served at a time when objectivity was not yet a guiding principle. Abraham Lincoln jailed editors he felt were against him. After the 1952 election, there were widespread, and baseless, charges that reporters had been biased in favor of Republicans.

Part of the challenge of unbiased reporting is that readers and viewers themselves have biases. These cloud the way all of us see things. That holds true for reporters and editors, too, of course. But believe it or not there is something to the rigorous and constant training a journalist undergoes to report things even-handedly. (That also holds for editorial writers, like myself, who, even though we write opinion, must examine the evidence at hand fairly before reaching a subjective conclusion filtered through our own notions of right and wrong.)

I have plenty of my own criticisms about the current state of journalism, but I can't deny that nearly every journalist I have known over the past 24 years has held the need to strive for objectivity as absolutely essential. And the ones who didn't were exposed by their colleagues.

I recall one woman I worked with years ago in Las Vegas who was a devout Christian. A few years after we parted ways I read an account of how she had been fired from her job as an anchor at a station in the Midwest because she told an evangelical magazine she was trying to "sneak Jesus" into her newscasts. A journalist has no business sneaking anything into reporting that is supposed to tell the straight story.

Which brings me to Mapes.

As I write this, reports are describing her as a producer who was outspoken about her liberal beliefs. The Associated Press quoted someone who knows her as saying she was motivated by these feelings and wanted to make a difference in the world. That's all fine and good, but the next part of the story is not. She allegedly made a deal with the source for the National Guard documents by promising access to high officials in the John Kerry campaign.

When personal passions become more important than the truth, people tend to overlook facts. They tend to see something as true just because they really want it to be true. They tend to compromise greater virtues.

And that's why I hope the United States never devolves into a place where the mainstream media turn into a collection of varied political views of the world. Readers and viewers need to have their assumptions challenged, not blindly reinforced.

A lot of that is up to CBS. The way it chooses to clean house and learn from its mistakes will go a long way toward righting a ship about which all Americans should care deeply.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com