Monday, June 17, 2013

Please, Sir, May I Have Another Question?: An Object Lesson

Now that I've read Steven Maras's Objectivity in Journalism (Polity Press, 2013), I still don't know what objectivity in journalism is.  But neither does he, nor apparently can anyone else make up their minds on a definition.  I suspect, and the book largely confirms, that "objectivity" is one of what I call totem words: words that connote something good, to be waved around like a flag to show that one is one of the Good Guys.  (Other examples are "meritocracy," "democracy," "freedom," "equality," and so on.)

Objectivity in Journalism is part of a series on "Key Concepts in Journalism," but I wonder about its intended audience.  I'd guess journalism students, probably undergraduates, but I can't imagine them getting much from Maras's treatment.  He covers a wide range of concerns, such as the history of the concept of objectivity, its different definitions and rationales, and its variations in different countries (most of the examples come from the United States and to a lesser extent England).  This is valuable and well done but he tends to rush along so that nothing really gets discussed.  I wondered if he simply meant his readers to read the material he quotes and references, some of which sounds quite interesting, and that would probably be a good idea because Maras himself seems to have no opinions of his own.  Maybe he is just trying to provide an example of objectivity in action, merely reporting the views of his sources, but that doesn't work very well, and actually undermines the case for objectivity he seems to want to make.

As the word is used, "objectivity" can indicate an ideal for journalists to aspire to, a goal for them to try to reach, or an actual achievement of modern professional journalists.  Not only do different writers disagree which it is, the same writers tend to equivocate, using it in one sense here, and in another sense there. Even those who see it as an ideal or a goal are not sure what it entails.  Some writers pile up defining components -- accuracy, freedom from bias, balance, impartiality, impersonality -- which may or not be desirable, but I'm not sure they add up to objectivity, except perhaps by postulation.  (As so often with definitions, the discussants are not sure whether the meaning of a concept is inherent in the word, and so can be discovered by somehow unpacking it, or whether it's a more or less empty container in which anything can be stored.  In practice it works out to be some of both, so that one reads one's own ideas into the word, and gets them back endowed with its authority.)

So, for instance, Maras quotes the philosopher Judith Lichtenberg, who,
[i]n her essay ‘In Defense of Objectivity’, ... focuses on a particular confusion in critiques of objectivity: ‘We are told by some that journalism isn’t objective; by others that it cannot be objective; and by still others that it shouldn’t be objective’. Objectivity is thus impossible on the one hand, and undesirable on the other. Both propositions cannot be correct [103].
Erm, well, I don't think so, especially since it appears to be different writers who raise these different objections.  The case against objectivity may not be coherent, but individual authors may not be contradicting themselves; but then as Maras shows, the case for objectivity is just as confused.  We are told by some that journalism is objective, for example, but that it shouldn't be. Even so, it isn't confused to say that X is impossible, but would be undesirable even if it weren't.

Advocates of journalistic objectivity disagree among themselves over what they're advocating.  Does objectivity mean no more than "passive" reporting of whatever a source says, an approach often derogated as mere stenography?  The possibility of a human agent, however well trained, simply recording whatever happens in front of him, has been taken apart so often and so thoroughly that it's hard to be believe anyone still takes it seriously.  But some do.  Notoriously, in January 2012 the New York Times public editor (or ombudsman) Arthur J. Brisbane asked (via) for "reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about ... And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair?  Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?"  This set off a wave of debate in the media, much of it highly critical, and Maras discusses it too, mainly summarizing some of the reaction and using it to introduce "many of the themes of this chapter: enhanced feedback, transparency in deliberation, the problematic nature of consistent and total objectivity" (174).  Here he begs the question, assuming that "consistent and total objectivity" consists of stenography, parroting the assertions of "newsmakers."  (Analogously, Chris Hayes assumed that a standardized test is an accurate and "objective" measure of academic merit.)

Brisbane asserted that "Op-Ed columnists have the freedom to call out what they think are lies" (173), but as FAIR pointed out, this isn't true: "During the 2000 presidential election season, [Paul] Krugman said the Times 'barred him from using the word "lying"' when writing about George W. Bush (Washington Post, 1/22/03)."  FAIR went on to suggest that "sports reporters would [not] be so baffled by the idea that facts matter"; if a professional basketball player were falsify his game stats, for example, sportswriters wouldn't let the misrepresentations stand.

I would point out that "newsmakers" aren't always American politicians or corporate elites.  When foreign newsmakers like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Saddam Hussein, or Osama Bin Laden make statements of fact that aren't factual, American media feel no obligation to let them go unchallenged.  (And not only foreigners: today I passed in front of a TV tuned to CNN, which was quoting and analyzing an online chat with American NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: the commentator didn't seem to give any credence at all to Snowden's statements.  ("Mr. Snowden is trying for humor here," she sniffed.  Is that objectivity?)  If Iranian or Iraqi media quoted them without comment and justified themselves on the grounds of "objectivity," I doubt American journalists would agree.  Such media elsewhere in the world would be dismissed as supine state media functioning as conduits for propaganda -- which seems unfair, since such behavior is defended in the New York Times as appropriate for American media; but if the shoe fits ... (And yet, state media around the world make obeisance to the ideal of objectivity; see Maras's quotation of Xinhua News Agency on page 202. Surely they wouldn't say it if they didn't mean it!)  Brisbane's attitude toward "facts" also seems odd: far from the tough-minded devotion to sacred facts journalists like to claim, Brisbane seems to regard facts as slippery and difficult to establish.  But though the latter position is probably more defensible, it would also require journalists to be more scrupulous about what they accept as facts.

Maras devotes several pages to the BBC's emergence as a major player in British news coverage during the General Strike of 1926, which disabled the print media.
Seizing the opportunity, the BBC Director-General John Reigh and the BBC Chairman prior to the incorporation (and Vice-Chairman afterwards), Lord Gainford, defined an alternative path, and maintained press freedom by committing to impartiality. Impartiality, activated as a principle to get around political and commercial sensitivities, arose in the context of the general strike as a way to ensure the Government applied to censorship pressure; but it also meant, in the view of some researchers, that the BBC censored itself by refusing to report anything which might help the strikers [217].
I imagine Pravda had that much "press freedom" and "impartiality."
Even if impartiality was compromised in this way – or as Tracey puts it, defined constitutionally rather than politically ... – at least the information was objective and factual: ‘a conscious decision was made to distinguish between agency copy and government copy; and many of the items broadcast were accurate reports of verifiable events’ [218].
Again, any supine state media could make the same boast.  I can't detect any irony in Maras's discussion here; he seems to be working with a definition of "objective" that means basically stenography of government sources.  In which case objectivity is certainly possible, but is it desirable?

Maras uses Brisbane's query to kick off his chapter "Is objectivity changing in an era of 24/7 news?" -- a question to which his answer appears to be "Yes."  He gives sympathetic space to journalists who argue that because of Bosnia, it's time to abandon outmoded twentieth-century objectivity and return to yellow journalism of the "Huns Kill Babies!" (and the closely related"Kuwaiti incubators") variety.  This goes with the time-honored belief that it's okay to be rational about trivial matters, but when things get serious one must run around in circles screaming in panic: "We've got to do something!"  Again, the question is begged whether the media ever were particularly objective, even by their own confused standards.

For example, CNN's Christiane Amanpour:
I have come to believe that objectivity means giving all sides a fair hearing, but not treating all sides equally. Once you treat all sides the same in a case like Bosnia, you are drawing a moral equivalence between victim and aggressor. And from there it is a short distance to becoming an accessory to all manners of evil; in Bosnia’s case, genocide. So objectivity must go hand in hand with morality [quoted by Maras, 74].
And then former BBC reporter (later Member of Parliament) Martin Bell:
In proposing an alternative journalism – one that is both balanced and principled – I am not so much calling for a change as describing one that has already taken place. It had to. How else, for instance, were we to report on genocide? Were we to observe it from afar, pass by on the other side, and declare that it was none of our business? It was all our business, perhaps especially ours because we were the independent witnesses. And if genocide would not move us, nothing would move us, and what would that then say of us? [quoted by Maras, 126-7].
I'd begin by asking about criteria for genocide.  The numbers of people killed in Bosnia, though large, didn't approach in scale the numbers of people killed in other massacres that didn't disturb Western observers nearly as much: Suharto's killing of from 500,000 to 2 million of his fellow Indonesians, Suharto's 1975 invasion of East Timor, US/UN sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s which killed around a million Iraqis ("we think the price is worth it," the American Secretary of State told television viewers) followed by vast numbers of deaths in Bush's 2003 invasion, the war against Latin American Indians by US-supported military dictatorships in the 1980s, and so on.  These killings not only didn't get much attention in mainstream media (except for the 1965 Indonesian massacres, which were celebrated), they were either approved and supported by or directly carried out by the US and its clients.  Even when they are acknowledged, perhaps as tragic blunders by well-meaning humanitarians, they are still minimized.

Then I'd ask what what these "caring" journalists propose to do to stop or prevent the genocides they've discovered.  In Bosnia, the NATO invasion increased the number of atrocities, and this is not unusual.  So did the NATO invasion of Libya, which was also justified by touting the plight of Libyans under Qadafy's brutal heel, though it killed unknown numbers of civilians and replaced Qadafy with squabbling warlords not noticeably concerned about human rights.  We're now seeing pious concern about government atrocities (which are real, I'm not denying that) in Syria with calls to arm the rebels or create a no-fly-zone, which worked so well in Libya if all you want to do is remove a tyrant and kill more innocent people.

The next question would be what all this has to do with "objectivity."  If Amanpour or Bell want me to believe that Western media coverage of these atrocities was governed by objectivity, however defined, rather than compliance with state policy and interests, they need to do more than wave around the word "genocide."  They should also have some accountability for the results of their crusades.

Maras goes on to discuss "warbloggers" as a new phenomenon and a hopeful corrective to misguided objectivity.  I gather he's never heard of journalists like Edward R. Murrow or William Shirer, who worked from war zones seventy years ago; or Richard Dudman, who wrote of his experience as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia forty years ago.  (Murrow also recorded material for broadcast while flying with Allied bombing missions.)  He doesn't mention embedded journalists during the US invasion of Afghanistan, which especially is relevant to his subject.  (Nor does he mention Judith Miller, whose mendacious advocacy of Bush's war for the New York Times eventually got her into trouble -- but only after the damage was done.)  He writes, "In 2004, the network [Al-Jazeera] was accused of cooperating with insurgents [184]."  Couldn’t embedded American journalists be accused of cooperating with invaders and aggressors?  (Non-embedded journalists sometimes "became targets of US forces.")  One defender of embedding wrote, "One reporter was seen holding a blood-plasma bag during a battlefield transfusion. Not to've done so would've been barbaric; yet that was not watching and reporting with detached objectivity."  That's a straw-man idea of what journalistic objectivity means, and probably a false objection -- how would holding a blood-plasma bag interfere with observing and reporting? -- but even if you buy it, it's an argument against embedding journalists with combat troops.

"Objectivity is changing in the era of 24/7 news and on-line journalism in numerous ways," Maras concludes that chapter, though on his own showing, objectivity has been changing ever since it was first invoked as a journalistic ideal. Earlier he discusses empiricist theories that "assume the reporter to be a tabula rasa or blank slate of knowledge" (87), and quotes a writer who argues that "What objectivity requires is an active mind that uses its mental powers in ways that reduce the distortions of reports caused by wishful thinking, bad reasoning, petty feelings and personal interests" (100).  I agree with the latter view, and it occurred to me that though this kind of "naive empiricism" has been debunked many times, there are people who talk as though they believe that human beings are naturally objective, that we would naturally (instinctually?) see the Truth if only the world (our parents, "Society") didn't put blinders on us, of bias, superstition, ignorance and the like.  I think that's obviously false, and that distortions of perspective arise naturally and inevitably from the fact that we are bodies occupying space and so can't see from everywhere at once.  Though many anti-blank slate thinkers admit all this, once they'd done so they tend to minimize or ignore how difficult it is to see past our limitations.

This shows up, for example, in the admission (which Maras also makes) that reporters are not objective, any more than they are rational or know the truth by instinct: they must undergo training and constantly monitor themselves to produce professional work.  It would seem, then, that it is the result that is "objective."  But it's still not clear what "objective" means in that context, and the many meanings the word has in use don't help.  Anyone who wants to use it should first specify the meaning he or she has in mind, and then it becomes possible to ask whether they are living up to their own standard.  It appears to me that the word "objective" itself gets in the way.