About a week ago, there was a discussion between former New York Times editor Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald, who wrote a lot of The Guardian pieces based on the Snowden leaks. Greenwald and Laura Poitras were also Snowden’s conduits. Mostly it was about “objectivism” in the press. At least that’s how I read it. Keller is, at least in this discussion, of the “show all sides and don’t betray your own subjective feelings” school of journalism. He believes the Times should not be about advocacy journalism. Greenwald, who has now left The Guardian, is of the “speak truth to power/advocacy journalism” school. They’re not as far apart as they might seem.
There are points to be made on both sides, but first I’d like to dispel the idea that the Times, or any news/media source presents “just the facts.” This is not a criticism of the Times, but an observation of how subjectivity manifests despite an objective façade. I collected physical copies of the Times in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. I did that because I was fascinated (and appalled) at the propaganda effort that seemed to me to be working entirely in favor of the invasion. Keller was a vocal supporter of the invasion, though he and the editors of the Times have since written that maybe that wasn’t a good idea and that they maybe were somewhat in error supporting it. I was interested in how that previously held subjective point of view worked its way into what was presented as objective news reporting.
Here is what I noticed. There were of course front-page pieces about the evil Saddam, White House reporting that took the administration’s unsubstantiated statements at face value and infographics about the amazing new US techno military: full page illustrations of super fighter jets and ground troops covered with techy gizmos that would allow them to “walk in” to Baghdad.
Source: Al Granberg/The New York Times
It looked like a 12-year-old’s collection of Star Wars action figures and space ships, only this time we (the “good” guys) were the Empire. I didn’t doubt that Saddam had killed many, many Kurds—but if we were to use killing your own people as an automatic excuse for invasion, we’d be invading an awful lot of countries.
As the filmmaker Fredrick Wiseman said in an interview the other day:
It's obviously impossible to be objective. It's a non-argument because every aspect of making a movie represents a choice, and of course in making a movie….there are millions of choices. And nobody else would make the same choices. I might not even make the same choices in different years. So the objectivity argument is a waste of time. …you can edit something, edit almost any sequence, and make a fool of somebody, for example. But unless they make fools of themselves, I don't want to twist the sequence, or twist it in the way I edit it, to make fools of them. Ultimately, I'll make a fool of myself by doing that.
As a citizen who wanted to stay informed in the run up to the invasion (it was an invasion, not a war, as it was often called—language matters), I began to turn elsewhere for news—not just to have my own opinions confirmed (though no doubt there was some of that at work), but to find out what was being downplayed and under-reported. Having just read that Bloomberg News has been censoring news that is critical of China to protect their own business interests, the idea of not trusting one source is not as obsessive and paranoid as it might sound.
For example, the reports from Hans Blix, the UN weapons inspector assigned to look for the weapons of mass destruction, were in fact duly run, but they tended to be buried deep in other articles or buried way beyond the front page (this was back when being on the front page mattered.) Blix never found those WMDs because—as many of us suspected—they simply weren’t there. However, the Bush administration and its supporters were determined not to let truth get in the way of their agenda. To the Times credit, much of the truth was in fact available in their own newspaper—it didn’t take an expert to know that we were being lied to. But the thrust of what the paper presented—visually and graphically—told a different story. Non-stop stories about Saddam, yellowcake and WMDs, paired with the pumping up of the invincible US military strength made it seem like the invasion would be, as one administration figure was quoted as saying, “a slam dunk.”
So, the idea of an objective press? It’s sort of hard to find real examples. Even Fox, of “fair and balanced” news, feigns objectivity. Saying you’re objective does not make it so. Are we supposed to give the nutjobs and liars of Fox a pass because they say they are objective? If a politician, banker or bureaucrat lies, can we not point it out, right then and there?
I was appalled during those days when obvious lies were not called out: when members of that administration or their champions (like the NSA spokespeople today) lied to congress or the press, and weren’t called out for it. Is it objective reporting when a lie is presented with no comment? It sort of gives it credence, if you just let it slide, in my opinion. I’m not talking about questionable statements or statements that are open to interpretation: this is someone with a smoking gun in their hand saying, “There’s no gun there.” Someone could have said these were lies, instead of playing a game of objective reporting. Someone might have at least used the word “alleged” when quoting a lot of the made-up shit that the administration spouted.
All that said, the concept of objective reporting is a noble ideal. But how does or could it actually work? Is it important to hear and see everything? Sometimes not telling everything might allow for more objectivity. Not showing bodies of the dead and injured is, many believe, an attempt at objectivity. Our hearts go out when we see images of the maimed and grieving. We get sad and angry at whoever did this. Those images trigger unmediated emotional responses. Should we be shown the dead and mutilated on all sides? The grieving Syrian families as well as the injured Assad led troops. That might seem to be objectively fair, but it’s true, that kind of gut-wrenching imagery often doesn’t allow a clear picture or judgment of what happened, why it happened and who was involved. It’s too easy to gain our sympathy with images of carnage (see below). So maybe there is a justification for not showing us everything. But who decides?
In 1968, initial reports of the My Lai Massacre by military magazine Stars and Stripes claimed that “128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians” were killed in Son My village during a “fierce fire fight” and “bloody day-long battle.” It might have been left there—another objective statistic—but the pictures that came out told another story:
This is what a young Colin Powell reported back when he was assigned to investigate this massacre of an entire town, women and children included:
Relations between Americal Division soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.
Powell seems to be the go-to guy for bullshit—his UN speech on yellowcake and Iraq was full of it.
Most of the US press avoided showing the collateral damage inflicted by the US in either invasion. The press was similarly prohibited for many years from showing any images of US servicemen being brought home in coffins. See: bodies as emotional buttons, above. Both of those decisions, while one might argue they allowed more analysis and objectivity, served political ends. Not that I wanted to see those images, but cleansing the invasion of any human impact (as is done with drone strikes today) leaves us with military, ideological and political information and opinion to guide us: all of which are more easily manipulated to political ends than a mutilated body.
Is that what it means to be objective? While the figures and numbers of the dead and injured might have been duly reported, often it is an image that conveys the human impact of what is happening. Should we be reminded from time to time what the consequences of our actions and decisions are? Objectivity sometimes means abstraction, which aids a very human tendency to paint things in black and white and in absolute terms. As human beings, we don’t live in an abstract world.
As for Greenwald, I’m curious where he will go with his new venture. Advocacy journalism—is that what it will be? Is that what he has in fact been doing? Maybe, sometimes. Certainly in some of his opinion pieces. But just as often he’s simply presented the facts of what the NSA has been up to. Some cold facts, it seems, are considered subjective depending on who you are and whom you work for. All journalism is advocacy journalism to someone. Any organization that funds the time and resources demanded of serious investigative journalism is to be applauded.
I’m reminded of Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter for both The New York Times and The New Yorker who broke, amongst other stories, the My Lai Massacre and its cover-up, the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities and the US support of extremist Islamic groups in order to “contain” Iran. Hersh backs up his accounts—that’s what investigative reporters do. Like Snowden’s revelations, they might not be huge surprises, but by backing the material up they are irrefutably supported by the power of objective fact. Facts, it’s true, can lie, but he tends to make a pretty air-tight case. These pieces are reporting; they’re not opinion pieces. But in clashing with the party line, objective reporting can take on the power of something political, as it often proves definitively that we are being told lies. No one likes to be called out.Members of the Bush circle called Hersh “the closest thing we have to a terrorist.” I agree completely with Keller that foreign bureaus and deep investigative reporting like what Hersh does are at risk in the current Internet digital “free” climate. That kind of reporting costs money, and providing that kind of information to the public is what allows a democracy to function. Voting alone doesn’t make a democracy. As much as I enjoy the leaks from Ellsberg, Assange, Manning and Snowden, sometimes that raw data needs to be explained (who gave the orders, who organized the cover up, where did the money come from?), and it often takes the manpower, experience and hours that journalists possess to make it something we can understand. It’s a cliché now for one to say we are concerned about the Internet’s impact on journalism (I don’t mean just on newspaper sales). While I personally am glad for the leaks that confirm what I suspected, those files are just data unless and until someone presents them clearly. Real in-depth reporting isn’t just a cache of data. Maybe that’s why the UK government has been trying to muzzle The Guardian even though the data they are using as source material exists elsewhere.