Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Myth of Objectivity

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz’ s work (e.g. today's Slanted Press or Slanted Blogs?) needs corrective scrutiny fully as much as the rest of the media needs, or at any rate is given, his. Recently he docilely repeated the canard that Jack Abramoff directed contributions to Democrats. No, Howard. Some Abramoff clients, many with previous Democratic Party ties of their own, did indeed make some contributions of their own, on their own, to Democrats. The crucial distinction, verified by FEC report research, is again, for those of you who haven't been paying attention, that no Abramoff money went to Democrats.

As to Kurtz' discussion today on the alleged objectivity of the media, he completely fudges what could have been interesting by confusing "objective" with "fact-based." In fact, objectivity is as much a construct as is bias. What we agree to call objectivity is a certain tone, often reduced to hearing "both sides" of what are frequently multi-polar questions. What many call bias of right or left is inherent in having such an imprecise mechanism as a human person doing journalism.

An old British journalist named Claud Cockburn (who fathered two sons, Patrick and Alexander, the latter of whom began the PressClips column in the Village Voice, and who wrote the screenplay for the Humphrey Bogart movie Beat the Devil) had a few on-point observations to share in a recent article.

[Patrick Cockburn] goes on to revive some of [his father] Claud [Cockburn]’s maxims about journalism, and to update them against his own experience.

Claud proclaimed that facts and rumours were of equal significance, and warned against what he called ‘the factual heresy’ – the claim, dear to journalists with a saint-like idea of their own mission, that lumps of truth lie about like gold nuggets waiting to be picked up.

[Claud Cockburn] did not think journalism was either saintly or fact-bound. ‘All stories are written backwards,’ he once observed. ‘They are supposed to begin with the facts and develop from there, but in reality they begin with a journalist’s point of view from which the facts are subsequently organised.’

Patrick takes this disrespect even further. Reporters, he finds, ‘are ill-equipped to extract information which others do not want to impart’. Most great stories – Watergate, for instance – arise from deliberate leaks rather than from fearless investigation.

‘A journalist might like to be a spy but generally ends up as a conduit for information,’ [Patrick wrote].

True enough. I remember how in Warsaw the great German journalist Ludwig Zimmerer told his apprentice Chris Bobinski: ‘My boy, in this job you must learn to let your head be used as a latrine!’

--Neil Ascherson, Lust for Leaks, London Review of Books, September 1, 2005

Our culture would be greatly improved if it could get rid of a few comforting though meretricious myths -- the media as objective, the president as father-figure, the marketplace as rational. Otherwise it is going to continue to be surprised by the abilities of advertising mechanics (such as Karl Rove) to cruelly manipulate half a nation against its own economic and social best interests.

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