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There is no such thing as objective journalism

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Whether there is such a thing as truly objective journalism—reporting without any explicit or implicit bias—is the subject of the article Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News? (New York Times). It’s a conversation between Bill Keller—editor of the New York Times—and Glenn Greenwald—currently of the Guardian and, most recently, the driving force behind reporting on NSA spying and distributing Edward Snowden’s revelations.

Greenwald argues quite convincingly that there is only journalism and not-journalism. There is reporting of all of the facts, regardless of whether they support your ideology or not. Facts are unaffected even if a reporter simultaneously states his or her ideology. Keller represents the viewpoint that reporters should be objective—that is, they should definitely not express an ideology—and that other factors must be considered before reporting a fact—primarily national-security concerns—but doesn’t admit that this amounts to an implicit nationalistic bias.

Everyone is subjective

Here’s Greenwald arguing that humans are subjective and that anything that they produce is necessarily also subjective.

Glenn Greenwald: Worst of all, this [objective journalism] model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value in pretending otherwise?

“The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers. (Emphasis added.)”

This seems unassailable, but Keller responds later with,

Bill Keller: […] writers are more likely to manipulate the evidence to support a declared point of view than one that is privately held, because pride is on the line.”

This is demonstrably untrue and is, at best, wild speculation.

Readers won’t expect to get some information from a clearly biased source—one that has openly expressed his or her biases—and hence will not assume that they’ve gotten the whole picture. They are much more likely to seek out other sources in order to get balance.

A source that claims to be unbiased—and convinces readers that this is true—will fool those readers into thinking that they’ve gotten the whole story from that source when, in fact, that source’s implicit and unacknowledged bias has prevented the reader from actually doing so. The reader, however, stops seeking information, assuming that the ostensibly unbiased source would have no reason to withhold or distort information.

When is it OK to publish information?

Another source of disagreement between the two arises in regard to the proper publication time of national-security–sensitive information. Keller claims that the New York Times carefully decides whether it can publish certain information, while Greenwald argues that it is exactly this vetting process that makes the Times’s reporting so subjective and biased in favor of US nationalism. History bears out Greenwald’s argument: the Times has, again and again, failed to publish information that the public needed to know, published lies and allegations that misleadingly swayed public opinion and otherwise adjusted its formulations to appease the powers-that-be (e.g. consistently writing “enhanced interrogation” rather than “torture”).

When Keller alleges that Wikileaks and also Greenwald tend to publish information recklessly, Greenwald responds,

Glenn Greenwald: It wasn’t WikiLeaks that laundered false official claims about Saddam’s W.M.D.’s and alliance with Al Qaeda on its front page under the guise of “news” to help start a heinous war. It isn’t WikiLeaks that routinely gives anonymity to U.S. officials to allow them to spread leader-glorifying mythologies or quite toxic smears of government critics without any accountability.

“It isn’t WikiLeaks that prints incredibly incendiary accusations about American whistle-blowers without a shred of evidence. And it wasn’t WikiLeaks that allowed the American people to re-elect George Bush while knowing, but concealing, that he was eavesdropping on them in exactly the way the criminal law prohibited. (Emphasis added.)”

It was, and is, in fact, the New York Times, that does all of those things, despite the allegedly bulletproof and judicious editorial review that Keller claims takes place for all issues of greater sensitivity. There are several possible explanations:

  1. Either the people at the New York Times are all idiots and somehow manage, time and again, to promulgate the government line by accident
  2. …or they really think that they are doing the right thing by protecting government sources and secrets
  3. …or their implicit bias is transformed into an explicit one when they consistently fail to acknowledge the subjective nature of reporting
  4. …or they are deliberately promoting their agenda and that of the people in power to whom they are beholden—either directly for free news from the Pentagon, the largest disseminator of gratis content in the world, or indirectly to the advertisers and corporate overlords that control their continued existence—and are only pretending that they are objective to fool people into believing and buying their news.

You don’t even know you’re doing it

Keller attempts to defend himself, claiming that the Times operates only under the guise of reason (2) above. Here he addresses the emphasized segment of Greenwald’s citation above, that the Times withholding information is likely to have contributed to Bush’s second term.

Bill Keller: Critics on the left, including you, were indignant to learn that we held the N.S.A. eavesdropping story for more than a year, until I was satisfied that the public interest outweighed any potential damage to national security.”

It’s actually very likely that Keller believes this himself. There is, however, no reason that we should continue to believe him. He and his paper claim a certain credo and continually act in a manner that belies it. Ignore what he says and watch instead what he does. That is what Greenwald does, citing again that instance of the Times having withheld information as a clear bias that, even if implicit, had far more wide-reaching consequences and did much more damage than the explicitly stated biases in Greenwald’s own reporting ever could.

Glenn Greenwald: My objection is not to that process itself but to specific instances where it leads to the suppression of information that ought to be public. Without intended rancor, I believe that the 2004 decision of The Times to withhold the Risen/Lichtblau N.S.A. story at the request of the Bush White House was one of the most egregious of such instances, but there are plenty of others.”

Keller is naturally not pleased with this accusation and responds that Greenwald seems to be saying that Greenwald—and only Greenwald—knows what the real reasons are for why the mainstream media reports what it does.

Bill Keller: […] in case after case, […] you are convinced that you, Glenn Greenwald, know what that controlling “set of interests” is. It’s never anything as innocent as a sense of fair play or a determination to let the reader decide; it must be some slavish fealty to powerful political forces.”

Here’s where Keller actually proves Greenwald’s point. Keller seems incapable of seeing—or admitting that he sees—how a reporter who shields his own opinions from his readers is almost certain to be equally adept at shielding them from himself. Someone who isn’t consciously aware of his biases cannot be vigilant against them and won’t notice when he nevertheless (perhaps subtly) expresses them in his writing. Anything that is written is necessarily infused with the author’s opinion. It may be through the subconscious omission of certain information or perhaps the phrasing used to impart that which is included.

This happens even to those to whom we give the benefit of the doubt that it is inadvertent, to say nothing of reporters who are fully aware that they are disseminating propaganda. These subtle signals, sometimes called dog whistles, are picked up and interpreted by even the less savvy reader—in fact, especially by them—and internalized. Examples abound of how properly chosen phrasing can express a plausibly deniable truth.

Greenwald winds up this part of the conversation by explaining how Keller’s belief in objective journalism—which represents the attitude of most of the mainstream media—is eroding the public trust in news.

Glenn Greenwald: It is, I believe, very hard to argue that the ostensibly “objective” tone required by large media outlets builds public trust, given the very low esteem with which the public regards those media institutions. Far more than concerns about ideological bias, the collapse of media credibility stems from things like helping the U.S. government disseminate falsehoods that led to the Iraq War and, more generally, a glaring subservience to political power: pathologies exacerbated by the reportorial ban on any making clear, declarative statements about the words and actions of political officials out of fear that one will be accused of bias.”

Defending journalism against tyranny

Naturally, the conversation touches on the most egregious punishments meted out by the US government on those from whom it has revoked the title of journalist or whistleblower: Assange, Manning, Snowden, etc. It would seem that these instances prove Greenwald’s point—namely, that the Times has learned well what punishment awaits organizations and reporters that do not appropriately kowtow to the hegemony.

In its own interest and in the interest of self-preservation, the Times adjusts what it reports and how it reports it. All without informing its readers that there are certain things that they will never read because of the risk associated with writing it. Whether this is cowardly is the subject of another discussion. The honest thing to do would be to at least admit the shortcoming so that readers can make informed decisions.

Glenn Greenwald: It shouldn’t take extreme courage and a willingness to go to prison for decades or even life to blow the whistle on bad government acts done in secret. But it does. And that is an immense problem for democracy, one that all journalists should be united in fighting.”

Useless and misleading facts

The problem with the theory that facts are objective is that it ignores facts that, once accepted, skew reality.

Swiss Internet usage

For example, while it’s probably empirically true that 95% of all Swiss use the Internet, the information without context is meaningless. How much do they use it? Does using it once in your life count? Which Swiss are we talking about? Kids? Older people?

Without the context provided by asking when and how often the Internet is used, it’s senseless to actually internalize that fact and foolish to use that information further because it will affect the other opinions you form. It’s easy to imagine such a fact being printed or misinterpreted from a report and then being disseminated until businesses are making decisions based on the “known fact” that almost all Swiss use the Internet.

The skewed starting point ensures that subsequent opinions will be ever more skewed, with each inadequate fact compounding the others until the reader is so far afield as to have opinions that are completely detached from reality.

US welfare program cost increases

Likewise, while it’s true that the US welfare budget has increased by 11,000% (as shown on a Fox News segment), it’s again a deliberately propagandist formulation. 110 times larger means the same thing but is a smaller number and less scary. A closer look at the chart where the fact appeared reveals that the increase is from the first year of the program until today, most likely utterly ignoring inflation and using absolute costs rather than a more sensible per-capita or per-recipient formulation.

Once you start to ask questions, the propaganda falls apart. How many more people are using the program now than then? Have the welfare rolls also increased 11,000%? If so, then the program hasn’t actually gotten more wasteful, it’s just expanded and maintained its original efficiency). It’s also quite likely that the program started very small and grew quickly, so it would be more honest to use a figure from after the initial phase—perhaps a few years in—as the starting data point.

Measuring growth over the entire 50-year lifetime of a program without mentioning the timespan, methodology or number of people actually using the program is tantamount to propaganda and anything but objective.

This was from a source that purports to be fair and balanced, so people would accept the chart as fact and stop looking. The New York Times suffers from the same hubris that it is fair and balanced and lulls its readers into accepting its skewed facts sold as objective journalism.

The global wine shortage

A final example comes from widely reports of a global wine shortage in 2013, as discussed in the article There’s no global wine shortage by Felix Salmon (Reuters). In this case, though, the facts presented are a good deal more manipulated: the chart in the original report omitted the most recent year’s worth of data because it belied the predefined conclusion and also added “300 million [cases that are] Morgan Stanley’s estimate of the annual demand for “non-wine uses” of wine”. The omission of a recent uptick plus the inclusion of a completely fabricated 300-million cases made the lines overlap and TADA! we have a shortage.

While this is a good deal sleazier and more obviously unethical than the other examples[1], it’s a fact that news sources all over the world promulgated news of a shortage to their consumers without even performing the most basic analysis. These are ostensibly objective news sources—they’re just really bad journalists. There is also the implicit bias that reporters (note that I’m no longer calling them journalists) and their editors have that makes them receptive to stories that sell, even if it’s not necessarily the news that people need to hear. So while the wine-shortage story is completely false, it spread like wildfire and has probably become unassailable, established fact in the minds of many readers.

Conclusion

After a relatively civilized and worthwhile exchange, Bill Keller couldn’t resist putting on his avuncular hat and honoring Greenwald with the following gem of wisdom,

Bill Keller: Humility is as dear as passion. So my advice is: Learn to say, “We were wrong.””

This is undoubtedly good advice, but after a long exchange among equals, it makes him sound like a sanctimonious, condescending ass.[2] Perhaps another lesson would be more appropriate, one that Greenwald has clearly internalized far more than most of the editorial staff of the New York Times: when you stop basing articles on data that is demonstrably wrong, you have to admit you were wrong a lot less.


[1]

Once you start looking for this kind of stuff, you’ll notice that it’s everywhere. For example, the chart below comes from the post, The Collapse of Infrastructure in One Chart by Alexander Reed Kelly (TruthDig) and purports to show how government spending on infrastructure has plummeted.

 A sharp drop in government infrastructure spending?

Whereas it’s true that it has dropped off enough for us to take notice, the chart suggests that it’s dropped off to almost nothing. A closer look shows that the baseline has been chosen to encourage this interpretation. Now, how did that happen? It was clearly a bias on the part of the author—i.e. the author wanted readers to read the chart a certain way—but was it implicit or explicit bias?

[2] Which is kind of what he is, if you’ve ever read anything else he’s ever written. I respect Glenn Greenwald and read him regularly, but I almost skipped this article because I didn’t feel like reading anything that Bill Keller had written. This exchange was by far the most coherent and reasonable I’ve seen him—he’s usually inchoate and raging about something in a very biased way, He has the excuse that he’s on the editorial page but his disdain for facts is legendary.