Truth or Objectivity in Journalism

by A. Jay Adler on February 15, 2011
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When I find myself agreeing with Glenn Greenwald, I check myself in the mirror. I have done so, and I am happy to report that I’m looking pretty good (just by the way) and that Greenwald is not staring back at me, but in the mirror just over. Yesterday, Greenwald took his customary strong issue, this time with James Rainey at the Los Angeles Times, who wrote,

It’s not often that American television news figures accuse government officials, foreign or domestic, of lying. But CNN’s Anderson Cooper made up for that, big time, this week. He heaped the pejorative on Egypt’s leaders 14 times in a single “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Though the Big Picture knows of no record book for declarations of mendacity, that must have been some sort of new high — at least for mainstream American news. Cooper’s accusations of “lies” and “lying” got so thick on Wednesday’s show that the host seemed to be channeling comic (and now U.S. Sen.) Al Franken’s 2003 book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”

Does one detect some notes of mockery? Yet, said Rainey,

Indeed, it’s hard to find fault with what Cooper had to say, though it did begin to sound a little one-note after about the sixth or seventh “liar, liar.” We got the point a few minutes into the show.

One imagines the Egyptian people found Mubarak a little one-note over the years. It’s always repressive this, repressive that. Lighten up for a change, Mu. Maybe Cooper could have balanced his reporting with accounts of Mubarak’s kindness to his mother. What exactly is the problem? According to Howard Kurtz and Christopher Dickey at CNN’s Reliable Sources:

KURTZ: Chris Dickey, Anderson Cooper repeatedly using the word lies. Now I think most journalists would agree with him, perhaps most Americans would agree with him. But should an anchor and correspondent being taking sides on this kind of story?

DICKEY: I think Anderson sort of — that’s part of the soul of his show is to take sides and be passionate and come across as someone who’s reasonable, but committed to a certain vision of the story.

All this set Greenwald off, on a favorite theme.

Rainey, Kurtz and Dickey all have this exactly backwards.  Identifying lies told by powerful political leaders — and describing them as such — is what good journalists do, by definition.  It’s the crux of adversarial journalism, of a “watchdog” press.  “Objectivity” does not require refraining from pointing out the falsity of government claims.  The opposite is true; objectivity requires that a journalist do exactly that:  treat factually false statements as false.  “Objectivity” is breached not when a journalist calls a lie a “lie,” but when they refuse to do so, when they treat lies told by powerful political officials as though they’re viable, reasonable interpretations of subjective questions.  The very idea that a journalist is engaged in “opinion-making” or is “taking sides” by calling a lie a “lie” is ludicrous; the only “side” such a journalist is taking is with facts, with the truth.   It’s when a journalist fails to identify a false statement as such that they are “taking sides” — they’re siding with those in power by deceitfully depicting their demonstrably false statements as something other than lies.

In all of this, Greenwald is (come on, now, you can do it, Adler: easy, easy, breathe) almost exactly right.

How many times have I talked about this? (I’m asking.) Can it actually be that these guys aren’t reading me? Do Kurtz and Dickey, particularly, need a fundamental lesson in the difference between fact and opinion – that the latter is arguable and the former is not? Of course, we can make claims of (not yet established) fact that are arguable, and thus still forms of opinion, but once such a claim is established as fact by all the customary and rigorous intellectual standards (which still cannot prevent nincompoops from claiming there was no moon landing and that Barak Obama wasn’t born – oh, you know) that claim is no longer a “side,” a “vision of the story.” It is the truth, a particular form of the truth – a fact. Facts are what reporters are supposed to report, which includes distinguishing them from the frauds in dress-up that are masqueraded as fact – that is, lies.

Objectivity does not mean standing neutrally between truth and falsity, between a fact and a fraud. To do so is actually to be intellectually, foolishly complicitous with deception and the crimes that are built on it. That high profile journalists are so completely muddled on this point is (I’m feeling my inner Greenwald) pathetic.

To go further, Greenwald approvingly quotes Marc Cooper, from Rainey.

But it begs a monster question: Is CNN permitted to call only foreign leaders liars? How refreshing it would be to see that same piercing candor directed at American politicians when they overtly lie.

Indeed, (oh, dear – another point of agreement with Greenwald) the Bush administration lied when it called water boarding “enhanced interrogation” and not torture. The New York Times and other news media were complicit in that lie by confusing objectivity with “On the other hand, Mr. Stalin claims….”

Where, then, do I disagree with Greenwald on this? (You gotta allow me something.) Greenwald states, of the act of identifying lies,

It’s the crux of adversarial journalism, of a “watchdog” press.

That may be, but it is not the essential intellectual point here. An adversarial and watchdog press may arise naturally out of the identification of lies, but that lie detecting is an outgrowth of something even more essential, which is the true, rather than the mistaken, nature of objectivity – objectivity the purpose of which is to accurately identify objects, distinguishing each from the other, indentifying them truly, and negating what they are (falsely) not, all with the intent to clarify objective reality and make it known as much as is humanly possible. From that intellectual goal, many human goods flow, including what Greenwald wants to conceive as adversarial journalism. But that term is really a redundancy, because if you’re not distinguishing truth from lies, you’re not doing journalism at all; you’re doing stenography.

AJA

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