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Media Fri Nov 05 2010

The Inanity of the Objective Press

Chip Inn.jpg A year and more ago, now former Progress Illinois editor in chief Josh Kalven and I, over drinks at the Chipp Inn in Noble Square, lamented the state of political journalism. Reiterating something he'd said at a panel discussion at the Hideout, he told me that he wasn't certain why there was so much discussion about the legitimacy of bloggers as journalists in the context of their "biases." Everybody has predispositions and opinions, he said, at least readers know from what point of view so-called "partisan" media comes from. Traditional journalists aren't free of those predispositions, they are just instructed to hide them.

This was on everybody's mind in particular after an experiment by Slate wherein they disclosed for whom all their writers voted. This was supposedly a painful thing for a news outlet to do, because it would "discredit" what their writers were saying.

Just this week, MSNBC suspended host Keith Olbermann when Politico reported that he had donated money to candidates he had interviewed on his show "Countdown." Presumably, this represented some nebulous conflict-of-interest, wherein Olbermann was concealing the fact that he actively supports Democrats for public office from his audience. This reminds me of when Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf was suspended for failing to disclose he'd donated lemon bars to the Republican Guard Alumni Booster Club.

Take the long view. The "objective press" is a creation of the Nixon era. It is not a hallowed institution. And attacking the press for a lack of objectivity is a Nixonian tactic. It allows political figures to attack writers and news organizations ad hominem rather than address their arguments--something we've dealt with repeatedly here at GB, too.

When I sat on a panel on journalism--entitled "Is Truth the Front Page News"--at the Remy Bumppo theater in October, I tried to remind people of this fact. When the freedom of the press was enshrined in the Constitution, it wasn't to protect objective fact finders, but to shield the partisan press which, at the time, was all of the press. And the press that was most vulnerable to suppression wasn't, again, the non-existent "objective" press, but the partisan press. The targets of the Sedition Act of the John Adams administration were his political enemies publishing diatribes against his administration. It is not incumbent on writers to be objective; it is incumbent on readers to be discerning. This is done through skepticism to argument, not trying to look into the writer's soul. The publishing of known falsehoods is a civil wrong, known as defamation or libel, and the victim has a remedy at law. Everything outside of what falls under this tort is up for debate, and the ad hominem of questioning the writer's righteousness is a logical fallacy.

002tj_thumb_item.gifThe press cherished by the Founding Fathers was the boisterous adversarial press that jeered the King's imperial administration and incited citizens to rebellion, not Poor Richard's Almanack. Do you suppose, for example, that the administration of King George III viewed the author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America an objective fact finder? Nevertheless, his arguments were devastating and confounded the legal, rightful governments of the colonies.

When the panel got the question, "Is truth the front page news?" I had a ready answer: yes and no. The front page of USA Today has a story about Apple's quarterly earnings, about their market capitalization and the amazing success story of a business that, only a decade ago, was fading fast. This is all truth. Just as true, however, is that workers in Apple's plants are being killed by our consumption, murdered by brutal working conditions. Which story do we choose to tell? Which do we put on the front page? And why? We'll never reach objectivity. And that cynical political operator who undermine any dissent by attacking the messenger rather than the argument wants nothing more than to keep holding writers to an impossible and nebulous standard of objectivity.

There's something else. Even 70 years ago, a good portion of the population was illiterate, and a significant majority was functionally illiterate, unable to read beyond basic levels. The illusion of some halcyon past when people were reading the great muckrackers ignores the fact that only the educated were reading such stuff. Today, literacy is near 100 percent, and at the same time, the institutions providing "content" have consolidated, so fewer gatekeepers are speaking to more and more people.

I am not a fan of MSNBC or Keith Olbermann. I find him tiresome and the idea of a media institution loyal to a political party (as opposed to an ideology) silly (particularly when that media institution is a part of a massive war contractor conglomerate). But this phony firestorm over his political activities is beyond inanity. Especially at a time when conservatives are crowing about the righteousness of the Citizens United decision that built on the idea that "cash is speech" and that spending money on politics is the cornerstone of free speech, seeing them mewl and puke about Olbermann's supposed conflict of interest is frustrating.

Journalists as professionals have a duty to get at the truth--something that needs to be done through skepticism of power. But let's admit, as much as it may hurt, that there is very little truth outside of science. When journalists and writers try to get to truth, it is by trying to understand what is happening, by advocating for their understanding, and presenting what evidence and argumentation best supports it. Readers are not "consumers" but citizens, who have a duty to read critically and determine what to accept and what not to accept. News and information are not commodities to be consumed, no matter how much today's neoliberal corporatists wish they were. They are arguments to be understood, debated, and resolved.

 
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David Jordan / November 7, 2010 2:50 PM

Yes, journalistic objectivity is a worthy but not entirely reachable goal. As you suggest, only science deals in absolute truth. The laws of time and space dictate that the writer can only truthfully report what he knows then and there.

What a Joke / November 8, 2010 10:20 AM

Ramsin,

I think you nail it in this line "When journalists and writers try to get to truth, it is by trying to understand what is happening, by advocating for their understanding, and presenting what evidence and argumentation best supports it"

The "truth" that a journalist seeks is little more than confirmation of their own understanding of an issue.

As an example, lets unpack the above post

If a reader takes the above as "truth" rather than the author's conjecture and opinion, then we see "truth" as:

- "our" consumption kills people
(is it Apple customers only? All cell phone owners? Is there a new tuberculosis epidemic we don't know about?)
(Is the cause of death foreign materialistic consumption or is it suicide?)

- in 1940, a goood portion of the country was illiterate
(the author determines what a good portion is as well as defining what functional illeterate is)
(The 1940 census lists 2.9% of those surveyed as illiterate, while the NAAL states that over 14% are now deemed legally illiterate http://www.caliteracy.org/rates/)

- "The press cherished by the Founding Fathers was the boisterous adversarial press that jeered the King's imperial administration and incited citizens to rebellion, not Poor Richard's Almanack".
(Unless you can provide substantial reference, that is your conjecture, not a factual statement)

So, as you also state, readers are citizens who have a duty to read critically and determine what to accept and what not to accept. That invites and necessitates an evaluation of the author, his sources and knowledge of the subject matter.

This is where you tend to get into trouble,as both an editor and writer, as you dismiss any critique of your work or source as ad hominem. Your reference above to ad hominem being "questioning the writer's righteousness" is pretty revealing to how you view your own argument. If your argument is righteous, then any opposing view must be void of virtue and reason.

The ad hominem is simply a defensive mechanism to shield a journalist from accountability.

Ramsin / November 8, 2010 10:53 AM

Oh, WAJ. First of all, thanks for proving my point. You engage my argument here and don't just call me a leftist stooge or whatever nonsense you usually fall back on.

Actually, I don't even need to go further than that, except to point out that you don't provide any alternative to what I've presented here, and to challenge you to find a single instance where I've called argument, rather than claims about my ideology ("Yer a statist!" "Yer a socialist!") ad hominems. You won't find any. Again and again, when you've come on here to undermine my credibility and integrity--which you are doing again here, by deviating from debating me to saying that I personally lack integrity--you couch it in a demand for "just the facts" as though any facts that don't justify your personal worldview would ever be satisfy you.

"Questioning the writer's righteousness" besides obviously being a term of art, could plainly be used by the critic rather than the writer, which was exactly how I meant it; the fact that you assume I meant the writer was righteous (rather than a critic, like yourself, demanding righteousness before they'll credit the writer's argument) demonstrates, yet again, that you approach everything you read with a predetermined opinion, and will try to undermine the writer by exploring his soul ("What's his secret agenda? Is this evidence of his statism? Does he think he's righteous?" In other words, questions about the person, i.e., ad hominem) rather than addressing his argument.

Which you started to to do here. By the way, if you need evidence that the Founding Fathers were talking about the political opinion press rather than objective fact finders, you may want to consider reading any book ever written about the American Revolution. There was no objective press that wrote about politics at that time. And taking a writer's fanciful prose and turning that into a way to "check their facts" (obviously, those workers did commit suicide--but because of the horrendous working conditions forced on them by an employer under immense pressure to keep costs down for American consumers--which is why I linked to the article).

Time and again, you come here only to demand a never-defined standard in order to undermine my integrity and honesty as a thinker and a writer. Time and again, your arguments collapse. Doesn't it get boring, particularly to so repeatedly be bludgeoned with your own faulty arguments?

Let me provide a little case study for you that should demonstrate why your repeated efforts to discredit me bring nothing but yawns. And it comes from this post!

I won't impugn anything about your motives when I point out that you obviously used two different metrics and compared apples and oranges to prove me wrong on literacy. The Census data puts today's US literacy at 99%. (CIA World Factbook). You found a lower number (based on the NAAL definition, which is different than the Census numbers) specifically so you could make it appear as though literacy had declined since the 1930s (a conjecture which is on its face absurd, considering we still had segregated schooling and child labor in the 1930s).

So, you used the Census numbers of the 1930s but the NAAL numbers (which are only two google results down from the census number for "literacy rates in the united states") for the 2000s specifically to fabricate a comparison that would make it look as though I was wrong, when the obvious thing to do would be to compare either solely NAAL numbers or solely Census numbers--which, had you done so, would have not allowed you to contradict me.

I'm sure our readers are rapt by your stern lectures on integrity now.

Ramsin / November 8, 2010 11:47 AM

Ultimately, all of this speaks to a very simple fact: a journalist is a person who will look into a situation to try to understand what is happening. Once they feel they have an understanding, they have a duty to communicate that understanding--that can only be done through argumentation supported by evidence.

It is nonsensical to say that journalists shouldn't advocate for their understanding, because that is literally all anyone can do.

When you engage an argument--and I don't disagree with WAJ that questioning somebody's sources is not an ad hominem fallacy--there are essentially two ways of doing so: you can attack the soundness of an argument ("Your conclusion does not follow from your premises") or the truth-functionality of the premises ("Your argument is sound, but the premises on which you base them are incorrect"). So you can say, "The facts from your source are wrong because they are contradicted by this other more reliable source" but you cannot say, "Your source is not reliable because they have a point of view." That is just a veiled ad hominem because what you are saying is that the person cannot be relied on to tell the truth, i.e., that they are intellectually dishonest.

what a joke / November 8, 2010 1:50 PM

Ramsin, the article that you link to does not include a single word about the reason those workers commited suicide, but you assign "because of the horrendous working conditions forced on them by an employer under immense pressure to keep costs down for American consumers". That is your conjecture. It is in no way an honest account of the article, rather it is your opinion.

Invite anyone you want to go and check it for themselves.

It is interesting that you'll refer to common ethics as a "never-defined standard". Other professional industries seem to handle it fine.
- If a lawyer has a prior relationship with someone or some entity, and then is involved in a case where that relationship may taint the lawyer's thinking, then it is his duty to remove himself.
- If an investment analyst is covering a certain security and he has a holding of the security, it is his duty to inform of the holding.

Does a journalist have the same responsibilities? Apparently not. And as such, in order to be an informed consumer of information, it is necessary to audit the author and the methodology he employs.

So when pressed, you do not have a reference for divining the intentions of men who lived 200 years ago, but rather refer to the entire universe of subject matter as your reference. Any wonder why someone would question methodology?

The reply about illiteracy rates supports my point that the "truth" that a journalist seeks is little more than confirmation of their own understanding of an issue. All of that information is available public knowledge, but you, as the author of the post, chose the most supportive information available (especially when there should be a notation of definition, since there are many records and definitions).

So lets take a look at that definition of a journalist:

The definition of a journalist is a person who will look into a situation to try to understand what is happening. (the good ol' college try?)Once they feel they have an understanding (so they may not have an understanding, but they can self-validate based on their personal feelings), they have a duty to communicate that understanding (so the larger duty is to report rather than understand) --that can only be done through argumentation supported by evidence (but what if their evidence is simply confirmation bias? What argumentation, when all opposing arguments are hastily labelled ad hominem? Even the dreaded and ubiquitous veiled ad hominem?).

Again, this definition invites and necessitates evaluation of the author, his sources and knowledge of the subject matter.


Ramsin / November 8, 2010 2:47 PM

Still not sure why I'm bothering to respond to someone who self-evidently misled to prove a point, but fine, one last go.

I used a basic understanding of the statistics at the time--it wasn't central to my point--but it is obvious that illiteracy was higher then than now. Up to 1940, the median educational attainment of Americans over 25 was 8 years. That was the source for this one tiny element of my broader point.

The thing about Apple is a characterization. If you want to pretend there's a debate to be had as to whether people are dying in brutal working conditions in sweatshops to produce cheap consumer goods here for US markets, go right ahead. I reserve the right to not write according to you fantasy of clipped sentences that never characterize anything for fear that it will not conform to how WAJ would characterize them.

As for the press being widely partisan at the time--this is common scholarly knowledge. The fact that the Sedition Act was written specifically to attack the partisan press, and that Jefferson considered that suppression to be a violation of the protection of a free press is, again, self evidence. But here, read about it: http://law.jrank.org/pages/19040/Sedition-Act-Trials.html

Finally, your twisting of my words is ridiculous. Everybody's understanding of a situation is in every instance subjective. There's no other kind of knowledge. There's no other way to tell a story--and your whining about "objectivity" is just a way to undermine people you disagree with without engaging their argument, because objectivity is impossible.

The only responsibility we have as writers is to not write something we know is false, or which we cannot know is true without sufficient evidence to draw an inference that it is true. The only disclosure we owe is when we are writing about organizations or people in which we have a financial or material interest.

Your rhetorical questions notwithstanding,my definition is sound. If the evidence used is the result of confirmation bias, find evidence that contradicts theirs. Don't call them liars or biased. That is the point; you think by undermining the person (he's biased!) you do away with his argument, but you don't. If there's bias in sourcing or bias in evidence choice, the debate can be settled by offering other evidence.

Meanwhile, pretending you're objective when that is impossible is worse than accepting that all "truth-telling" happens through a subjective lens, and offering argumentation and evidence (rather than attacks on integrity) will be sufficient to defeat those arguments.

The fact that you're defending the method of attacking what's in an author's heart, as though you can read their mind, is mind boggling and I'm uninterested in continuing a debate that has such a twisted premise.

What a joke / November 8, 2010 4:44 PM

"Everybody's understanding of a situation is in every instance subjective. There's no other kind of knowledge. There's no other way to tell a story--and your whining about "objectivity" is just a way to undermine people you disagree with without engaging their argument, because objectivity is impossible."

Interesting to read that statement when you write the following:

"Evolution is a fact--in fact, it's more than a fact. It is a theory built upon literally millions of facts. Believe whatever other thing you want, but denying that evolution took place--maybe not exactly how science now conceives, but that it took place in some way--is absolutely no different than denying gravity. Newtonian physics got the mechanics of gravity wrong, but that didn't make gravity itself wrong. If you think "the jury is out" on evolution, you're not particularly bright, willfully ignorant, or poorly educated (which may not be your fault, but still--probably shouldn't be elected to executive office).

http://www.gapersblock.com/mechanics/2010/10/06/march-of-the-morons/

That is some circular logic you have.

"The thing about Apple is a characterization" Sorry. It is not. The article was about measures that the Chinese gov and businesses are taking, such as increasing wages and adopting new management models.

Likewise, the constitution was written in 1787, the sedition act was 1798. The existence of a "partisan press" in either 1787 or 1798 does not mean that
1.) The only press at that time was devoted to partisan attacks
- please review a colonial newspaper to see the announcements of business, the advertisements of freight shipments, etc...
2.) The founding fathers only wished to protect the "partisan press"
- ever think that part of their reasoning was to protect commercial speech from being controlled by the government?

But alas, you look for the things that confirm your understanding, where your understanding is lacking

Eli Naeher / November 9, 2010 10:12 AM

This is a fantastic summation of the silliness of some of these self-serving journalistic "traditions" that aren't traditions at all. I'm bookmarking this for the next time I have to try to explain this to someone, because I never manage to do it this well.

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