Sunday, 4 July 2010

Journalism: if only ......

Knowledge precedes understanding. Therefore to be adequately informed, and protected against the denialism-virus, we need good reporting. The principal problem with journalists today is they feel that presenting a story objectively means you do not check the facts, you only have to tell both sides: i.e. be fair and balanced. What this means is shown by Glenn Greenwald in the latest incarnation of the neutrality-virus. Harvard published a study which:
examines how waterboarding has been discussed by America's four largest newspapers over the past 100 years, and finds that the technique, almost invariably, was unequivocally referred to as "torture" -- until the U.S. Government began openly using it and insisting that it was not torture, at which time these newspapers obediently ceased describing it that way
Just like any guilty person the accused advanced an utterly unconvincing defence to which Greenwald responds:
The New York Times issued a statement justifying this behavior on the ground that it did not want to take sides in the debate.  Andrew Sullivan, Greg Sargent and Adam Serwer all pointed out that "taking a side" is precisely what the NYT did:  by dutifully complying with the Bush script and ceasing to use the term (replacing it with cleansing euphemisms), it endorsed the demonstrably false proposition that waterboarding was something other than torture. 
 To continue with:
Worse, to justify his paper's conduct, Keller [the executive editor of The Times] adds "that defenders of the practice of water-boarding, 'including senior officials of the Bush administration,' insisted that it did not constitute torture."
Then there is:
Cameron Barr, National Security Editor of The Washington Post, which also ceased using "torture" on command:  "After the use of the term 'torture' became contentious, we decided that we wouldn’t use it in our voice to describe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration." 
Greenwald rhetorically asks:
Could you imagine going into "journalism" with this cowardly attitude:  once an issue becomes "contentious" and one side begins contesting facts, I'm staying out of it, even if it means abandoning what we've recognized as fact for decades.  And note how even today, in an interview rather than an article, Barr continues to use the government-subservient euphemism:  "waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration."  Just contemplate what it means, as Keller and Barr openly admit, that our government officials have veto power over the language which our "independent media" uses to describe what they do.
Such subservient behaviour I find disturbing. Is a journalist not supposed to do the exact opposite? He predictably notes the prescient words of George Orwell. The same Bill Keller is mentioned by Marcy Wheeler, and she illustrates Keller's hypocrisy by citing his contradictory behaviour as a reporter:
NYT reporter Bill Keller has a long history of referring to torture as torture without bowing to the spin of the governments who use it.
Unfortunately this misleading way of informing the public is not limited to politics. Mike the Mad Biologist writes about science journalists that are convinced one should present "opposing views," and how Ivan Oranski observed -commenting on a tweet by Maggie Koerth-Baker, a freelance science journalist in Minneapolis:
I never tell my students to get "opposing viewpoint" but to get outside perspective -- one that may agree with the study or the main idea being put forward by a source.
Anyone interested in factually and accurately reporting a story, or is political correctness more important? When do we demand the return of actual journalism in stead of the current "it's not our job to comment on the veracity of a story, we only report"-doctrine?

Update: Following the above exchange Glenn notes an AP story which explicitly states that China is guilty of torture. He posits:
Given the standards of Good Journalism prevailing in the U.S. media, as taught to us just this weekend by high-level executives at the NYT and The Washington Post (and previously at NPR):  what right does AP have to "take sides" in this dispute by substituting its own judgment about "torture" for the Chinese Government's?  Beyond that, given that the U.S. Government has officially adopted a definition of "torture" that plainly does not include a few cigarette stubs on an arm, shouldn't that preclude any Good Journalist from using the term in this subjective and biased way?  I hope AP will be apologizing to the Chinese shortly for its act of journalistic irresponsibility.  It's not the role of journalists to take sides this way.
Not only the Chinese "torture:"
As lysias notes in comments, the North Vietnamese have emphatically denied that the techniques they used on John McCain constituted "torture."
His post ends with an odd update:
Strangely, at some point after I wrote this, the above-linked AP article was re-written so as to edit out the word "torture" in the two places that word appeared to describe what the Chinese did (though the original language can still be seen in this old version of the AP article).  Perhaps, as recommended here, AP took to heart the Bill-Keller/WashPost/ NPR standard -- if a Government denies it did X, then a Good Journalist does not say that it did X -- and edited its article accordingly.
What any really Serious and Unbiased Journalist understands is that if somebody says the earth is flat it is inherently unprofessional to point out that this is a fringe and refuted position. To illustrate the double standard in the MSM Greenwald wrote another post:
Journalists like to claim that they are devoted to transparency, but it's always striking how so many of them exempt themselves and their own media outlets from those "principles."
The sudden refusal to call torture torture leads Marcy Wheeler to speculate whether this enabled public support for the use of it by the US administration.

Update II: Come to think of it, whenever the press engage in doublespeak, in order to manipulate their audience into accepting the official government position, normal people call that propaganda. In my definition of journalism there is no mention of the use of propaganda. Heck, my idea of a journalist is an individual fighting to let the light in where government officials work 24/7 to keep those illegal activities in the dark.

Update III: As if the media want to illustrate the point we now have the highly hypocritical reaction to a tweet by Octavia Nasr. Both Glenn and Eric Martin give an extensive analysis of the incident to show us how Serious and Unbiased Journalists are supposed to work.  

Update IV: Another example by Glenn.

Update V: The inadequacy of science journalist Nicholas Wade is shown by Larry Moran. While Andrew Bolt is challenged by Watching the Deniers to retract his statements attacking scientists.

Update VI: Quite illustrative is this example of a Serious and Unbiassed reporter.

Update VII: Nice article on modern day "fact-checking" by The New York Times concludes:
In short, fact-checking has assumed radically new forms in the past 15 years. Only fact-checkers from legacy media probably miss the quaint old procedures. But if the Web has changed what qualifies as fact-checking, has it also changed what qualifies as a fact? I suspect that facts on the Web are now more rhetorical devices than identifiable objects. But I can’t verify that.
Update VIII: In case you missed the point I am making here is a brilliant parody by Martin Robbins.

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