Wednesday, October 30, 2013

You Are What You Read

If you read nothing else this week, read this epistolary Op/Ed debate between Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller on the proper role of "unbiased" journalism.  It will make you think, possibly to exhaustion.

Here is one of my favorite excerpts from Greenwald:

A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge (i.e., reporting is reduced to “X says Y” rather than “X says Y and that’s false”).

And Keller:

The thing is, once you have publicly declared your “subjective assumptions and political values,” it’s human nature to want to defend them, and it becomes tempting to omit or minimize facts, or frame the argument, in ways that support your declared viewpoint.  


Sometimes fair play becomes false equivalence, or feels like euphemism. But it’s simplistic to say, for example, unless you use the word “torture” you are failing a test of courage, or covering up evil. Of course, I regard waterboarding as torture. But if a journalist gives me a vivid description of waterboarding, notes the long line of monstrous regimes that have practiced it, and then lays out the legal debate over whether it violates a specific statute or international accord, I don’t care whether he uses the word or not. I’m happy — and fully equipped — to draw my own conclusion.  

I think an important distinction must be made between what Greenwald advocates and intentionally misleading your audience to prove a point.  That's not journalism.  That's propaganda (most identifiable by the amount of pop-up ads that fill your screen before you can read the underlying piece).  Greenwald wants activist journalists who include all of the information they find in pursuit of a core truth.  Some of that information may weigh against their position, and may even be addressed by "rebuttal", but it includes all facts that are relevant to the ultimate point - what is true?

Keller makes a number of equally valid points, but leaves out what I believe to be the most important one - preventing the alienation of the reader.  I am proud that there are readers of this blog who vehemently disagree with me, sometimes as their sole intention, but still come back to read what I have to say.  They may consider it all hogwash, but...they still consider it.  An "activist" journalist must consider whether their pursuit of truth, or consistent ideology underlying that effort, alienates those who are not inclined to agree with them.  If so, their end product, no matter its validity, will be silo'ed within an echo chamber of nodding heads.

The reason I have a hard time agreeing with Keller is I think he promotes a world that no longer exists; a world in which people have some expectation of unbiased news media.  Certainly, we all have that "expectation", but I would be hard pressed to find someone who will say to me, straight-faced, I receive all of my media from an unbiased source.  What I much prefer is a world promoted by Greenwald where diligent, deep-digging, intelligent, respected journalists are valued on the basis of their ability to uncover the "truth" and support it with evidence.  

Even-handed he-said-she-said journalism is lazy, misleading, and harmful to the discussion.  It is a wonder that we don't have articles titled "Round-World Proponents Criticized for Leaked E-mails; Flat-World Possible".  Unfortunately, the redirection of resources away from investigative journalism has almost required this bare bones reporting of "the truth".  It can hardly be faulted.  Both sides of an issue are quoted - "You Decide" - but what equips you to make that decision?  In the absence of facts, you are left with little more than your preexisting biases, prejudices, and assumptions.  It is for exactly this reason that your Facebook feed is full of Editorials.  Not because these writers are particularly good or intelligent, but because they are the only ones promoting complete arguments.  Who wants to share an article that says "This side says they're right.  The other side says they're wrong.  More at 11"?

Most of what is written above can be attributed to my profession.  I believe zealous, fair advocacy is a competent means of reaching the truth.  Is it the best?  No, but it gives power back to the decision-maker.  "Here's what I think is true.  Here's how I got to this decision.  You decide."  That particular nugget of truth may be flawed, but our own receipt of the argument makes us better problem-solvers in our own right.  That may be the highest value of all.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!