Objectivity in Journalism: Real and Imaginary

by | Apr 9, 2003

New York Sun television critic David Blum weighs in with this confused piece on Peter Arnett’s firing: This has been a dark week in the history of American television–and all because of a warp-speed rush to judgment by a network more concerned with supporting its country’s war effort than backing the constitutional principles our soldiers […]

New York Sun television critic David Blum weighs in with this confused piece on Peter Arnett’s firing:

This has been a dark week in the history of American television–and all because of a warp-speed rush to judgment by a network more concerned with supporting its country’s war effort than backing the constitutional principles our soldiers are fighting to defend. [New York Sun, 4/4/03]

Blum seems to think that Arnett’s First Amendment rights have been violated. But the First Amendment doesn’t require that anyone support anyone else’s speech; in fact, it guarantees the right to boycott. The First Amendment guarantees NBC’s right to fire Arnett. He has a right to say what he wants, and they have a right to fire him if they don’t like it (unless there’s something to the contrary in his contract). The termination of a voluntary relationship is not force, and does not violate anyone’s freedom. Just how confused Blum is comes a bit later:

There’s no question that as Mr. Arnett’s employer, NBC had the legal authority to cut him loose for any reason–including the exercise of his right to free speech.

They had the legal authority because firing him doesn’t violate the First Amendment. Blum’s has already undercut his opening sentence. But now Blum shifts gears:

[B]y firing Mr. Arnett in a public humiliation for all to see, NBC has set a chilling precedent that will surely silence any reporter who dares to differ with American foreign policy.

But Arnett wasn’t fired for disagreeing with American foreign policy. He was fired for going on Iraqi TV and announcing that his reporting was a tool of antiwar propaganda.

Sadly, it may now be years–not days, or weeks, or months–before we see in the current Gulf War the kind of skeptical on-air journalism that distinguished the careers of men like Walter Cronkite and Morley Safer when they questioned American involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Gee, wasn’t it Walter Cronkite who suggested the other day that Arnett might have committed an act of treason?

Of course there’s a difference between expressing one’s opinion on “Meet the Press” and on Iraqi television–but aren’t we who watch wall-to-wall American TV coverage consuming just a different form of propaganda?

Let me get this straight: If a reporter goes undercover in a drug gang and broadcasts his sympathy with the gang while riding along in a drive-by shooting, the law shouldn’t consider him an accomplice? Isn’t there maybe a difference from the case of a reporter who–however irresponsibly–broadcasts his sympathy with gang members but doesn’t go along for the ride?

But look deeper: Blum’s premise here is that if you have a point of view, you can’t be objective. That’s just plain false. But what other basis does he have for accusing American TV coverage of being propaganda? Does he point out any facts that it has misrepresented, or logical errors that it has committed? No, he doesn’t actually mention any way in which it is distorting the facts, unless by “distorted” you mean a presentation that leads the viewer to a certain conclusion. But facts lead to conclusions. Just because one doesn’t want to accept those conclusions doesn’t make the facts wrong or the presentation nonobjective: rather, the person who resists the logical conclusion is the one who lacks objectivity.

A day hasn’t gone by when I haven’t heard at least one TV journalist refer to American forces in Iraq as “we” and the Iraqi military as “they.”

But the American forces are “we,” and the Iraqis are “they”; it would be nonobjective to pretend otherwise. If Peter Arnett or David Blum want to call the Iraqis “we,” they are perfectly free to renounce their American citizenship and become Iraqis. Or, if they prefer neutrality, there are plenty of European news agencies they could work for. But the idea that a journalist is being nonobjective simply because he has a position on the war is just plain false.

But David Blum isn’t in favor of objectivity–his reference to it is merely an ad hominem: “You say that Peter Arnett was spewing propaganda but you’re no better.” In other words, facts and logic have no place; there’s just a bunch of “competing voices” who should all be left “free” to speak–where “free” means that one need not form one’s opinions according to facts and logic or face the consequences if one doesn’t. This is welfare for pundits: the granting of an undeserved respect and an unearned platform.

Chip Joyce had a useful item on this over at About the War:

The issue of objectivity pertains to how we properly deal with information that is presented to us. It is not, as is commonly held, an issue of “dealing with facts,” as the Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it. For objectivity is the means of ascertaining what is factual and what is not; without objectivity facts are unknowable. Without objectivity one cannot distinguish one’s personal desires or prejudice from reality.

Objectivity needs a method to integrate new information with existing knowledge. Until new information can be incorporated into what one already knows, it is useless. When confronted with new information one must effectively ask oneself, “How does this add to my understanding of reality?” That information must be interpreted by, and tested against, what one already knows….

[W]hen a reporter is embedded with US troops and witnesses the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s military forces, he or she has obtained new information. If this reporter is committed as a matter of principle to objectivity, he or she has by now a lot of knowledge pertaining to what was witnessed….

The reporter needn’t, and shouldn’t, constantly be a cheer-leader for America in this case. They needn’t say “it was a great achievement for freedom-loving people,” but that fact should prevent them from reporting a falsehood. For example, because of their knowledge, they should not report the “other side” with equal credibility, e.g., “the Iraqis, on the other hand, consider themselves victims of imperialist aggression.” The sum of knowledge the reporter possesses (or should possess) disproves the Iraqi claim and should be presented as being false.

Reporters who present “both sides” equally are not thinking objectively, or at least they are not communicating objective knowledge. Objectivity requires an integration with all knowledge one possesses and not merely the unintegrated information at hand. Reporters who report “both sides” equally are shirking their responsibility to report facts, i.e., a cognitive conclusion. [About the War, 3/31/03]

Or to put it a bit differently: An objective report gives the audience all the information needed to draw a valid conclusion. An objective report might include the latest bombastic fiction from the Iraqi Information Ministry, because an informed audience will want to know what the Iraqis are saying. But to give the Iraqi claims a weight equal to those of the Americans is decidedly non-objective, precisely because it’s the reporter’s job to evaluate the quality of information and the veracity of his sources, and to present the information behind those judgments as well. An objective report presents the Iraqi minister, and then shows all the evidence that his claims are false. At that point, it’s perfectly objective for the reporter to draw the conclusion that the Iraqi minister is lying, because such a conclusion is warranted by the evidence. Being objective means recognizing that not everybody’s point of view is equally valid or deserves equal respect.

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Paul Blair is former editor of The Intellectual Activist.

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