Hedges on "objective" journalism

Chris Hedges on Alex S. Jones’ ‘Losing the News’
Posted on Aug 13, 2009
By Chris Hedges
I have spent most of my life locked in the embrace of two of the most sanctimonious institutions in America—the church and the press. They each bow down before their self-created holy creeds, never tire of trumpeting their supposed virtues, which they hold up as the highest good, and are blind to their glaring inadequacies and mounting irrelevance. They are also, in a time of seismic cultural change, dying.
Alex S. Jones, in his new book “Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy,” is a believer. Jones, a former reporter for The New York Times and the author, along with Susan E. Tifft, of “The Trust: The Powerful and Private Family Behind The New York Times,” defends the traditional press and castigates those who fail to acknowledge its contribution to our open society, its high ethical standards and the work and skill that go into producing the news. Jones believes that newspapers are the best guardians of what he calls the “news of verification” as opposed to what he calls the “news of assertion.” The “news of assertion,” he writes, “is mostly on display these days in prime time on cable news channels and in blogs.”
The technology of the Internet, like the earlier technologies of radio and television, is a phantom. It is a convenient and simplistic way to explain a cultural shift. To limit a discussion of news to technology, as Jones often does, means we simply have to find a way to plug the old bolt of newsprint and traditional reporting into the new machine of the Internet. But what is happening is far more revolutionary. We are entering an age in which the electronic image, endowed with the ability to manufacture its own reality, has thrust us into a state of collective self-delusion. We are embarking on a frightening, post-literate world where we confuse how we are made to feel with knowledge. The death of newsprint is intimately tied to this shifting landscape, including the parallel decline of the publishing industry. And the solution is not to cling to the outdated ethic of newspaper reporting but to adjust this ethic to confront a new cultural landscape.
“Traditional journalists have long believed that this form of fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy and that without enough of the healthy nourishment, democracy will weaken, sicken, or even fail,” he writes. Jones concedes that “newspapers that sought to retain readers by investing in their newsrooms have not been able to show that this strategy pays off with a surge in circulation. The argument that quality will keep readers is not one that can easily be demonstrated.” He excoriates the corporate overlords of most newspaper chains for placing profit over content and pleads for a return to the ethic of news as a public trust.
The newspaper elites, like all dying elites, have built ideological and physical monuments to themselves—look at the new $600 million New York Times headquarters—in the same way the pharaohs decided to construct massive pyramids to their own immortality at the very moment Egyptian civilization fell into irrevocable decline. These elites celebrate a past greatness and era of moral probity that never really existed. Those running newspapers remain blind to their own systemic flaws, which saw them serve as propagandists for the invasion of Iraq and consistent apologists for the criminal class on Wall Street. They have proved unable to adjust to a changing landscape and have become objects of ridicule, as “The Daily Show” illustrated when it visited the offices of The New York Times.
Objectivity, the sacred creed that Jones and the old elite hold up as the highest good, has as often been used to blunt truth as disseminate it. The creed of objectivity, as Jones points out, “sprang mostly from the commercial interests of newspaper moguls in the 19th century, who wanted to sell papers to as many people as possible.” Objectivity worked as long as there were two clear, discernible sides, but this bifurcation of reality is in fact quite rare. Reality never quite lends itself to this simplicity. The creed of objectivity, which treats human reality the way the scales of justice treat a court case, has often stymied reporting, especially about the oppressed. It elevates the oppressors and the oppressed to the same moral level and obscures the truth. This pleases the power elite and mollifies the corporate advertisers but frequently does little for journalism.
The New York Times’ commitment to “objective” journalism, for example, clouded the reality of the lynching of blacks in the South. Read these stories now and you shudder at their mendacity and heartlessness. More than 4,000 African-American men and women were hanged, shot, mutilated, burned alive or killed in other horrible ways by white mobs between 1880 and 1947. And the articles, while they report the lynching, also report what historians have now found to be lies: that these black men raped white women. The Times in an editorial in 1894 decried those who take the law into their own hands. However, the paper wrote, “the crime for which Negroes have frequently been lynched [rape], and occasionally been put to death with frightful tortures, is a crime to which Negroes are particularly prone.” The paper proposed that the states do the hanging legally. Balance becomes, in moments like these, repugnant.
The best journalists in the South were not those who sought balance but those who wrote for the abolitionist papers. “Being caught in the south with an abolitionist paper in the 1830s,” as Jones notes, “much less publishing one, was a crime punishable the first time by imprisonment or the lash. A second offense usually meant death. In 1837, a mob in Alton, Illinois—just across the river from St. Louis—murdered the editor of the St. Louis Observer, an abolitionist newspaper.” This is the spirit, shunned by the corporate managers of large newspapers and rejected by “objective” journalists, that we will have to recapture if journalism is to endure. It is the spirit, in an age of precipitous cultural and political decline, of open and direct confrontation, one embodied by the greatest reporters, such as I.F. Stone, who spent most of his career as a pariah because he exhibited the moral autonomy most mainstream reporters lacked. If we champion moral autonomy rather than the dead creed of objective journalism, we may save the press. This requires replacing the managers of most newspapers with people who have not been poisoned by journalism schools and rigid newspaper stylebooks. It requires an open commitment to reform and justice that defies the corporate state.
The New York Times’ coverage of the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza earlier this year is the modern equivalent of the paper’s reporting on lynching. A Feb. 3, 2009, article titled “Story of the Gaza war, told by a village,” by reporters Ethan Bronner and Sabrina Tavernise, uses the same faux objectivity to obscure truth. Nearly every other paragraph—and to be fair to Bronner and Tavernise the foreign desk probably demanded this—offers the official Israeli version of the attack. Never mind that the Israeli spokesman was not in the village of El Ataba. This objective style, the heart of modern newspaper reporting, neutralizes the eyewitness testimony. It permits the paper to include sentences such as “The war in Atatra tells the story of Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza, with each side giving very different versions. Palestinians describe Israel’s military actions as a massacre and Israelis attribute civilian casualties to a Hamas policy of hiding behind its people.” Believe what you want to believe. Palestinians simply become the new “Negroes.” Or look at the coverage about health care. Reporting should begin with the factual understanding that our for-profit health care system is the problem. It should begin with the understanding that when it is destroyed we can debate real alternatives. But objectivity ensures that health insurance corporations, which quite literally profit from human suffering and death and which reward and promote employees for denying costly coverage to people who are ill, have the power and clout to shape how we perceive the debate. And years from now when readers look back on articles about the suffering of the Palestinians or those denied health care, if there are any people left who read, they will be as disgusted as we are with the paper’s “objective” accounts about lynching.
News organizations are flooded with statistics and facts released by the government and corporations that purport to be objective. These facts often determine what gets written and how we report about daily events. But these statistics and facts—such as The New York Times saying in a recent news story that only 10 percent of Americans do not have health care—are partial truths. They let readers draw conclusions that are often false. The absurd preoccupation with the stock market and the housing market as reliable guides for growth and our living standards is a partial truth. The rise in stock and home values, at least before the current downturn, was not a lie, but the idea that rising stock prices meant rising prosperity was a lie. It is one of the reasons news organizations were as clueless about the looming economic meltdown as they were about the effects of occupying Iraq. The “objective” standards by which they measure society are often useless. Their approach allows them to report accurate details—often fed to them by public relations firms that work for corporate or political interests—but give a misleading picture of the whole. Truth becomes, through objectivity, the principal vehicle of falsehood. And the traditional press, which as Jones points out adopted “objectivity” not to raise journalism to a higher plane but to increase its profits, is clinging to a flawed system of reporting as corporations, which they had sought to placate, walk away from newsprint.
Papers, at least the ones that did not openly battle for greater justice, initially became very profitable. They did some great reporting although they also filled their pages with a lot of junk. They worked hard to appeal to the elite, and this meant fleeing from confrontations that could alienate the established structures of power.
“The public relations industry was born and has boomed,” Jones writes, “in a world of ostensibly objective journalism. The main purpose of PR is to place information favorable to a client in a context of news so that it has more credibility with the public than the same message might have if it were presented in the form of a paid advertisement or from a clearly self-interested source.”
These papers could be an important corrective force in our democracy and could give an important platform to investigative reports. But objectivity hurt as much as it helped. It usually denied a clear and strong voice to the oppressed and obscured important truths. Jones concedes, in a rather chilling aside, that his family newspaper in Greeneville, Tenn., opposed the civil rights movement. This is not a small admission. It lies at the heart of the weakness of the traditional press. And a black resident of Greeneville who grew up during segregation might not share Jones’ nostalgic view of the paper.
There was a Faustian bargain accepted by newspaper owners that allowed them, for a time, to make good money. This bargain turned reporters into members of the middle class. It made these publishers rich. But this era is over and the ethic that sustained it must be demolished if the press is to recover its thunder and importance in American society.
Corporations no longer need newspapers to disseminate their propaganda. The corporations are slashing their advertising and have plunged newspapers into crisis. The huge profit margins of newspapers, once over 20 percent, have given way to steady quarterly declines and losses. The managerial elite of newspapers have proved morally and intellectually bankrupt. They cloyingly plead with the power elite to save them rather than turn and chart a new course. Katharine Weymouth, the publisher of The Washington Post, recently planned to sell pricey tickets to lobbyists and corporate overlords that would allow them to dine with her and some of her key reporters at salons in her home. She was doing what all publishers are doing, appealing to the elite for salvation. Her proposed salons, when they became public, were canceled, but she no doubt will find other ways to reach out to the powerful and rich. This route means inevitable extinction. If Weymouth, rather than inviting the heads of the for-profit health care industry and other executives to intimate dinners, unleashed her reporters on that industry and allowed them to report bluntly on it, she would begin to restore the diminished stature of the press. But this kind of courage comes with a financial cost that Weymouth and other publishers appear unwilling to accept.
It is by shattering the creed of objectivity, by standing unapologetically in the swelling ranks of the poor and powerless and challenging corporate power, that journalism will survive. This does not mean that the press should become apologists for the oppressed, who have as many failings as any other class of human beings, or not report honestly. But it does mean that we should rediscover who it is we are speaking for and what we are trying to do. It means that the press should become openly confrontational with the power elite. This journalism will never bring in huge revenues. It, by its nature, makes corporations and those in power uncomfortable and angry. But it is the only journalism, discounting the celebrity gossip and trivia that masquerade as journalism, that will survive.
The great city newspapers will probably vanish. I will miss them as much as Jones will. The loss of these papers will, as Jones fears, leave huge holes in our public knowledge and weaken our democracy. Reporters will suffer financially. They will struggle without health insurance. They will be unable to send their children to elite colleges. Their home mortgages will be foreclosed. Few young reporters will be able to afford journalism school. Journalists will no longer be members of the professional class. They will write out of this experience with a clarity that may not be “objective” but will be compelling, real, vibrant and far more truthful.
“My nightmare scenario is one of bankrupt newspapers, news by press release that is thinly disguised advocacy, scattered and ineffectual bands of former journalists and sincere amateurs whose work is left in obscurity,” Jones writes, “and a small cadre of high-priced newsletters that serve as an intelligence service of the rich and powerful.”
But I like to think of the decline differently. I like to think that those reporters from older eras who knew that slavery and segregation were evil, who hated the baton-wielding goons hired to beat striking workers, who reported on inhuman conditions from the mills, factories and mines of the robber barons, who believed that elevating the oppressors to the same moral level as the oppressed was indefensible, will be resurrected as a new generation. Reporters, real reporters, will continue to report even as newspapers die and the airwaves are dominated by trash. Their voices may be marginal amid the din of celebrity culture and spectacle. It will not be easy. But a reporter is a personality type. Reporters are curious, brave and wired with an innate need to be heard. And while they may not be the dominant voices in our degraded culture, they will persist—long after Weymouth and most other publishers have become pathetic footnotes—to rescue our trade from oblivion.
A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion. Editor, Robert Scheer. Publisher, Zuade Kaufman.