Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Counterfeit Claims of Objectivity

Worshiping before the false god of utter objectivity. The bitter irony that must some day occur to Mr. Koppel and the others of his time was that their choice to not look too deeply into Iraq, before or after it began, was itself just as evaluative, just as analytically-based, just as subjective as anything I say or do here each night. I may ultimately be judged to have been wrong in what I am doing. Mr. Koppel does not have to wait. The kind of television journalism he eulogizes, failed this country because when truth was needed, all we got were facts—most of which were lies anyway.
Keith Olbermann, November 15, 2010

...objectivity emerged as a way to fend off ominous chaos.
Walter Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation (1993)

There is a widespread notion in American society that the best kind of news source is that which gives the facts and allows each of us “to decide for ourselves.” This mentality places the individual on the throne of analysis, allowing common sense and reason to reign. What we truly need, according to this mindset, is news coverage that “tells the truth” and “presents both sides.” After all, everything has become so partisan on TV and we aren’t sure who to trust. In this schema, both Fox (on the right) and MSNBC (on the left) are simply flip sides of each other, both propaganda tools for each side of the red-versus-blue political divide, both equally biased and skewed (of course, many “sincere” folks who watch either Fox or MSNBC think their channel is unbiased and the other is deeply unfair). This quest for objectivity is both impossible and pointless.

Last week, in the wake of serving a 2-day suspension for donating to a few Democratic party candidates, Keith Olbermann presented a brilliant 12-minute "Special Comment", in response to Ted Koppel’s lamentation over how biased and partisan American news coverage has become. Citing the likes of Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and Koppel himself, Olbermann briefly chronicled how important it had been during the 20th century for news reporters to take sides during the McCarthy debacle of the 50s, Vietnam in the 60s, Watergate in the 70s and the Iran hostage crisis at the dawn of the 80s. These reporters were threatened, bullied and intimidated by network executives, White House officials and political leaders from both parties to stop taking sides and just report the facts. They are heroes of journalism today. Olbermann reports:

These were not glorified stenographers. These were not neutral men. These were men who did in their day what the best of journalists still try to do in this one. Evaluate, analyze, unscramble, assess — put together a coherent picture, or a challenging question — using only the facts as they can best be discerned, plus their own honesty and conscience.

We look back on these courageous voices in recent history as the vital unveilers of truth precisely as they were taking stands (not “fair and balanced” nor “neutral”) on tremendously controversial issues of their day. These sources were reviled and second-guessed by those who did not benefit from their reporting (or simply did not want to believe that their leaders could be so deceptive). Olbermann, then, takes this old-fashioned understanding of news to task:

Insist long enough that the driving principle behind the great journalism of the television era was neutrality and objectivity and not subjective choices and often dangerous evaluations and even commentary and you will eventually leave the door open to pointless worship at the temple of a false god. And once you've got a false god, you're going to get false priests.

I'm not a huge fan of Olbermann, by any means. His tone is too snarky and the way he comes across on screen is too ego-obsessed to sustain my attention for too long. However, this bit of writing is genius. Olbermann is hitting on a vital issue for how we get the news in a postmodern democratic society. News is always filtered, pondered, selected and explained in certain ways to gain market share, to please their audiences. A "just the facts" mantra is silly because all facts are interpreted by those proclaiming them. In short, news stories (like all stories) are always framed in quite intentional ways. In fact, paying particular attention to how stories are framed is probably a more valuable practice for gathering news today than actually "watching" it.

Matt Taibbi, the political blogger for Rolling Stone Magazine, was recently interviewed by Alternet's Maria Armoudian about the contemporary American political and media scene and shared his incisive critique on how political journalism is failing us:

The campaign press are trained to cover politics like a sports story because it’s a successful way to bring eyeballs to television. You present it as an ongoing conflict between these two great parties, red and blue, conservative and liberal, and the rhetoric is more and more heated with each successive electoral cycle. And we present it like a World Wrestling Entertainment smack-down showdown. Even if you watch the actual political shows, they’re even structured exactly like ESPN’s football analysis programs, where you have the anchor guy on one side and there are four commentators, two from each team. That’s the way we do the news; that’s the way we do politics, and we’re not really trained to look at a deeper, more nuanced story.

See. It's not the story, but how it is framed. Americans desperately, conveniently want politics to be just like sports: one team versus another team, one winner, one loser. It's sad, really. We Americans are being formed, more and more, into instant gratification, over-simplified, highly reductionist and dichotomized automatons. We yearn for simplicity and certainty, when hard work, faith, humility and conviction are what is called for. How do we evaluate effective teachers (a highly complex blend of art and science)? Give their students a standardized test at the end of the year and publish the results per teacher in the major daily newspaper with little analysis. How do we measure a President? Give equal time to the "liberal" and the "conservative" answer questions specifically framed by your network of choice. Then you decide. Complex issues. Easy answers.

The problem with the political media in North America is not that news sources have stopped being "objective" or "neutral." It is that they are claiming those labels while framing issues, events & candidates according to the interests that fund each particular news source, and also made decisions based on the kinds of ratings that their kind of framing will generate. And this same debate over objectivity and neutrality has heated up in Christian circles as pastors, theologians and biblical scholars speak it over their interpretive work and appeal to Absolute Truth coming from the inerrant and self-evident Bible. These same Christian leaders dismiss those who offer alternative interpretations as simply reading their own wrong-headed, self-deluded agendas into them. Get it? Only someone's interpretive enemies can possibly be the ones who can't be objective. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, "Those who want absolutes tend to accept authority only if it speaks the absolute claim to which they are already disposed before anything has been said."

In conclusion, my wife would remind me, from the world of family systems psychotherapy, that once people become "fused" with their favorite news anchor, Christian pastor or poltical "worldview" (red state or blue state?), there's virtually no turning back. It becomes quite difficult to "differentiate" between ourselves and the attacks on those we are enmeshed with. Our goal, then, becomes living within the chaos and complexity of life as it actually is, while weighing the viewpoints of various independent media outlets who do not benefit (nor do their listeners/viewers or sponsors) from the claims they are making about each particular event, issue or candidate.

But to be differentiated from the counterfeit American political dialogue means taking an "outside position" which means that we automatically become vastly minority, overlooked or irrelevant. This usually leads to either apathy or cynacism just to cope with the enormity and desperation of the situation. But the vocation of spiritual progressives, those of us longing for truth, peace & justice in a world mostly dried up of that trifecta, is to "stay connected" to the conversation while boldly offering a "third way."

Differentiation--socially, political or theologically--is for the strong (confession: sometimes, I feel too weak to take this position). As the author of Hebrews wrote (quoting Isaiah) to bold followers of the Crucified One (the scandal!) in a long-awaited-yet-surprising new age: "Lift your weak hands and strengthen your feeble knees." May we lift our weak hands to grab the remote and turn off the noisy, false framing of what is fair & balanced and walk boldly to the beat of a different drum.

Epilogue: On a related topic, I would like to address the common held belief that “MSNBC is just a liberal version of Fox.” This assertion makes it sound like both sides are equally partisan or unhelpful as far as news sources go. Although (as I mentioned above) I do believe both sides have very similar tones (intonation, hyperbole, emotional hype, etc), I do not think that they are doing the same kind of work. Fox News is something, mark my words, that we’ll be studying in history books decades down the line (OK, maybe not history books from the Texas Board of Education). It is a train wreck waiting to happen, but right now the train is gathering millions and millions of loyal viewers while paying their celebrity hosts millions and millions of dollars. As of now, Fox outpays and outplays MSNBC. It would be like comparing the Yankees to the Royals (almost 3x the number of viewers watch O'Reilly compared to Olbermann--that's not a rivalry, that's an ass-kicking).

Meanwhile, fact check websites like Media Matters are dedicating more and more space, energy and time to watching Fox News so you and I don’t have to. Media Matters consistently researches claims that Fox makes on the air and footnotes how far they come from the truth, in addition to Fox’s nightly name-calling (“socialist”) and sloganeering (“Obamacare”). Of course, many on the right simply schlep off Media Matters as yet another media outlet with “liberal” bias, but again, that does a great disservice to the kind of work Media Matters is doing to recover truth (while uncovering a sham). Olbermann addressed this issue in his special comment last week:

More over, while Fox may be such, we are not doctrinaire. I cannot prove it, so I'll estimate it here and if I'm proved wrong I'll happily correct it: but my intuition tells me I criticized President Obama more in the last week than Fox's prime-time hosts criticized President Bush in eight years.

What would it take to research Olbermann’s claims? I wonder if Media Matters or one of the other fact check sites will take up that challenge. It would be interesting to see how many times, in fact, Fox commentators criticized Bush policy over his 8 years in office. Of course, once the research is done, I have a sneaky suspicion that Fox viewers will simply mutter something like, “Well, Obama has done a lot more harm to our country than Bush ever dreamed of doing.” Olbermann sidenoted, during his Special Comment, that it is MSNBC's practice, when it comes to their attention that they get facts wrong, to correct themselves on air. It has been my observation, over and over, that Fox news anchors respond to contested fact claims by berating those who make them ("they are just 'liberal'".)

The point I want to emphasize is that Fox is in a league of its own in regard to how they present "the news." Their partisan bent is unparalleled. It is their (very effective) marketing strategy: as the US continues to shift to the right, they turn to Fox to have all their assumptions and intuitions about the world, however false or exaggerated, supported and magnified. And all the while, she calls herself "fair and balanced."

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