On Native Ground
THE REPORTERT'S DILEMNA: OBJECTIVITY = PASSIVITY
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - It's been two years since I was forcibly removed from daily journalism. Instead of editing a newspaper, I've been working in a bakery.
I'm in exile from daily journalism mostly because of my inability to kiss ass and play office politics, my knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time when it came to career decisions and my desire to stay in New England. But I'm also estranged from the profession I devoted all of my adult life to because I simply can't pretend to be objective any longer.
I've long maintained that objectivity is the biggest crock of all in journalism. We all read, see and hear each day the standard news story formula where Joe Doakes is quoted saying "A," and then John Jones is quoted saying "B," and both positions are presented without context or explanation. This might be considered objective reporting, but is it accurate and fair?
The gaping hole in objectivity is that it creates passivity. You accept the official version of events because that's where the bulk of the news comes from. It's safe and easy. Challenge the official version of events and suddenly you find that no one in a position of authority returns your phone calls.
Anyone who has ever worked in the news business will tell you that self-censorship comes with the job. You learn quickly that there is a certain way to tell a story. There are certain people who you must talk to and others that you avoid whenever possible. There are certain issues that are permissible for discussion and others that are off the table. And the penalty for not going along is career death.
To me, good journalism analyzes, explains and puts events into context. Think of where we were a year ago, when the Bush administration started revving up its campaign to convince America that an immediate preemptive invasion of Iraq was needed and necessary to the security of the nation. Was the American press challenging the accuracy of the claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction? Was it talking about the probability that the invasion's aftermath would be bloodier and costlier than the invasion itself?
The answer, for the most part, was no. The Bush administration's propaganda was dutifully parroted by the American press not because it was forced to by the government. It did so because the reporters knew what would happen to their careers if they didn't go along.
Because the American press is structured to be totally dependent on "official" sources and is totally wedded to the idea of being objective and passive observers to the passing scene, those who are in power end up controlling the news. The failure to report the truth about how the Bush administration was lying the nation into war was just the latest example of how the American press no longer serves the interests of democracy.
A recent study done by the Washington-based Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) provides us with the latest example of an oft-proven fact - the more that you rely on television as your primary source of news, the less likely you are to know what's going on.
PIPA, which studies foreign policy issues, conducted a series of surveys from January to September of this year. It asked nearly 10,000 Americans who receive their news from a single media source to testify to the veracity of these three statements, which PIPA characterized as "egregious misperceptions" about the the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq:
* Saddam Hussein has been directly liked with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America.
* World opinion generally favored the U.S.-led war.
* U.S. forces have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Those folks who read this Website and others like it know that those three statements are false. No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. Gallup polls found large majorities opposed to an invasion of Iraq in most countries. And even the Bush administration (with the notable exception of Vice President Dick Cheney) has had to backtrack from its contention that Saddam Hussein had direct links with al-Qaeda.
But the PIPA study found that 60 percent of all respondents believed in at least one of the statements. There were, however, differences in perceptions depending on the news source. For example, 80 percent of Fox News Channel viewers and 71 percent of CBS News viewers believed in at least one of the statements, while only 23 percent of National Public Radio listeners did.
What was surprising was that the number of people who believed the various misconceptions actually rose over the last three months. In July, 45 percent believed that U.S. forces had found "clear evidence that Hussein was working closely with al-Qaeda." In September, 49 percent believed that statement, even though nothing had changed.
The pattern was similar regarding weapons of mass destruction. The number of those who believed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons were found in Iraq went from 21 percent in July to 24 percent in September. In addition, one in five respondents believed Iraq used chemical or biological weapons during the war - also a false assumption.
Don't feel superior if you got most of your news from newspapers. The survey found 47 percent believed at least one of the misconceptions, a figure that surprised me.
It would be easy to say that Americans are stupid and they get the shallow and passive press that they deserve. But this is simply blaming the victim. If the bulk of what you read in the newspapers or see and hear on the television or the radio is one point of view, repeated over and over again, that is what is going to be believed. The American people weren't fooled about Iraq as much as they were totally misinformed, particularly if you depended on television as your primary source of news. Clearly, mainstream American journalism failed spectacularly in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
So what is journalism supposed to do? To me, it's about being an agent for social change. It's about telling people where their money goes and what decisions are being made in their names. It's about challenging the so-called conventional wisdom and telling truth to power. It's knowing that a reporter can cover a story, dutifully and accurately quote the people involved in it, and write a story that is honest, but not necessarily truthful. Fairness and truth, rather than objectivity, is what matters.
Some would consider the above to be merely a liberal's definition of journalism. But is it liberal to challenge the blather and lies produced by public officials, to be unafraid to be on the opposite side of an issue, to value the importance of, in press critic Ben Bagdikian's words, "telling people in a community what they most need to know to conduct their lives in a meaningful way and be informed citizens?"
To me, journalism that doesn't afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted and affect social change in the process isn't worth a damn. And when reporters are afraid to ask tough questions for fear their careers might be ruined, journalism becomes just another form of public relations.
If thinking this way puts me out of step with the majority of folks that toil in the profession that I gave more than two decades of my life to, I'd just as soon keep baking bread than go back into a newsroom.
Randolph T. Holhut was a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.