Objectivity and Its Blinders

In the premier issue of Bookmark, a new publication for supporters of the New York Public Library, is the excerpted transcript of a panel discussion held May 1 at the library. The participants were Dexter Filkins, a former New York Times correspondent in Baghdad, George Packer of The New Yorker, Dana Priest of The Washington Post along with moderator Alex Jones, a former journalist who now teaches at Harvard. The panel was called “Covering Foreign Conflict and the Military over 20 Tumultuous Years.”

It is disturbing reading.

If these luminaries of journalism still do not understand what has gone wrong with their profession, my recent optimism that journalism had turned the corner, that it might finally manage to recover from its malaise, may be misplaced.

Priest, for example, speaks of the Walter Reed story exposing the problems in care for veterans at what should be the nation’s model facility. After a briefing by the commander of the hospital, he told her he understood she was not being invited to a Pentagon news conference on the topic, “preemptive of a story that had not yet been published.” This, she said, “broke all of our rules. The reporters [who did attend] were so angry at this that they actually held off for a day.”

Expecting the government to obey press “rules” is as naïve as thinking that the administration is not going to fight to protect its image—even when it has been caught in a compromising position. If Priest ever expected that stories needn’t “be done around official obstacles,” she is either stupid (which she is not) or reflecting the press assumption (one that held up through the invasion of Iraq) that it could and was working with the government. That the two were, in the final analysis, on the same side. That she can still hold onto this belief—or even think it is something new for administrations to try to blunt the press—shows that she, at least, still does not understand the failure of the Washington press corps that began during the Reagan administration and continues to this day.

Priest is not the only one on the panel mired in a view of her profession long proved false. Moderator Jones asked a question of Packer that included this: “Have you been able to get closer to the truth, do you think, in Iraq, than reporters writing under the constraints of objective journalism…?”

Alex Jones, I have always respected you, but “constraints of objective journalism”? Do you have any idea what you are saying? If something is constrained, it cannot be objective, for it must (by definition) be pressured or must leave something out. Furthermore, you are making a distinction between “objectivity” and “truth.” What? If you are saying that there really can be something closer to truth than objectivity, then objectivity is meaningless. Or, if not meaningless, is worthless as a goal.

Packer, in trying to be polite, at one point excepts “those at this table” from responsibility for the “atrophy” of journalism. And this, of course, is part of the problem: even when they recognize that things have gone wrong, too many journalists point their fingers at others, ever accepting the blame that rests with them as much as with any others. Like an alcoholic who claims simply to be a heavy drinker, that it’s the others who are alcoholics, journalists will never manage to overcome their problems without first recognizing, each one, that they carry the sickness, too.

Filkins, in relating a car-bombing incident in Baghdad, was shocked that the people at the scene turned upon him and the others of the press: “They were blaming the Americans, and they don’t make any distinction between soldiers and press and diplomats—we’re all part of this same giant thing.” Firkins calls blaming Americans for the car bombings “crazy,” the accusers not understanding that it is opponents of the United States actually constructing and triggering the bombs. Yet the Iraqis who turned on him do have a point, one that he should have understood long ago: the American media is part of the monolith. Even the picture of Filkins on the page with his comment above demonstrates it: Filkins is surrounded by American soldiers. He, and other members of the press, may convince themselves that they are not part of “this same giant thing,” but that is not really the case—certainly not from the perspective of Iraqis, who see press, military, and diplomats all going places where they are not allowed, all fraternizing and talking as pals, all traveling together in their armored vehicles. Furthermore, the Iraqis know that there would be no suicide bombers had the Americans not invaded. They are right to put some responsibility for those bombings on the Americans—right, at least, from their point of view.

Filkins goes on to say that the answer to the question of whether the press has done its job in Iraq is “yes, even with all the constraints. I don’t think there’s any fundamental reality that we’re not reporting there.” Yet, quite clearly, he does not comprehend the reality of Iraq at all—from an Iraqi point of view. He just thinks, to repeat his word, that their view is “crazy.”

Packer jumps in after Filkins, saying:

Back in that day [of David Halberstam], there was some sense of objective truth as a discoverable thing. Now, it’s as if that entire concept is in jeopardy, because what we have are some networks that have their truth and others that have their truth. We have blogs that have their truth. Everyone has their own private truth in their own private blogging world. And is there a sort of area that all of his as citizens can agree on is the body of fact that we then have to make up our minds about? That seems to be shrinking and constantly in contention.”

Where to start?

“Private blogging world”? Maybe with that. A blog, Mr. Packer, is not private; its very raison d’etre is the reaching beyond privacy, to community. It is an attempt to recreate the public sphere that has been squeezed almost into non-existence by a journalism profession that tried to take command of our discussions. Rather than creating private worlds, blogs are an attempt to expand the “real” world in a way that allows for anyone to once again participate substantially in the public debate.

You are wrong, Mr. Packer, to concentrate on “truth” and to bemoan the loss of a common vision of truth. Look instead to the lack of a real public sphere, a place where people can debate and compromise (something that commentators in the journalism world cannot do—for they are paid to contend, not to compromise), a place where truth is less important than solution.

If that can be reestablished, “truth” will follow.

In other words, it is not a body of agreed-upon truth that we should be seeking, but a place for discussion of how we, as a group (as any group), should act. This is what the public sphere once was, and what the blogs are trying to build again.

The last excerpt in the article comes from Priest, and it once more shows that old journalistic pride in wearing blinders, of not seeing that there is something seriously wrong with what they are doing:

I would answer the question “What else can we do?” by saying we should never do anything else. We should just do reporting.

That completely begs the question, Ms. Priest, and leaves you and your profession in the same malaise that has been dragging it down for a generation.

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