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Objectivity and Truth: the Case of Bill Keller v. Glenn Greenwald

Objectivity and Truth: the Case of Bill Keller v. Glenn Greenwald

By Dennis Loo (11/3/13)

Over at The New York Times, Bill Keller, former Times’ Executive Editor and currently a Times’ OpEd Columnist, has posted a back and forth discussion between himself and Glenn Greenwald entitled: “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?” The debate raises interesting questions not only about journalism’s past, present, and future, but also larger questions about how we arrive at the truth. The inception of the debate between the two came about because of the pending new media outlet that Greenwald is a central organizer for. Keller argues that Greenwald’s work and this incipient media outlet are not a good thing, on the grounds that the model that The Times represents – “impartial,” “objective” journalism – is better for journalism and for the public interest and that Greenwald’s advocacy journalism injures the pursuit of truth.

Readers should read the entire exchange between them. What I want to focus on here is the relationship between partisanship and truth, or to put it another way, the relationship between “objectivity” and truth. Greenwald rightly points out to Keller - who played a key role while Times’ Executive Editor as a “liberal hawk” in building the case for George W. Bush’s towering war crime of invading Iraq - that Keller’s claims to objectivity and impartiality are undercut by his American nationalism. Keller’s perspective as an advocate for U.S. interests in the world, in other words, makes his impartiality not impartial at all. It makes it instead a case of great power chauvinism. 

I would add to this that the Times’ claims to objectivity rest not on their not taking a stand on political and issues, et al, but on their counterfactual style of reporting. As incisively described and analyzed by Howard Friel and Richard Falk in The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy what The Times does that appears to be objective is to cite both the Republican and the Democratic positions in a “he says/she says” manner. This method does not produce the truth, which is supposedly why you are being "objective" - to find out the truth. It instead provides a constricted framework within which NYT readers are then likely to view public policy issues within: the small space that exists between what the GOP and Democrats disagree in public about. On occasion, all too infrequently, the paper has publicized something that neither the GOP nor the Democrats want the public to know, for example, the revelations of NSA spying in 2005, told by an AT&T whistleblower. They withheld the story, however, for a year. Had they released the story when they had it ready originally to run, in October 2004, just before the 2004 election, Bush's "re-election" would have been even harder to carry out. The story revealed, after all, that Bush et al had been explicitly lying about their interceptions of exclusively domestic phone calls of Americans and feloniously breaking the FISA law that had been put in place after the Watergate scandal to prevent exactly this kind of wiretapping.

In the build-up to the Iraq invasion, Judith Miller’s front page accounts reinforced the Bush Regime’s lies on Iraq in their build-up to war, and when on the eve of the invasion the Times issued an editorial misgiving at the last minute, their overall coverage had already made the case for the invasion. On balance they appear to be impartial because they’ve been talking on both sides of the question.

Furthermore, both sides of the question are not equivalent to citing what the GOP and the Democrats are saying. In every instance, what the Republicans and the Democrats agree on is what is important and their differences and disagreements are generally superficial or at least immaterial. For example, the disagreement between the two major parties in foreign policy can be aptly described this way: do we start bombing now (the GOP position usually) or do we impose sanctions for several months or weeks before we start bombing (the Democrats' usual position)?

Moreover, and most grievously, the Times never once brought up the UN Charter or international law in any news article or in any editorial in the buildup to or in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Had they once stated in their pages that international law rests on the central principle that launching an attack on a country that has not attacked you first and that does not threaten you, WMD or no WMD, is the supreme war crime, then the course of the last ten years would have been very different. More than a million Iraqis and Americans would be alive who were killed because of this supreme war crime by the U.S. government, facilitated by the “liberal” NYT.

Greenwald also correctly points out in their correspondence that it is impossible not to come from some perspective on any question. As journalist Alexander Cockburn pointed out in a talk he gave at my university a number of years ago, the way that mainstream journalists smuggle in their perspective is by deciding who to quote and what to quote from in their stories. Interpretively framing the world is something that all of us, not just journalists, do all of the time. We cannot avoid doing so. We make choices even when we are not aware that we are doing so by the decisions we must make in keeping or discarding material in our storytelling. When students ask me whether I want to know their opinions in their student papers I tell them that they cannot avoid showing me what they think but that I want to hear it via primarily the words and works of the people they are reading, not in the form of “I think that …” This is to train people to take seriously what those they are reading are saying and showing me that they can appropriately use those authors’ works and words in constructing an analytical and insightful paper that is supported by evidence and sophistication of reasoning.

Keller thinks that what Greenwald does is not really so different from the advocacy that Fox News engages in. Fox News, however, infamously calls itself “fair and balanced.” Greenwald does not pretend that he is “fair and balanced” the way that Fox pretends. Imagine if Fox News were to be as honest as Greenwald and declare themselves to be what they are in fact: advocates for the Republican Party?

The way to the truth, if that’s what one wants (not everyone does, some people want that which advances their own interests, truth or not), is to look at all of the evidence and to fairly represent what the different positions are, but one can not ever truly be wholly objective or impartial. What is key is that one is consciously pursuing the truth, rather than what might narrowly serve one’s own personal interests, independent of the truth. If what you see as in your and others’ highest interests as whatever is true, no matter how hard that truth might be, no matter whether or not that truth embarrasses or harms you and yours’ reputations, and irrespective of whether that truth requires that you revise what you’ve been doing or thinking, then truth can be found through the process of the full exchange of views. In other words, the way to the truth isn’t through some kind of counterfactual style that all too narrowly defines what the “two sides” are (there are usually more than two sides to a question in any case) as the Times does it. Nor is it through pretending that wholly objective positions exist, because they do not. But the commitment to the truth is possible and is necessary to the finding of truth.

Fearlessness in the pursuit of truth is what is needed. If you’re truly interested in the truth and in what best serves the public interest, then even if you find out that you have been wrong about something because someone points it out to you in the course of a debate, isn’t that a very good thing to learn? If you learn that you’ve been wrong, then you can correct it. Ego should have nothing to do with the pursuit of truth. Finding out what is true proceeds through a process of discussion and debate since no one individual (or group) is so perfect and so superior in their abilities that they can single-handedly determine the truth absent discussion and debate. Sometimes your most avid opponents, who actually wish you ill, can be the source of exceptionally important pieces of the truth. That is why truth is not a product of who someone is or what their intentions are; truth is true no matter who says it.

Partisanship, overt or covert, cannot be escaped. But one can be a partisan (who can avoid it?) and honor what the facts say. Those who think that they are non-partisan are fooling themselves or trying to fool others. Non-partisanship is not possible, as even the refusing to take a side has the result of siding with those who are in the dominant position. Being a partisan on behalf of the truth is what we need more and more and more of.

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