The Political Animal

Truth or Objectivity in Journalism

When I find myself agreeing with Glenn Greenwald, I check myself in the mirror. I have done so, and I am happy to report that I’m looking pretty good (just by the way) and that Greenwald is not staring back at me, but in the mirror just over. Yesterday, Greenwald took his customary strong issue, this time with James Rainey at the Los Angeles Times, who wrote,

It’s not often that American television news figures accuse government officials, foreign or domestic, of lying. But CNN’s Anderson Cooper made up for that, big time, this week. He heaped the pejorative on Egypt’s leaders 14 times in a single “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Though the Big Picture knows of no record book for declarations of mendacity, that must have been some sort of new high — at least for mainstream American news. Cooper’s accusations of “lies” and “lying” got so thick on Wednesday’s show that the host seemed to be channeling comic (and now U.S. Sen.) Al Franken’s 2003 book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”

Does one detect some notes of mockery? Yet, said Rainey,

Indeed, it’s hard to find fault with what Cooper had to say, though it did begin to sound a little one-note after about the sixth or seventh “liar, liar.” We got the point a few minutes into the show.

One imagines the Egyptian people found Mubarak a little one-note over the years. It’s always repressive this, repressive that. Lighten up for a change, Mu. Maybe Cooper could have balanced his reporting with accounts of Mubarak’s kindness to his mother. What exactly is the problem? According to Howard Kurtz and Christopher Dickey at CNN’s Reliable Sources:

KURTZ: Chris Dickey, Anderson Cooper repeatedly using the word lies. Now I think most journalists would agree with him, perhaps most Americans would agree with him. But should an anchor and correspondent being taking sides on this kind of story?

DICKEY: I think Anderson sort of — that’s part of the soul of his show is to take sides and be passionate and come across as someone who’s reasonable, but committed to a certain vision of the story.

All this set Greenwald off, on a favorite theme.

Rainey, Kurtz and Dickey all have this exactly backwards.  Identifying lies told by powerful political leaders — and describing them as such — is what good journalists do, by definition.  It’s the crux of adversarial journalism, of a “watchdog” press.  “Objectivity” does not require refraining from pointing out the falsity of government claims.  The opposite is true; objectivity requires that a journalist do exactly that:  treat factually false statements as false.  “Objectivity” is breached not when a journalist calls a lie a “lie,” but when they refuse to do so, when they treat lies told by powerful political officials as though they’re viable, reasonable interpretations of subjective questions.  The very idea that a journalist is engaged in “opinion-making” or is “taking sides” by calling a lie a “lie” is ludicrous; the only “side” such a journalist is taking is with facts, with the truth.   It’s when a journalist fails to identify a false statement as such that they are “taking sides” — they’re siding with those in power by deceitfully depicting their demonstrably false statements as something other than lies.

In all of this, Greenwald is (come on, now, you can do it, Adler: easy, easy, breathe) almost exactly right.

How many times have I talked about this? (I’m asking.) Can it actually be that these guys aren’t reading me? Do Kurtz and Dickey, particularly, need a fundamental lesson in the difference between fact and opinion – that the latter is arguable and the former is not? Of course, we can make claims of (not yet established) fact that are arguable, and thus still forms of opinion, but once such a claim is established as fact by all the customary and rigorous intellectual standards (which still cannot prevent nincompoops from claiming there was no moon landing and that Barak Obama wasn’t born – oh, you know) that claim is no longer a “side,” a “vision of the story.” It is the truth, a particular form of the truth – a fact. Facts are what reporters are supposed to report, which includes distinguishing them from the frauds in dress-up that are masqueraded as fact – that is, lies.

Objectivity does not mean standing neutrally between truth and falsity, between a fact and a fraud. To do so is actually to be intellectually, foolishly complicitous with deception and the crimes that are built on it. That high profile journalists are so completely muddled on this point is (I’m feeling my inner Greenwald) pathetic.

To go further, Greenwald approvingly quotes Marc Cooper, from Rainey.

But it begs a monster question: Is CNN permitted to call only foreign leaders liars? How refreshing it would be to see that same piercing candor directed at American politicians when they overtly lie.

Indeed, (oh, dear – another point of agreement with Greenwald) the Bush administration lied when it called water boarding “enhanced interrogation” and not torture. The New York Times and other news media were complicit in that lie by confusing objectivity with “On the other hand, Mr. Stalin claims….”

Where, then, do I disagree with Greenwald on this? (You gotta allow me something.) Greenwald states, of the act of identifying lies,

It’s the crux of adversarial journalism, of a “watchdog” press.

That may be, but it is not the essential intellectual point here. An adversarial and watchdog press may arise naturally out of the identification of lies, but that lie detecting is an outgrowth of something even more essential, which is the true, rather than the mistaken, nature of objectivity – objectivity the purpose of which is to accurately identify objects, distinguishing each from the other, indentifying them truly, and negating what they are (falsely) not, all with the intent to clarify objective reality and make it known as much as is humanly possible. From that intellectual goal, many human goods flow, including what Greenwald wants to conceive as adversarial journalism. But that term is really a redundancy, because if you’re not distinguishing truth from lies, you’re not doing journalism at all; you’re doing stenography.


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The Political Animal

Apologies: Authentic and Inauthentic

When I first posted about Rick Sanchez at the start of the week, I considered closing with some thoughts about the alternative ways Sanchez could handle the inevitable public statement and apology. I chose not to, but knew anyway that the most likely choice would be the carefully worded, inauthentic utterance of someone coping with a “situation,” with an apology very little if at all for what was done and mostly for how it all turned out. Here is the apology Rick Sanchez released yesterday.

On October 4th, I had a very good conversation with Jon Stewart, and I had the opportunity to apologize for my inartful comments from last week.  I sincerely extend this apology to anyone else whom I may have offended.

As Jon was kind enough to note in his show Monday night, I am very much opposed to hate and intolerance, in any form, and I have frequently spoken out against prejudice. Despite what my tired and mangled words may have implied, they were never intended to suggest any sort of narrow-mindedness and should never have been made.

In the aftermath of these comments, CNN and I have decided to part ways. However, I want to go on record to say that I have nothing but the highest regard for CNN and for my six wonderful years with them.  I appreciate every opportunity that they have given me, and it has been a wonderful experience working for them. I have tremendous respect for everyone there, and I know that they feel the same about me.  There are no hard feelings – just excitement about a new future of opportunities.

I look forward to my next step with great anticipation.  In the meantime, I will continue to promote my book, Conventional Idiocy, in the hopes of broadening the discussion to get a better understanding between all Americans, regardless of race, creed or religion.

Sanchez thought it okay to issue this kind of “apology” because it is the kind of fake representation that we allow people to make in the public sphere without adequately scorning them. You could have laid odds that Sanchez would apologize to those “whom I may have offended” rather than for what he said. Was there anyone who wasn’t offended to some degree or other? What kind of people were they? Does Sanchez think it reasonable that anyone would not have been offended by what he said? Was what he said offensive or was it not? What is his judgment after several days of reflection?

One has to laugh at the artfulness of “inartful.” Is there an artful way to ignorantly stereotype a person and whole classes of people, while being, as well, factually incorrect about many things: Stewart did not grow up the privileged elitist Sanchez portrayed and Jews do not run television news. One could only have hoped that Sanchez would not blow smoke up the social rectum by claiming to feel, at one of the lower moments of his life, “excitement about a new future of opportunities.” One might never have dreamed that he would close his apology by pitching his book.

Rather than reveal himself to be – when he should have been looking most deeply into himself – little more than a surface of media presentation and self-promotion, he might have delivered an apology close to this – a real apology.

On October 4th, I had a very good conversation with Jon Stewart, and I had the opportunity to apologize to him for the comments I made about him last week and the suggestions I made about Jews.  I sincerely apologize to Jon, to the listeners that day, to my viewers, and to everyone.

As Jon was kind enough to note in his show Monday night, I am very much opposed to hate and intolerance, in any form, and I have frequently spoken out against prejudice. The things I said that day were stupid. Jon Stewart is a humorist who poked fun at my foibles as he does those of many others. I was too sensitive, and I allowed myself to be hurt by his humor and to develop a sense of grievance. As a result of my feeling of grievance, I thought stupid things, which led me to say stupid things that are contrary to all of my best instincts. They were inexcusable. I feel embarrassed and ashamed.

The one good thing that comes from an error like the one I made is that it presents an opportunity – the opportunity to do better. I vow to do better, and I hope to demonstrate that in the future.



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Demonstrating Rick Sanchez and Other Things

From Gawker, first indications of Rick Sanchez’s response to events – through his wife.

Rick Sanchez—the CNN anchor who was fired after insinuating that Jews control the media—might be coming out of hiding. According to Sanchez’s wife, he called Daily Show host Jon Stewart (the target of Sanchez’s remarks) to say “sorry.”

In an update on her Facebook wall, Rick’s wife Suzanne writes that the former CNN anchor called Stewart and “they had a good talk” (oh, boy, I’m sure they did). She says Stewart was “gracious” and that he called Sanchez “thin-skinned,” and that Rick “feels horrible” and “deeply apologizes to anyone who was offended”—the first hint of an apology from Sanchez since making the remarks:

via Rick Sanchez Reportedly Called Jon Stewart to Apologize.

As further demonstration of my point yesterday about what one needs to be prepared to live with upon entering public life, here are the first two comments to the post, which I confess I found climatically amusing.

Meanwhile, Gabriel Sherman, in “Chasing Fox,” at New York Magazine, reports on the cable news wars that would have contributed to Sanchez being promoted over his head.

The whole episode continues to highlight in one small, low episode the current sad state of mainstream journalism, and not just the frenzied tabloid competition of the cable  news networks. Fox News online is running an AP story with the headline “Jon Stewart Rips Rick Sanchez in ‘Daily Show’ Monologue.” The headline may be Fox’s, but here is AP:

Stewart gleefully struck back Monday night at the former CNN host who was fired after calling him a bigot.

You can watch Stewart’s segment here. You decide (after I report) whether Stewart’s, of course, comic response poking fun at Sanchez – but actually rather gently so, with a kind suggestion that there is a better Sanchez than the one who vocalized last week – remotely either “rips” Sanchez or strikes back “gleefully.” It is so easy to misrepresent in casually bad reporting, which was, interestingly, a subject of Stewart’s take on events.

Stewart’s very first response to Sanchez’s outburst was in a couple of jokes he made at a charity event on Saturday night. The first advised (in light of his firing) that Sanchez hold onto his money and not make a charitable contribution. Then, referring to Sanchez’s comments on Jewish control of the Media, Stewart offered,

All he has to do is apologize to us, and we’ll hire him back.

As Melissa Bell at blogPost reports of Stewart’s Monday night segment,

Stewart also mocked the rest of the media for their reaction to Stewart’s comments at a Saturday fundraiser for research on autism, at which he suggested that Sanchez not donate to the cause because he ought to keep his money.

News sites responded with headlines like ” ‘Ripped,’ ‘Destroyed‘ — and that was Time magazine!” Stewart said. “Any headline from that event should have read, ‘Comedians raise $3 million for autism while demonstrating incredible self-restraint about Rick Sanchez.’ “

Quite so, but that would have been less sensational. At least Time didn’t headline the story “Why Jon Stewart Doesn’t Care about Peace.”