Culture Clash The Political Animal

Zero Dark Art vs Journalism


Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

There is a quite extraordinary article on Huffington Post today by G. Roger Denson. It addresses the controversy over director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal‘s film Zero Dark Thirty and the matter of torture. It is somewhat extraordinary for its length, by HufPo standards, but truly for for the quality of its perceptions and the depth, rigor, and range of its arguments. It raises time-honored issues about the nature and role of art, particularly, explicitly and implicitly, in relation to what I shorthand here partly as journalism, but which I use also to stand in for all the avowedly objective modes of knowledge – including official and unofficial government dissemination of information.

Did torture play a role in extracting information that led, finally, to the killing of Osam bin Laden? Writes Denson,

It is time that U.S. officials do more than admit that the parties responsible for the discrepancies between the film Zero Dark Thirty and the facts of the real interrogations are not the film’s screenwriter and director. The discrepancies are the direct result of the contradictory messages sent by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the Department of Defense, the CIA and FBI, and successive Senate Intelligence Committees to the American public. In short, the film reflects the changing face of politics precisely as the best art should. And as for the debate ensuing over the use of torture by U.S. interrogators, that too is a positive effect of the film, especially as it may yet bring to the surface the shadowy officials past and present who advocated waterboarding and other physically coercive means of intelligence gathering throughout the War on Terror.


It is the severe deficiency of public knowledge concerning the everyday workings of the War on Terror that makes the fictionalization in Zero Dark Thirty not only defensible but necessary for filling the voids in the public’s knowledge required to follow a story about intelligence gathering. Intelligence gathering has always been the filler for fictions involving espionage and military maneuvers.

Current governmental and journalistic critics of the film pretend that there exists and is available, settled knowledge about the role of torture and information extracted by it in the War on Terror. It is the nature of governments, however, to pretend to such knowledge, and of journalists, in thinking they have fulfilled their own mission, to believe they have determined it. Not so for art.

Since Gibney proclaims Bigelow and Boal to be “irresponsible,” he might benefit from considering what responsibility during wartime requires — for instance, that human responsibility must be conditioned on the knowledge of one’s own limits. We have to know our limits to know what we as individuals can and can’t do, in essence what we are and aren’t responsible for, and thereby free to act on. It follows that in not knowing the limits imposed on interrogators with regard to their recourse to torture, Bigelow and Boal as artists are not only acting responsibly in resorting to fictitiously shading in the empty spaces between known CIA activities and the fragmented information released officially by both the Bush and the Obama administrations. The filmmakers are also made more responsible by representing the Bush and Obama administrations precisely as those administrations had represented themselves at the times of their press conferences. Which translates to the American policy on coercive interrogation methods being decidedly pro-waterboarding under Bush-Cheney, and famously anti-waterboarding under Obama-Biden.


But even if Bigelow and Boal were the ones responsible for the discrepancies between the intelligence community’s activities and their depictions of that community in their film, their responsibility as artists is only to their art, not to the intelligence community or the government. The confusion lies within the journalists and the Senators who see the responsibility of artists to be the same as their own responsibilities. But the artist’s responsibility is not akin to those of the journalist or the Senator, whose commitment to the public is to report, or to legislate, morally. Yes, it would be good if the artist were morally and politically on the high road — and Bigelow and Boal are. But there is no requirement that art be honest, which is why Plato banishes the poets from his republic.

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has challenged the filmmaker’s with this question: “Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?” Responds Denson,

That’s not to say that Zero Dark Thirty is without moral and political implications. It is filled with them at every step and turn — including the scenes of waterboarding and other coercive methods of interrogation. What the filmmakers decline to do — yet what their critics demand of them — is deduce for the viewer what the final judgments regarding torture should be. … But that is what the art of democracies are supposed to do — allow us our diverse opinions even when they lead to discord. And that is the reason that both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty avoid the pitfalls of propaganda that the film’s critics and the Senate Intelligence Committee seem to be calling for.

Government officials and legislators, seeking the certification in art of their official version, and journalists desiring ratification by art of the fruits of their own work, wish to shape knowledge as objectively determined and settled. But what we claim to know – and where more so than in particle physics and clandestine warfare – is riddled with interstices. Beware of those who, without acknowledging doubt, seek to fill those interstices for us.

Bigelow in 2009 went on record in an interview with the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis concerning her aim as a filmmaker of exposing how “fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time,” not merely on the extreme right or left. It is Bigelow’s curtailment of her own manipulative impulses that resonates with the restraint that we read throughout Zero Dark Thirty.

Denson concludes by challenging, at the very least in principle, if not necessarily in fact, even the received version and reality of bin Laden’s death, which some many journalists, many of whom proved so uncritical and susceptible to official versions regarding Iraq and the War on Terror, nonetheless once again accept on so little evidence.

For the life of the sad red earth until now, I have resisted use of that favored bloggers’ shorthand, which I now employ for the first time.

Read the whole thing.


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The Political Animal

The MSNBC Bent vs the FOX News Bias


You hear it a lot. MSNBC is the liberal Fox News.

No. It’s not.

This is just one more variation of false equivalency, the inability to make acute judgments amid the buffeting winds of so many competing claims, the warp of reason by the gravitational pull of all those massive subjectivities.

MSNBC has a bent. Fox has a bias.

Which is to say that – are you ready for this? – objectively speaking, one leans toward something, the other leans against.

FOX News vs. MSNBC in Terms of Bias” one blog post titles its consideration.

MSNBC really is more partisan than Fox, according to Pew study” headlines a Baltimore Sun article that speaks of “wretched bias.”

How MSNBC Became Fox’s Liberal Evil Twin” stunningly opined The New York Times’ Alexandra Stanley, who bizarrely amplified that

You can agree with everything that Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz say on MSNBC and still oppose their right to say it.

That is to say, you can think they are right – that what they say is true – and not even simply disagree with their decision to say it (a curious enough contention), but their right to say it.

One contemplates the double irony of considering whether Stanley might ever have written for Pravda during her Times tenure in Moscow.

Jim Naureckas at FAIR offered this review of Stanley’s critique, which he titled, after Stanley’s illustration of objective journalism, in comparing MSNBC to CNN, “When Candidates Lie, REAL Journalists Say They ‘Finessed the Facts’.

One might argue that aside from FOX itself, the like of Alessandra Stanley is another reason there is an MSNBC.

Offers Stanley,

Both Fox News and MSNBC have experienced reporters in the field who stay neutral even when their anchors let loose. The NBC network’s anchors keep their opinions to themselves.

Bias, partisanship, opinion, neutrality – do any of these people know what they are talking about?

Not to put too fine a point on it – oh, all right, I will – the truth is a point of view.

Plantation owners say that slavery is essential to Southern agriculture and that its abolition would devastate the South’s economy. Abolitionists claim it is a crime against human dignity and a moral abomination. The Times takes no position on the matter. We are neutral, not partisan. (And, by the way, adopting the term “enhanced interrogation” to describe what was previously, uncontroversially designated as torture – because the government asserts that propagandistic manipulation of language, history, and law – is not taking sides. Didn’t we just say we’re neutral? Unbiased. Nonpartisan. We have no opinion. Or judgment. Or minds?)

The word “bias,” originating from the French biais, meaning “slant, slope, oblique,” took on the English sense of “predisposition and prejudice” – a leaning. Prejudice and bias are harsher words, loaded down as they are with their senses of racial or ethnic or other stereotypical dislike and discrimination. A predisposition, however, like a bias in garment work – a cut against the grain or weave of the fabric – is by no means necessarily prejudicial in that ugly sense. It is a leaning.

As a New York Yankee fan, I have a predisposition, a bent – another word for leaning – toward left-handed power hitters who can reach the short porch in right field for home runs. It is a cast of mind I bring to my consideration of players. It is not an ill-considered disfavor, but a judgment about general conditions based on fact and experience. However, if you present me with a right-handed hitter who can hit with power to the opposite field, bat for average, field, and steal forty bases a year, I will overcome my predisposition. I yield to specific conditions, wider considerations, and, most of all, to facts.

To have a vision of life, a political philosophy, and the sum of knowledge we call experience is not a prejudice, though it is a leaning. I lean left. I do it not because I hatefully discount political notions that are conservative and discount them out of hand because I wish to dismiss them for no reason other than that I disfavor them. I do it because more often than not, I think the right is wrong. I lean toward the truth, and I believe the truth leans left. “Left” and “right,” keep in mind, are conceptual and lexical constructs. I lean toward gravity, too, name it what you will.

The Baltimore Sun informed us in support of its case against MSNBC, from a PEW poll, that

On MSNBC, the ratio of negative to positive stories on GOP candidate Mitt Romney was 71 to 3.

Sounds awful, huh? Unless, of course, like me, you are inclined to believe that 3 is too many. If one believes that Mitt Romney and his campaign were completely dishonest and fraudulent and a threat to the integrity of the democratic process, if one has chronicled in detail the mendacity of Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate, as, indeed, Steve Benen at, of all places, MSNBC did, then what rationale other than a mindless commitment to mindlessness – journalism as stenographic record, the reporter as digital recorder – can there be for seeking the illusion that “balance” is reporting the facts or the truth?

Mr. Stalin could not be reached for comment.

It is not always as simple as the examples I have given – and even so, plenty of people mucked up mightily the judgments on slavery and Stalin. One certainly can, as in another context I would, make the case for the unclear notion to which so many uncertainly cling, of journalism with less pronounced a bent toward an institutional philosophy. Let a hundred media flowers blossom. But the contention that MSNBC is a liberal equivalent – absurdly beneath contempt, an “evil twin” – of FOX News is not a corrective to a journalistic ill, but an ill itself that MSNBC well serves to correct.

The New York Times tried again more recently, just before the election, less wildly, more blandly than in Stanley’s case, via the “news analysis” of Jeremy W. Peters. Peters pursues the same equivalency argument in a piece that, frankly, with nothing more than two handfuls of examples and no thought behind it, simply peters out. He catches MSNBC anchors in some excesses – it does have a point of view, it was an election season – but the case is actually so weak that Peters closes it against MSNBC with this:

Some MSNBC hosts even use the channel’s own ads promoting its slogan “Lean Forward,” to criticize the Republicans. Mr. O’Donnell accuses them of basing their campaigns on the false notion that Mr. Obama is inciting class warfare. “You have to come up with a lie,” he says, when your campaign is based on empty rhetoric.

In her ad, Rachel Maddow breathlessly decodes the logic behind the push to overhaul state voting laws. “The idea is to shrink the electorate,” she says, “so a smaller number of people get to decide what happens to all of us.”

This is actually embarrassing. What the “breathless” Rachel Maddow was – excuse me – reporting is the truth, apparent and acknowledgeable by all but GOP party hacks and flacks and news analysts who do not analyze: the GOP was seeking to shrink the electorate, so that a smaller number of people, with fewer minority voters, would get to cast votes. The evidence and the contours of the reality are overwhelming. One could argue that Maddow should have been breathless. Peters counts this as an example of mockable bias.

MSNBC is left leaning. It is predisposed, philosophically inclined, to the left. It has a liberal bent. It has, however, no record like FOX of intentional distortion and deceit, of manipulation of the facts, of coordinated campaigns against political opponents, of mixing their contractual on-air staff and host ranks with those of active political campaigners, of employing current Super PAC fundraisers and coordinators as on-air analysts who actually influence live decision making in calling elections.

That is not a bent. That is a bias – prejudicial, misleading, and false. MSNBC sees the world left and reports, believing it true, what it sees. FOX News knows what it wants its viewers to see and manipulates the elements of a story and shapes its narrative so that viewers well have that vision.

These are not the same activity, and a reporter who cannot see the difference is an unreliable reporter.


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