Editor's Pick: Who Is An Objective Journalist?

Editor's Pick: Who Is An Objective Journalist?

Glenn Greenwald. Image source: https://www.nytexaminer.com
Glenn Greenwald. Image source: https://www.nytexaminer.com

In the introduction to our Spring 2013 print issue, "Occupy the Economy," I briefly described Indy Reader's journalistic perspective as follows:

We start from the premise that it is simply not possible to remove ourselves from history and report and analyze its unfolding in a so-called unbiased, impartial, and objective manner. This does not mean that we reject good journalistic standards. Indeed, we hold dear standards like reporting facts and perspectives with utmost honesty and accuracy, and being transparent with respect to a writer’s relationship to her subject matter. Rather than feigning impartiality (often a sure sign of obedience to political and economic elites), we employ these standards with purpose. And our purpose can be succinctly described as follows: "toward building a new society on the vacant lots of old . . ."

If I could go back, I would make a few changes. For example, I would write, "Rather than feigning objectivity . . . " instead of "impartiality," for several reasons. The most important being that the terms "objectivity" and "subjectivity" possess significant ideological and doctrinal meaning within U.S. media and intellectual culture. In a recent interview, Noam Chomsky discusses this issue and touches on the selective usage of the terms:

You get an impression that everything is free and open because there are debates that are visible: the Democrats are debating the Republicans, and the press does its share of condemning. But what people don’t see — and the seeming openness of the debate conceals it — is that it is all within a very narrow framework. And you can’t go even a millimetre outside that framework. In fact, it is even taught in journalism schools here as the concept of ‘objectivity’ — that means describing honestly what’s going on inside that framework and if there is something outside, then no, that is subjective. You see that all the time and that is a big domestic problem.

It's instructive to observe the dynamic that Chomsky describes as it takes place in microcosm. Recently, the journalistic integrity of the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald has been called into question. The reason: he has stepped "outside that framework" through his impressive and highly valuable journalistic work on the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, which revealed a "worldwide, ubiquitous electronic surveillance apparatus" that Washington has erected in near total secret. Unsurprisingly, some proponents of elite media doctrine have felt compelled to defend the boundaries of the narrow framework that Greenwald crossed, as he has consistently done during his career. Below, Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer critically respond to one of the proponents and in doing so draw our attention to the actual difference between journalists who stay in-bounds and those who feel a duty to go out-of-bounds, like Greenwald and the writers featured on Indy Reader.  



Who Is An Objective Journalist?


By Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

In a recent New York Times article David Carr questioned whether someone could be both a journalist and an activist, a question that was prompted by the role of Glenn Greenwald, a writer for The Guardian and a political activist, in reporting on Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks.

As Carr put it, “The question of who is a journalist and who is an activist and whether they can be one and the same continues to roar along, most recently in the instance of Glenn Greenwald’s reporting for The Guardian on the secrets revealed by Edward J. Snowden.” Carr also framed the question as “a fight between objectivity and subjectivity.”

Carr initially seemed to concede that one and the same person could be both an activist and a journalist, even though the activists are “driven by an agenda.” In fact, the title of his article conveyed exactly that point: “Journalism, Even When It’s Tilted.” And, as Carr noted, this is an important concession since journalists are afforded special legal protections in the case of reporting leaks. Mr. Greenwald needs this protection because there are some government officials who would like to see him prosecuted.

However, towards the end of his article Carr began to raise caveats. Activism, he concluded, does not prevent someone from being a journalist; it rather tends to make them bad journalists: “But I think activism – which is admittedly accompanied by the kind of determination that can prompt discovery – can also impair vision.” And he added: “…the tendentiousness of ideology creates its own narrative.” In other words, activism can on rare occasions be helpful in unearthing the truth, but usually it is a barrier.

But perhaps Mr. Carr has failed to grasp the larger picture, possibly due to his own unspoken commitments. Everyone falls into one of two categories. There are those who basically have resigned themselves to established society, perhaps because of ideological compatibility, a strong strain of pragmatism, or a conviction that attempts to change society are entirely futile. Then there are others who are critical and are prepared to embark on a campaign to try to change what they find objectionable. Neither of these groups has a monopoly on objectivity; both positions rest on a set of fundamental values that can be rationally supported. And both involve a kind of activism: one aims at changing society while the other aims at refraining from changing it.

Yet there is a superficial difference between the two: those who want to change society do stand out. Unlike Mr. Carr, they do not seamlessly blend in with the surrounding social institutions and the values embodied in them. Accordingly, they might seem as if they have an agenda that uniquely distinguishes them, but that is only from the perspective of people like Mr. Carr, whose agenda ties him to the status quo but who has not sufficiently reflected on his own social commitments and therefore is unable to acknowledge them. No one, in other words, is exempt from having an “agenda.”

This point was graphically illustrated when “Meet the Press” host David Gregory pointedly asked Greenwald why he should not be charged with a crime for divulging Edward Snowden’s leaks. Here Gregory stood smugly on the side of those who wield power and was quick to demonstrate this point by his tendentious question, perhaps with the thought in mind of winning a promotion, which is a rampant form of another kind of activism.

To his credit, Carr elicited Greenwald’s response to the counterposing of activism and journalism, and this was Greenwald’s response: “It is not a matter of being an activist or a journalist; it’s a false dichotomy. It is a matter of being honest or dishonest. All activists are not journalists, but all real journalists are activists. Journalism has a value, a purpose – to serve as a check on power.” And Greenwald added: “I have seen all sorts of so-called objective journalists who have all kinds of assumptions in every sentence they write. Rather than serve as an adversary of government, they want to bolster the credibility of those in power. That is a classic case of a certain kind of activism.”

Greenwald’s rejection of the purported dichotomy between activism and journalism is, of course, entirely correct. Everyone is an activist of one kind or another. The distinction should rather be drawn between those who are conscious activists and those who, like Mr. Carr and Mr. Gregory, are unconscious activists. Those who fail to reflect on their own commitments are sometimes the most vicious.

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.