Objectivity or honesty on Syria?

Front-page NYTimes piece on how citizens feel about Syria illustrates the difficulties of being objective. Is this passage passing judgment or simply stating the obvious without worrying about how it might be perceived?

Some say they now believe that domestic needs neglected during a decade of war override foreign imperatives. Some, reviewing years of pitched struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, see the Middle East as quicksand that must be avoided at all costs. Some say that Syria’s civil war is Syria’s problem, and that the United States is not the Mr. Fix-it for all of the world’s crises.

And here, at least, more than a few see military action against Syria as unacceptable simply because it is Mr. Obama’s idea.

Skepticism and Wariness in Talk of Syria Attack –

journalism, politics

The only words you need to know for the campaign: Tell the truth

At the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, comedian Wanda Sykes had some simple advice for the president: Stick with your lie.

Ah, the good old days. Back when the country was running relatively smoothly, so we filled the 24-hour news void with the Starr Report.

But the rough part is that “Stick with your lie” has become the prevailing campaign philosophy.

Jay Rosen, a frequent critic of journalists passing off the “view from nowhere” as objectivity, sums up the problem.

Suppose a major party candidate for president believed we were in a “post-truth” era and actually campaigned that way. Would political reporters in the mainstream press figure it out and tell us?

I say no. They would not tell us. Not in any clear way.

Why not? Rosen continues:

Exposes the press to criticism in too clear a fashion. Messes with the “both sides do it”/we’re impartial narrative that political journalists have mastered: and deeply believe in. Romney will be fact checked, his campaign will push back from time to time, the fact checkers will argue among themselves, and the post-truth premise will sneak into common practice without penalty or recognition, even though there is nothing covert about it.

Depressing thought.

To be sure, “both sides do it” to some extent. You can find people of all political stripes who’ve decided the ends justify the means. (I’d call it Machiavellian if Cracked hadn’t showed that we’ve all been misusing the term.)

But sometimes, when the fact-checkers try to grab one from the “other” side to balance things out, they overreach. “Both sides” is NOT objectivity. (Sometimes, as in the current outsourcing debate, everyone is indeed lying.)

So let’s get back to Rosen’s post, in which he sums up a few campaign tactics: keep repeating lies until people believe them (climate change and “death panels” would be good examples), build your own facts and history, etc.

We should be demanding better. Instead, we write off the fact-checkers as partisan. If Jon Stewart and Andrew Sullivan raise the same complaint, we label Stewart as “liberal” and Sullivan as “not really conservative.” People write off Politifact as partisan even though their current home page is rather evenly split between parties. (Nice of MoveOn to provide so much material for them!)

We’ve got four more months of this garbage. I think the only way to get through it isn’t to heat up the rhetoric. It’s not to seek phony “balance.” It’s to demand the truth. Period.



Update to My Previous Post on Truth Vigilantes | The Public Editor –

NYTimes public editor (others call that job “ombudsman”) Arthur Brisbane attempts to remove his foot from his mouth:

A large majority of respondents weighed in with, yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth. That was not the question I was trying to ask. My inquiry related to whether The Times, in the text of news columns, should more aggressively rebut “facts” that are offered by newsmakers when those “facts” are in question. I consider this a difficult question, not an obvious one.

Yeah, no. Some of the criticism Brisbane received for his initial post was silly — a classic case of people not reading beyond the headline.

But Brisbane’s still wrong. It’s only a difficult question if you think objectivity is simply getting “both sides.” It’s not. Objective journalism is the quest to get the facts no matter what the partisans want you to say.

Yes, challenging mistruth is difficult. You have to deal with legitimate criticism as well as the idiots and cretins will always attempt to discredit the fact-checkers. These days, you’ll get called “liberal” more often than not.

Yet if no one checks facts, what would prevent politicians from inventing new reality? What would make us different from the Soviet Union of the 1970s? Our bulwark against propaganda is already too thin.

I’m glad Brisbane raised the question. Plenty of people have forgotten that journalists are supposed to do more than repeat partisan rhetoric. But the answer is indeed obvious.

via Update to My Previous Post on Truth Vigilantes | The Public Editor –


PolitiFact falls into the “both sides = objectivity” trap

Re: PolitiFact Rhode Island | Comic Jon Stewart says Congress met most Christmas Days in its early years.

PolitiFact Rhode Island gives this a “Pants on Fire,” a rating usually reserved for blatant, malicious falsehoods that fly in the face of evidence the speaker should or clearly does know.

The commenters on Facebook have calmly taken PolitiFact to task, saying this is nowhere near a “Pants on Fire.” It’s false, yes.

Here’s the bigger problem: The fact in question is from the History Channel (PolitiFact strangely leaves “channel” lowercase). Stewart was simply repeating it and citing them. The Daily Show could perhaps be faulted for not double-checking Congressional records, but most people would expect the History Channel’s research to be somewhat reliable. (Certainly more reliable than the typical cable talk show.)

But the headline, of course, isn’t the History Channel. It’s Jon Stewart. That’s sensationalism.

And PolitiFact’s agenda for making it about Stewart is rather transparent. Stewart is considered a left-wing voice — though, if you watch his show regularly, you’ll see that he’s fair, if not necessarily balanced. By taking a shot at a prominent “left-wing” voice, they appear to be balancing out all the “False” and “Pants on Fire” rulings they have to give from the GOP debates.

PolitiFact simply can’t operate that way. If one “side” is telling more falsehoods than the other, so be it. That’s not a value judgment on either party — this year, we have a lot of Republicans running for president and one Democrat who hasn’t really shifted into campaign mode, so you’re simply going to have more to evaluate on the Republican side. If we had eight Democrats running for president right now, PolitiFact would surely have some crazy crap to analyze from those debates.

Stewart, moreso than most actual journalists, realizes that you can’t get at the facts by taking one from Column A and one from Column B. And that’s why, if PolitiFact continues down this path, he’ll be a more reliable fact-checker than PolitiFact.