Friday, November 7, 2008

The myth of objectivity

“Journalism without a moral position is impossible. Every journalist is a moralist. It’s absolutely unavoidable. A journalist is someone who looks at the world and the way it works, someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees, someone who represents the world, the event, for others. She cannot do her work without judging what she sees. It’s impossible. In other words, objective reporting is a complete fraud. A lie. There is no such thing as objective journalism or an objective journalist. I have rid myself of many prejudices, but surely the greatest of them was to have believed in the possibility of objectively reporting an event.” Marguerite Duras, from Outside- Selected Writings

Duras was a world class French writer, film director and general thinker who died back in 1996 after writing a shit-ton of books and insuring her place in the pantheon of Euro-art cinema by not only collaborating as a screenwriter with the great Alain Resnais on Hiroshima, Mon Amour but by also directing her own obscure features, the most “famous” being probably India Song (nice piece of trivia: in John Waters’ outstanding film Polyester the triple feature at the Baltimore drive-in consists of three Duras films, which I think he actually screened back to back to back, a gesture that makes me smile and wonder how many cars were still there at the end of the final film). Her most famous (no quotes this time) novel is definitely The Lover, but my favorite of the ones I’ve read is The Malady of Death, a short, extremely powerful text that can be digested in an afternoon. Her early works were a staple in Barney Rosset’s Grove Press, and if she’s not exactly a household name, she remains an influential and vital artist.
The above quote is from the preface to a collection of Duras’ journalistic articles, and reading it really struck me due to the prevailing attitude in American culture that media should be “unbiased”. The conservative right loathes Public Broadcasting and often declares that CBS or NBC are guilty of a liberal perspective. Naturally my comrades on the left despise Fox News and Big Ugly Talk Radio. People on both sides of this issue basically feel that large numbers of their fellow citizens are being influenced or even indoctrinated by news that’s somehow contaminated by ideology.
By this point, my reaction to charges that certain parts of the broadcast and print media have a “liberal agenda” is to shrug my shoulders and say “So?” On one hand, the idea of an “agenda” is somewhat laughable, or at least a case of putting the cart before the horse. It supposes a premeditated intent that I simply don’t think is there. Yes, in the print media there are newspapers that are identified as liberal or conservative, but it’s been that way for a long time and basically makes sense for readers, who don’t want to wade through a bunch of editorials and financial coverage that doesn’t fit their perspective, and publishers and editors, who obviously value focus over a potluck of disparate opinions and ideas that often sit in direct opposition to each other. But it’s the broadcast media that has really inspired the charges of bias and agendas: 24-hour news channels, National Public Radio, the stream of syndicated call-in shows, etc. It’s a constant news cycle, and at some point roughly around a decade ago a bunch of conservatives started complaining about the left-leaning tendencies of the media while ignoring the existence of Fox News, Limbaugh, Hannity, The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc. It was a crock of shit of course, similar to a head coach working the refs in a sporting event: constantly calling for “fairness” or insinuating bias will cause people to start self-policing themselves to avoid the charges of being branded in sympathy with a certain way of thinking or looking at the world.
Being a liberal hasn’t been a popular thing for a while outside of New England, New York, assorted big cities and certain college towns that disrupt the often monochromatic image of the Heartland and other more rural and Southern states. To large numbers of people, being a liberal means hating guns, loving abortion, ridiculing religion, eating food with names that are difficult to pronounce, and espousing an elitist sensibility where the clued-in overeducated few know what’s best for everyone else. It’s all a combination of stereotyping, falsehoods and maliciousness promulgated by people who have much to gain from the divide between the masses and a media that should, at its best, reflect the complexities, difficulties and constant changes of the world.

Maybe I’m just a biased liberal jerk, but conservative ideologies aren’t big on complexity. When things get messy, the general tendency of conservatives is to pass judgment or blame (they didn’t pray enough, they didn’t save enough money, they shouldn’t have had sex and gotten knocked-up, how dare they get sick without health insurance) so the idea of a media populated by humans who are reporting on events that involve other humans and are very likely to end up impacted by the HUMANITY of the whole exercise, not so much taking sides as striving to present the true proportion of an issue or story, trying to relate the width and depth of the news they’re covering and maybe hoping to get a percentage of what they saw and felt in covering it across to the people who care to read, watch or listen to it, this idea will never be popular with conservatives. They’d never send a writer to look at the story of a single woman who had an abortion because she didn’t have heath insurance and couldn’t afford the medical bills that pregnancy incurs or the long term financial and mental strain that feeding and raising a child inspires. They’d much rather write an editorial lambasting her as a symptom of what’s wrong with America without ever trying to communicate with her, instead identifying her from the safe and often ugly confines of statistics, just one anonymous individual who’s killing an unborn baby out of sheer convenience. Maybe I’m painting with too wide a brush, acting like a biased liberal jerk again, but I’m not the one with the uh, agenda to take people’s rights away, or to punish people for being poor.
And rights in many ways are what it all comes down to. The right to a free press is an intrinsically liberal idea, liberal as in the freedom of the individual, the dictionary definition of what liberalism is, not lattes, funny cheeses, and Volvos, but instead the fundamental right to information about our world and our existence within it. Some people who become journalists do it for the money, but others (the good or great ones, anyway) do it because they have an aptitude for it, and a big part of that aptitude is the belief that the very idea of a free press is something to be involved in and to fight for. Occasionally there are surveys conducted that show how a majority of people who work in media identify themselves as liberals, the point being that people outside the media should be shocked or alarmed. My response is to simply say “no shit”, because it makes perfect sense. Conservatives for the most part don’t give a damn about the free press unless it’s validating their world view. The “awful liberal media” often does stories that sincerely depict the beliefs of those who are pro-death penalty, anti-abortion or gay marriage, or favor putting a freaking fence all the way across our southern border. After listening, I’m not swayed. But at least I recognize that it is human beings who hold these thoughts I disagree with and sometimes find abhorrent. They’re human beings who happen to be a big pain in the ass, but that’s the nature of the world.
So all this talk of objectivity, of being fair and balanced (I feel like an asshole just typing those last three words), of cold impartiality, it’s all just verbiage, a smokescreen. I’m glad that Marguerite Duras so eloquently jotted down a corrective to the fallacy that we can’t be impacted by what we see. And she did it all the way over in France! Viva the Jerry Lewis!!

No comments: