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Chris Hedges on Alex S. Jones’ ‘Losing the News’
Posted on Aug 14, 2009
By Chris Hedges
The best journalists in the South were not those who sought balance but those who wrote for the abolitionist papers. “Being caught in the south with an abolitionist paper in the 1830s,” as Jones notes, “much less publishing one, was a crime punishable the first time by imprisonment or the lash. A second offense usually meant death. In 1837, a mob in Alton, Illinois—just across the river from St. Louis—murdered the editor of the St. Louis Observer, an abolitionist newspaper.” This is the spirit, shunned by the corporate managers of large newspapers and rejected by “objective” journalists, that we will have to recapture if journalism is to endure. It is the spirit, in an age of precipitous cultural and political decline, of open and direct confrontation, one embodied by the greatest reporters, such as I.F. Stone, who spent most of his career as a pariah because he exhibited the moral autonomy most mainstream reporters lacked. If we champion moral autonomy rather than the dead creed of objective journalism, we may save the press. This requires replacing the managers of most newspapers with people who have not been poisoned by journalism schools and rigid newspaper stylebooks. It requires an open commitment to reform and justice that defies the corporate state.
Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy
By Alex Jones
Oxford University Press, 256 pages
The New York Times’ coverage of the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza earlier this year is the modern equivalent of the paper’s reporting on lynching. A Feb. 3, 2009, article titled “Story of the Gaza war, told by a village,” by reporters Ethan Bronner and Sabrina Tavernise, uses the same faux objectivity to obscure truth. Nearly every other paragraph—and to be fair to Bronner and Tavernise the foreign desk probably demanded this—offers the official Israeli version of the attack. Never mind that the Israeli spokesman was not in the village of El Ataba. This objective style, the heart of modern newspaper reporting, neutralizes the eyewitness testimony. It permits the paper to include sentences such as “The war in Atatra tells the story of Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza, with each side giving very different versions. Palestinians describe Israel’s military actions as a massacre and Israelis attribute civilian casualties to a Hamas policy of hiding behind its people.” Believe what you want to believe. Palestinians simply become the new “Negroes.” Or look at the coverage about health care. Reporting should begin with the factual understanding that our for-profit health care system is the problem. It should begin with the understanding that when it is destroyed we can debate real alternatives. But objectivity ensures that health insurance corporations, which quite literally profit from human suffering and death and which reward and promote employees for denying costly coverage to people who are ill, have the power and clout to shape how we perceive the debate. And years from now when readers look back on articles about the suffering of the Palestinians or those denied health care, if there are any people left who read, they will be as disgusted as we are with the paper’s “objective” accounts about lynching.
News organizations are flooded with statistics and facts released by the government and corporations that purport to be objective. These facts often determine what gets written and how we report about daily events. But these statistics and facts—such as The New York Times saying in a recent news story that only 10 percent of Americans do not have health care—are partial truths. They let readers draw conclusions that are often false. The absurd preoccupation with the stock market and the housing market as reliable guides for growth and our living standards is a partial truth. The rise in stock and home values, at least before the current downturn, was not a lie, but the idea that rising stock prices meant rising prosperity was a lie. It is one of the reasons news organizations were as clueless about the looming economic meltdown as they were about the effects of occupying Iraq. The “objective” standards by which they measure society are often useless. Their approach allows them to report accurate details—often fed to them by public relations firms that work for corporate or political interests—but give a misleading picture of the whole. Truth becomes, through objectivity, the principal vehicle of falsehood. And the traditional press, which as Jones points out adopted “objectivity” not to raise journalism to a higher plane but to increase its profits, is clinging to a flawed system of reporting as corporations, which they had sought to placate, walk away from newsprint.
Papers, at least the ones that did not openly battle for greater justice, initially became very profitable. They did some great reporting although they also filled their pages with a lot of junk. They worked hard to appeal to the elite, and this meant fleeing from confrontations that could alienate the established structures of power.
“The public relations industry was born and has boomed,” Jones writes, “in a world of ostensibly objective journalism. The main purpose of PR is to place information favorable to a client in a context of news so that it has more credibility with the public than the same message might have if it were presented in the form of a paid advertisement or from a clearly self-interested source.”
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