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The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News

Posted on Feb 1, 2010
AP / Elaine Thompson

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

Reporting, while it is presented to the public as neutral, objective and unbiased, is always highly interpretive. It is defined by rigid stylistic parameters. I have written, like most other reporters, hundreds of news stories. Reporters begin with a collection of facts, statements, positions and anecdotes and then select those that create the “balance” permitted by the formula of daily journalism. The closer reporters get to official sources, for example those covering Wall Street, Congress, the White House or the State Department, the more constraints they endure. When reporting depends heavily on access it becomes very difficult to challenge those who grant or deny that access. This craven desire for access has turned huge sections of the Washington press, along with most business reporters, into courtiers. The need to be included in press briefings and background interviews with government or business officials, as well as the desire for leaks and early access to official documents, obliterates journalistic autonomy.

“Record the fury of a Palestinian whose land has been taken from him by Israeli settlers—but always refer to Israel’s ‘security needs’ and its ‘war on terror,’ ” Robert Fisk writes. “If Americans are accused of ‘torture’, call it ‘abuse’. If Israel assassinates a Palestinian, call it a ‘targeted killing’. If Armenians lament their Holocaust of 1,500,000 souls in 1915, remind readers that Turkey denies this all too real and fully documented genocide. If Iraq has become a hell on earth for its people, recall how awful Saddam was. If a dictator is on our side, call him a ‘strongman’. If he’s our enemy, call him a tyrant, or part of the ‘axis of evil’. And above all else, use the word ‘terrorist.’ Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. Seven days a week.”

“Ask ‘how’ and ‘who’—but not ‘why’,” Fisk adds. “Source everything to officials: ‘American officials’, ‘intelligence officials’, ‘official sources’, anonymous policemen or army officers. And if these institutions charged with our protection abuse their power, then remind readers and listeners and viewers of the dangerous age in which we now live, the age of terror—which means that we must live in the Age of the Warrior, someone whose business and profession and vocation and mere existence is to destroy our enemies.”

“In the classic example, a refugee from Nazi Germany who appears on television saying monstrous things are happening in his homeland must be followed by a Nazi spokesman saying Adolf Hitler is the greatest boon to humanity since pasteurized milk,” the former New York Times columnist Russell Baker wrote. “Real objectivity would require not only hard work by news people to determine which report was accurate, but also a willingness to put up with the abuse certain to follow publication of an objectively formed judgment. To escape the hard work or the abuse, if one man says Hitler is an ogre, we instantly give you another to say Hitler is a prince. A man says the rockets won’t work? We give you another who says they will. The public may not learn much about these fairly sensitive matters, but neither does it get another excuse to denounce the media for unfairness and lack of objectivity. In brief, society is teeming with people who become furious if told what the score is.”


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Journalists, because of their training and distaste for shattering their own exalted notion of themselves, lack the inclination and vocabulary to discuss ethics. They will, when pressed, mumble something about telling the truth and serving the public. They prefer not to face the fact that my truth is not your truth. News is a signal, a “blip,” an alarm that something is happening beyond our small circle of existence, as Walter Lippmann noted in his book “Public Opinion.” Journalism does not point us toward truth since, as Lippmann understood, there is always a vast divide between truth and news. Ethical questions open journalism to the nebulous world of interpretation and philosophy, and for this reason journalists flee from ethical inquiry like a herd of frightened sheep. 

Journalists, while they like to promote the image of themselves as fierce individualists, are in the end another species of corporate employees. They claim as their clients an amorphous public. They seek their moral justification in the service of this nameless, faceless mass and speak little about the vast influence of the power elite to shape and determine reporting. Does a public even exist in a society as fragmented and divided as ours? Or is the public, as Walter Lippmann wrote, now so deeply uninformed and divorced from the inner workings of power and diplomacy as to make it a clean slate on which our armies of skilled propagandists can, often through the press, leave a message?

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By Ouroborus, February 1, 2010 at 6:12 am Link to this comment

ardee, February 1 at 9:35 am
It was good to read the Molly Ivins citings as well.
Damn I miss that Texas terror.
Ardee, thanks for the chuckle and a spot on post.
Molly wielded her words like a scalpel; cutting to the
cancer with such grace and humor while savaging so
gently and the target felt no pain. Long live Molly
Ivans who as yet, sadly, has no peer. wink

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By luling, February 1, 2010 at 6:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The Press is not, nor has it ever been, objective or impartial. It has always had a pov.  But, long ago, the pov of a particular organ was well known.  Now, it is not so much.  Today, it is mostly entertainment; with some propaganda thrown in.
It is difficult to find news; it always has been.  But, something close to it can be found.
We must keep in mind that serious people in the political arena have always known how to get their pov across.  They also know what to keep quiet about.

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By elwoodpdowd, February 1, 2010 at 6:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Of course so-called objectivity is just an excuse for the media to remain uncontroversial, while maintaining the myth of being part of a free American press. The truth is that the consolidation of the media , which had begun in the 1920s and ended with the final nail in the coffin- Clinton’s signing of the Telecommunications Act in 1996- is what has really ended a free press in this country. In 1900 there were 95 daily newspapers in New York City alone ( and many were owned independently by publishers with vast differences of political views from conservative Republicanism to leftist socialism) There are now three; and they are also just parts of media congomerates that also operate radio and television operations. Jefferson and Madison understood that without a free press a real democracy is an impossibility- so guess where that leaves us?

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By al, February 1, 2010 at 5:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hey Chris, leftgatekeeper, you don’t think the government checks signed by Goebels have anything to do with it?

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By Bronwen Rowlands, February 1, 2010 at 5:47 am Link to this comment
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Boy, do I miss Molly Ivins.  It’s good to see her quoted here.  Look up Jim Hightower’s “Hightower Lowdown” for some very Molly-like straight-talk and wit.

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By ardee, February 1, 2010 at 5:35 am Link to this comment

I think this powerful, prophetic and above all accurate rendering of the demise of our free press shows why Hedges receives so0 much criticism here on this forum. Reading his words is like exposing a nerve, too painful to consider the truth contained within it.

It was good to read the Molly Ivins citings as well. Damn I miss that Texas terror.

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By Bill, February 1, 2010 at 5:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m a fan of Chris Hedges but this article totally misses the point. The point is that six corporations now control 96 percent of the global media. If you want to know the bias and agenda, just look up the people behind the news at the six corporations who control it all, and their lust for power and control which they achieve by shaping the reality of 300 million americans.

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By johannes, February 1, 2010 at 5:09 am Link to this comment

The journalists and all public media should be an institution of objective newsbringing, to the public.

Its become an daily source of indoctrination, full of lies, and unmeaning and worthless stories.

They have become the accomplice of the highest payer.

So simplistic is it, well thats my opinion

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By ofersince72, February 1, 2010 at 5:08 am Link to this comment

The Times may feel constrained by “verifiable facts”
That is because they don’t report the news…

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By thebeerdoctor, February 1, 2010 at 4:11 am Link to this comment

In one sense, I think Hedges throws a softball to his former employer, The New York Times, comparing it favourably over Fox News. When actually, as Gore Vidal has pointed out, The New York Times is a very bad newspaper. Two words immediately come to mind: Judith Miller.

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By mitchell Nusbaum, February 1, 2010 at 4:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks for addressing what is behind the uncertain fiscal sustainability of
American newspapers, the tilt to the corporate viewpoint with cynical sops thrown
in. I mean terming terrorists militants.

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By Ouroborus, February 1, 2010 at 3:57 am Link to this comment

Hedges once again is operating from position of
knowledge of his subject (war correspondent many
places and a reporter for more than 20 years). He’s
earned his credentials like few others.
And I love that he quoted Molly Ivans; a total babe
for telling it like it is (I miss her columns).
As sorry a state as “news” reporting is, and I use
the term carefully, there are some sites that do a
good job of really reporting the news; Democracy Now,
Link TV, Al Jezeera, and The Real News Network.
Forget NPR and the rest of their ilk, IMO. And the
networks? Surely one jests; they just suck, IMO.
It’s the Hedges, Ritters, and Goodmans who keep
Truthdig interesting.

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By truedigger3, February 1, 2010 at 3:20 am Link to this comment

Mr. Hedges beats around the bushes and dances round and round in circles.
The problem with the news media is that it degenerated into becoming a propoganda and distraction organ working for the moneyed corporations and the governments that are now only represent them.
And that is a logical result, because those moneyed corporations own and control the news media.
You might find some honest articles or honest reporting are allowed to give the impression of objectivity, but these are just tokens and are very few, and are far between, and are buried in the back pages and are drowned by the continuous waves of the “regular” bullshit news&articles;, and those tokens are totally ignored.

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