‘Just The Facts, Ma’am’
So what is objective, impartial journalism?
The standard view was offered in 2001 by the BBC’s then political editor, Andrew Marr:
‘When I joined the BBC, my Organs of Opinion were formally removed.’ (Marr, The Independent, January 13, 2001)
And by Nick Robinson describing his role as ITN political editor during the Iraq war:
‘It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking… That is all someone in my sort of job can do.’ (Robinson, ‘”Remember the last time you shouted like that?” I asked the spin doctor’, The Times, July 16, 2004)
‘Just the facts, Ma’am’, as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi wryly describes this take on journalism.
It is why, if you ask a BBC or ITN journalist to choose between describing the Iraq war as ‘a mistake’ or ‘a crime’, they will refuse to answer on the grounds that they are required to be ‘objective’ and ‘impartial’.
But actually there are at least five good reasons for rejecting this argument as fundamentally bogus and toxic.
First, it turns out that most journalists are only nervous of expressing personal opinions when criticising the powerful. Andrew Marr can’t call the Iraq war a ‘crime’, but he can say that the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 meant that Tony Blair ‘stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result’ (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003). Nick Robinson can report that ‘hundreds of [British] servicemen are risking their lives to bring peace and security to the streets of Iraq’. (ITN, September 8, 2003)
The ‘Wham, bam, thank you, Ma’am’ version of ‘impartiality’, perhaps.
Journalists are allowed to lose their ‘objectivity’ this way, but not that way – not the way that offends the powerful. Australian media analyst Sharon Beder offers a further example of the same double standards:
‘Balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round.’ (Sharon Beder, ‘Global Spin’, Green Books, 1997, p.203)
The second problem with the no-opinion argument is that it is not possible to hide opinions by merely ‘sticking to the facts’. The facts we highlight and ignore, the tone and language we use to stress or downplay those facts, inevitably reflect personal opinion.
The third problem is indicated by the title of historian Howard Zinn’s autobiography: ‘You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train’. Even if we believe it is possible to suppress our personal opinion in reporting facts, we will still be taking sides. Zinn explained:
‘As I told my students at the start of my courses, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” The world is already moving in certain directions – many of them are horrifying. Children are going hungry, people are dying in wars. To be neutral in such a situation is to collaborate with what is going on.’ (‘The Zinn Reader’, Seven Stories Press, Howard Zinn, 1997, p.17)
Matt Taibbi gives a striking example:
‘Try as hard as you want, a point of view will come forward in your story. Open any newspaper from the Thirties or Forties, check the sports page; the guy who wrote up the box score, did he have a political point of view? He probably didn’t think so. But viewed with 70 or 80 years of hindsight, covering a baseball game where blacks weren’t allowed to play without mentioning the fact, that’s apology and advocacy. Any journalist with half a brain knows that the biases of our time are always buried in our coverage…’
A fourth, closely-related problem is that not taking sides – for example against torture, or against big countries exploiting small countries, or against selling arms to tyrants, or against stopping rather than exacerbating climate change – is monstrous. A doctor treating a patient is biased in seeking to identify and solve a health problem. No one would argue that the doctor should stand neutrally between sickness and health. Is it not self-evident that we should all be biased against suffering?
Finally, why does the journalistic responsibility to suppress personal opinion trump the responsibility to resist crimes of state for which we are accountable as democratic citizens? If the British government was massacring British citizens, would journalists refuse to speak out? Why does the professional media contract outweigh the social contract? Journalists might respond that ‘opinion-free’ journalism is vital for a healthy democracy. But without dissent challenging open criminality, democracy quickly decays into tyranny. This is the case, for example, if we remain ‘impartial’ as our governments bomb, invade and kill 100,000s of people in foreign countries. A journalist who refuses even to describe the Iraq war as a crime is riding a cultural train that normalises the unthinkable. In the real world, journalistic ‘impartiality’ on Iraq helped facilitate Britain and the United States’ subsequent crimes in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
This is the ugly absurdity of the innocent-looking idea that journalists’ ‘organs of opinion’ can and should be removed.
So if we reject this flawed and immoral version of objectivity behind which so many corporate journalists hide, what then is objective journalism? Are we arguing for open bias, for a prejudice free-for-all disconnected from any attempt at fairness? Not at all.
Equalising Self And Other
Objective, impartial journalism is rooted in the understanding that ‘my’ happiness and suffering do not matter more than ‘your’ happiness and suffering; and that it is irrational, cruel and unfair to pretend otherwise. Objective journalism rejects reporting and analysis that prioritises ‘my’ interests – ‘my’ bank account, financial security, company, nation, class – over ‘your’ interests.
Objective journalism does not take ‘our’ side at ‘their’ expense. It does not count ‘our’ dead and ignore ‘their’ dead. It does not refuse to stand in judgement on ‘our’ leaders while fiercely condemning ‘their’ leaders. It does not hold ‘them’ to higher moral standards than ‘us’. It does not accept that ‘our’ nation is ‘exceptional’, that ‘we’ have a ‘manifest destiny’ to dominate ‘them’, that ‘we’ are in some way ‘chosen’.
A central claim of Buddhist and other mystical traditions is that we really can ‘equalise self and other’ in this way. Many intellectuals, including leftists, dismiss all such analysis as irrelevant piffle. But at a time when the Vikings were ravaging Europe, the ninth century Buddhist sage Shantideva asked:
‘Since I and other beings both,
In wanting happiness, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should strive to have my bliss alone?’ (Shantideva, ‘The Way of the Bodhisattva’, Shambhala, 1997, p.123)
If this is an astonishingly reasonable thought, it is surpassed by an even more remarkable declaration:
‘The intention, ocean of great good
That seeks to place all beings in the state of bliss,
And every action for the benefit of all:
Such is my delight and all my joy.’ (p.49)
After four billion years of evolution ostensibly ‘red in tooth and claw’, Shantideva was here asserting that caring for others is a source of delight and bliss that far exceeds mere pleasure from personal gain.
The claim, of course, is greeted with scepticism by a society that promotes unrestrained greed for maximised profit. But if we set aside our groupthink and take another look, it is actually a matter of common experience. The Indian spiritual teacher, Osho, commented:
‘Have you never had a feeling of contentment after having smiled at a stranger in the street? Didn’t a breeze of peace follow it? There is no limit to the wave of tranquil joy you will feel when you lift a fallen man, when you support a fallen person, when you present a sick man with flowers – but not when you do it [out of duty] because he is your father or because she is your mother. No, the person may not be anyone in particular to you, but simply to give a gift is itself a great reward, a great pleasure.’
The existence of this reward has been confirmed by some very interesting and credible science (see here).
Objective journalism is thus rooted in two claims:
1) that human beings are able to view the happiness and suffering of others as being of equal importance to their own.
2) that, perhaps counter-intuitively for a society like ours, individuals and societies dramatically enhance their well-being when they ‘equalise self and other’ in this way.
In other words, this is not a sentimental pipe dream – human beings can be fair and just, and they do experience benefits from being so.
The value of objective journalism, and indeed objective living, in this sense is clear enough. We know from research (see here) and our own experience that people who think only of themselves are as miserable as they are biased.
In his collection of spontaneous talks, ‘Ta Hui – The Great Zen Master’, Osho gave a powerful example of objectivity, in the sense intended here, from his own childhood:
‘It happened that in my village, between my house and a temple, there was a piece of land. For some technical reason, my father was able to win the case if he took it to court – only on technical reasons. The land was not ours, the land belonged to the temple. But the technical reason was this: the map of the temple did not show that the land was in their territory. It was some fault of the municipal committee’s clerical staff; they had put the land onto my father’s property.
‘Naturally in court there was no question; the temple had no right to say that it was their land. Everybody knew it was their land, my father knew it was their land. But the land was precious, it was just on the main street, and every technical and legal support was on my father’s side. He brought the case to the court.
‘I told him, “Listen” – I must have been not more than eleven years old – “I will go to the court to support the temple. I don’t have anything to do with the temple, I have never even gone inside the temple, whatever it is, but you know perfectly well that the land is not yours.”
‘He said, “What kind of son are you? You will witness against your own father?”
‘I said, “It is not a question of father and son; in the court it is a question of what is true. And not only will your son be there; your father I have also convinced.”
‘He said, “What!”
‘I had a very deep friendship with my grandfather, so we had consulted. I had told him, “You have to support me because I am only eleven years old. The court may not accept my witnessing because I am not an adult, so you have to support me. You know perfectly well that the land is not ours.”
‘He said, “I am with you.”
‘So I told my father, “Just listen, from both sides, from your father and from your son… you simply withdraw the case; otherwise you will be in such a trouble, you will lose the case. It is only technically that you are able to claim. But we are not going to support a technical mistake on the part of the municipal clerk.”
‘He said, “You don’t understand a simple thing, that a family means… you have to support your family.”
‘I said, “No, I will support the family only if the family is right. I will support whoever is right.”
‘He talked to my grandfather who said, “I have already promised your son that I will be going with him.”
‘My father said, “That means I will have to withdraw the case and lose that valuable piece of land!”
‘He said, “What can be done about it? Your son is going to create trouble for you, and seeing the situation, that he will not in any way be persuaded, I have agreed with him – just to make his position stronger so that you can withdraw; it is better to withdraw than to get defeated.”
‘My father said, “But this is a strange family! I am working for you all. I am working for you, I am working for my son – I am not working for myself. If we can have a beautiful shop on that land you will have a better, more comfortable old age; he will have a better education in a better university. And you are against me.”
‘My grandfather said, “I am not against anybody, but he has taken my promise, and I cannot go against my word – at least as far as he is concerned – because he is dangerous, he may put me in some trouble. So I cannot deceive him; I will say whatever he is saying. And he is saying the truth – and you know it.”
‘So my father had to withdraw the case – reluctantly… but he had to withdraw the case. I asked my grandfather to bring some sweets so we can distribute them in the neighborhood. My father has come to his senses, it has to be celebrated. He said, “That seems to be the right thing to do.”
‘When my father saw that I was distributing sweets, he asked, “What are you doing? – for what? What has happened?”
‘I said, “You have come back to your senses. Truth is victorious.” And I gave him a sweet also.
‘He laughed. He said, “I can understand your standpoint, and my own father is with you, so I thought it is better that I should also be with you. It is better to withdraw without any problem. But I have learned a lesson.” He said to me, “I cannot depend on my family. If there is any trouble they are not going to support me just because they belong to me as father, as son, as brother. They are going to support whatever is true.”
‘And since that time no other situation ever arose, because he never did anything in which we had to disagree. He remained truthful and sincere.
‘Many times in his life he told me, “It was so good of you; otherwise I was going to take that land, and I would have committed a crime knowingly. You prevented me, and not only from that crime, you prevented me from then onwards. Whenever there was a similar situation, I always decided in favor of truth, whatever the loss. But now I can see: truth is the only treasure. You can lose your whole life, but don’t lose your truth.”‘ (Osho, ‘Ta Hui – The Great Zen Master’, 1987, free e-book)
Objective journalism insists that ‘I will support the family only if the family is right. I will support whoever is right.’ If the facts show that the Iraq war was an unprovoked war of aggression, then objective journalism will describe it as such.
Unfortunately, of course, most corporate journalism says:
‘I will support my family, my party, my newspaper, my corporation, my advertisers, my arms industry, my military, my country, my class, whether or not they are right. I will support whatever benefits me. I will highlight facts and voices in a tone that benefits the powerful interests that reward me. I will ignore facts and voices that might harm my career.’
Osho’s father perceived his son’s challenge as an attack: ‘you are against me’. But in fact Osho was not against his father, nor was he for the temple – he was for the truth.
In 2012, Media Lens compared media reaction to the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier, with a massacre of 108 people in Houla, Syria, for which Western media found Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad personally responsible. We asked what evidence would be required before journalists found Obama personally responsible for such a massacre. Obviously, the involvement of US forces would need to be confirmed beyond doubt. These forces would need to have been acting under orders. Presumably, Obama would need to have signed these orders, or been aware of them and agreed to them on some level. But Syrian forces were instantly declared responsible, with Assad held personally responsible, even before the killers had been identified.
We were inviting readers to consider if ostensibly free, independent journalists treat foreign governments, especially Official Enemies of state, the same way they treat their own government and its leading allies. We were not against Obama any more than we were for Assad – we were for the truth.
Ironically, our attempts to challenge biased reporting in this way are regularly denounced as examples of ugly bias – we are described as ‘pro-Assad’, ‘pro-Gaddafi’, ‘pro-Putin’ ‘genocide deniers’, ‘apologists for tyranny’, and so on, often by people waging a kind of propaganda war against anyone challenging power.
‘If Islamic State’s attack had been on a French hospital, shooting doctors and patients, it would have been one of 2017’s defining traumas.’
Again, this comment was no more ‘pro-Afghan’ than it was ‘anti-French’ – it pointed to a deep and dangerous bias in the way corporate media respond to suffering in the world.
Why do we care so much about this bias? Because, as Osho’s anecdote suggests, all is not as it seems. It turns out that there are hidden costs to mendacity, just as there are hidden benefits to truth.
After decades spent honing its talent for suppressing profit-hostile fact and opinion, the corporate media system has become incapable of reporting truth even in the face of imminent disaster. The cost, in this age of catastrophic climate change, is becoming very clear.
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org