1 month Ago
Whether there is such a thing as truly objective journalism—reporting without any explicit or implicit bias—is the subject of the article Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News? (New York Times). It’s a conversation between Bill Keller—editor of the New York Times—and Glenn Greenwald—currently of the Guardian and, most recently, the driving force behind reporting on NSA spying and distributing Edward Snowden’s revelations.
Greenwald argues quite convincingly that there is only journalism and not-journalism. There is reporting of all of the facts, regardless of whether they support your ideology or not. Facts are unaffected even if a reporter simultaneously states his or her ideology. Keller represents the viewpoint that reporters should be objective—that is, they should definitely not express an ideology—and that other factors must be considered before reporting a fact—primarily national-security concerns—but doesn’t admit that this amounts to an implicit nationalistic bias.
Everyone is subjective
Here’s Greenwald arguing that humans are subjective and that anything that they produce is necessarily also subjective.
This seems unassailable, but Keller responds later with,
This is demonstrably untrue and is, at best, wild speculation.
Readers won’t expect to get some information from a clearly biased source—one that has openly expressed his or her biases—and hence will not assume that they’ve gotten the whole picture. They are much more likely to seek out other sources in order to get balance.
A source that claims to be unbiased—and convinces readers that this is true—will fool those readers into thinking that they’ve gotten the whole story from that source when, in fact, that source’s implicit and unacknowledged bias has prevented the reader from actually doing so. The reader, however, stops seeking information, assuming that the ostensibly unbiased source would have no reason to withhold or distort information.
When is it OK to publish information?
Another source of disagreement between the two arises in regard to the proper publication time of national-security–sensitive information. Keller claims that the New York Times carefully decides whether it can publish certain information, while Greenwald argues that it is exactly this vetting process that makes the Times’s reporting so subjective and biased in favor of US nationalism. History bears out Greenwald’s argument: the Times has, again and again, failed to publish information that the public needed to know, published lies and allegations that misleadingly swayed public opinion and otherwise adjusted its formulations to appease the powers-that-be (e.g. consistently writing “enhanced interrogation” rather than “torture”).
When Keller alleges that Wikileaks and also Greenwald tend to publish information recklessly, Greenwald responds,
It was, and is, in fact, the New York Times, that does all of those things, despite the allegedly bulletproof and judicious editorial review that Keller claims takes place for all issues of greater sensitivity. There are several possible explanations:
You don’t even know you’re doing it
Keller attempts to defend himself, claiming that the Times operates only under the guise of reason (2) above. Here he addresses the emphasized segment of Greenwald’s citation above, that the Times withholding information is likely to have contributed to Bush’s second term.
It’s actually very likely that Keller believes this himself. There is, however, no reason that we should continue to believe him. He and his paper claim a certain credo and continually act in a manner that belies it. Ignore what he says and watch instead what he does. That is what Greenwald does, citing again that instance of the Times having withheld information as a clear bias that, even if implicit, had far more wide-reaching consequences and did much more damage than the explicitly stated biases in Greenwald’s own reporting ever could.
Keller is naturally not pleased with this accusation and responds that Greenwald seems to be saying that Greenwald—and only Greenwald—knows what the real reasons are for why the mainstream media reports what it does.
Here’s where Keller actually proves Greenwald’s point. Keller seems incapable of seeing—or admitting that he sees—how a reporter who shields his own opinions from his readers is almost certain to be equally adept at shielding them from himself. Someone who isn’t consciously aware of his biases cannot be vigilant against them and won’t notice when he nevertheless (perhaps subtly) expresses them in his writing. Anything that is written is necessarily infused with the author’s opinion. It may be through the subconscious omission of certain information or perhaps the phrasing used to impart that which is included.
This happens even to those to whom we give the benefit of the doubt that it is inadvertent, to say nothing of reporters who are fully aware that they are disseminating propaganda. These subtle signals, sometimes called dog whistles, are picked up and interpreted by even the less savvy reader—in fact, especially by them—and internalized. Examples abound of how properly chosen phrasing can express a plausibly deniable truth.
Greenwald winds up this part of the conversation by explaining how Keller’s belief in objective journalism—which represents the attitude of most of the mainstream media—is eroding the public trust in news.
Defending journalism against tyranny
Naturally, the conversation touches on the most egregious punishments meted out by the US government on those from whom it has revoked the title of journalist or whistleblower: Assange, Manning, Snowden, etc. It would seem that these instances prove Greenwald’s point—namely, that the Times has learned well what punishment awaits organizations and reporters that do not appropriately kowtow to the hegemony.
In its own interest and in the interest of self-preservation, the Times adjusts what it reports and how it reports it. All without informing its readers that there are certain things that they will never read because of the risk associated with writing it. Whether this is cowardly is the subject of another discussion. The honest thing to do would be to at least admit the shortcoming so that readers can make informed decisions.
Useless and misleading facts
The problem with the theory that facts are objective is that it ignores facts that, once accepted, skew reality.
Swiss Internet usage
For example, while it’s probably empirically true that 95% of all Swiss use the Internet, the information without context is meaningless. How much do they use it? Does using it once in your life count? Which Swiss are we talking about? Kids? Older people?
Without the context provided by asking when and how often the Internet is used, it’s senseless to actually internalize that fact and foolish to use that information further because it will affect the other opinions you form. It’s easy to imagine such a fact being printed or misinterpreted from a report and then being disseminated until businesses are making decisions based on the “known fact” that almost all Swiss use the Internet.
The skewed starting point ensures that subsequent opinions will be ever more skewed, with each inadequate fact compounding the others until the reader is so far afield as to have opinions that are completely detached from reality.
US welfare program cost increases
Likewise, while it’s true that the US welfare budget has increased by 11,000% (as shown on a Fox News segment), it’s again a deliberately propagandist formulation. 110 times larger means the same thing but is a smaller number and less scary. A closer look at the chart where the fact appeared reveals that the increase is from the first year of the program until today, most likely utterly ignoring inflation and using absolute costs rather than a more sensible per-capita or per-recipient formulation.
Once you start to ask questions, the propaganda falls apart. How many more people are using the program now than then? Have the welfare rolls also increased 11,000%? If so, then the program hasn’t actually gotten more wasteful, it’s just expanded and maintained its original efficiency). It’s also quite likely that the program started very small and grew quickly, so it would be more honest to use a figure from after the initial phase—perhaps a few years in—as the starting data point.
Measuring growth over the entire 50-year lifetime of a program without mentioning the timespan, methodology or number of people actually using the program is tantamount to propaganda and anything but objective.
This was from a source that purports to be fair and balanced, so people would accept the chart as fact and stop looking. The New York Times suffers from the same hubris that it is fair and balanced and lulls its readers into accepting its skewed facts sold as objective journalism.
The global wine shortage
A final example comes from widely reports of a global wine shortage in 2013, as discussed in the article There’s no global wine shortage by Felix Salmon (Reuters). In this case, though, the facts presented are a good deal more manipulated: the chart in the original report omitted the most recent year’s worth of data because it belied the predefined conclusion and also added “300 million [cases that are] Morgan Stanley’s estimate of the annual demand for “non-wine uses” of wine”. The omission of a recent uptick plus the inclusion of a completely fabricated 300-million cases made the lines overlap and TADA! we have a shortage.
While this is a good deal sleazier and more obviously unethical than the other examples, it’s a fact that news sources all over the world promulgated news of a shortage to their consumers without even performing the most basic analysis. These are ostensibly objective news sources—they’re just really bad journalists. There is also the implicit bias that reporters (note that I’m no longer calling them journalists) and their editors have that makes them receptive to stories that sell, even if it’s not necessarily the news that people need to hear. So while the wine-shortage story is completely false, it spread like wildfire and has probably become unassailable, established fact in the minds of many readers.
After a relatively civilized and worthwhile exchange, Bill Keller couldn’t resist putting on his avuncular hat and honoring Greenwald with the following gem of wisdom,
This is undoubtedly good advice, but after a long exchange among equals, it makes him sound like a sanctimonious, condescending ass. Perhaps another lesson would be more appropriate, one that Greenwald has clearly internalized far more than most of the editorial staff of the New York Times: when you stop basing articles on data that is demonstrably wrong, you have to admit you were wrong a lot less.
Once you start looking for this kind of stuff, you’ll notice that it’s everywhere. For example, the chart below comes from the post, The Collapse of Infrastructure in One Chart by Alexander Reed Kelly (TruthDig) and purports to show how government spending on infrastructure has plummeted.
Whereas it’s true that it has dropped off enough for us to take notice, the chart suggests that it’s dropped off to almost nothing. A closer look shows that the baseline has been chosen to encourage this interpretation. Now, how did that happen? It was clearly a bias on the part of the author—i.e. the author wanted readers to read the chart a certain way—but was it implicit or explicit bias?↩
 Which is kind of what he is, if you’ve ever read anything else he’s ever written. I respect Glenn Greenwald and read him regularly, but I almost skipped this article because I didn’t feel like reading anything that Bill Keller had written. This exchange was by far the most coherent and reasonable I’ve seen him—he’s usually inchoate and raging about something in a very biased way, He has the excuse that he’s on the editorial page but his disdain for facts is legendary.↩
2 months Ago
Russell Brand has been in the media of late, the first time because of an acceptance speech at an awards ceremony sponsored by Hugo Boss, during which he reminded everyone from whom their sponsor had gotten his inauspicious start (the S.S. in the 1930s).
In response to that hullabaloo, he responded with the relatively well-written essay Russell Brand and the GQ awards: ‘It’s amazing how absurd it seems’ (Guardian), in which he wrote,
This is a theme to which he would return in a more recent essay, an editorial he wrote when at the helm of the New Statesman for a month. The theme being: endemic corporatism, subverted democracy and revolution as a requirement for upending the status quo (i.e. working within the system is a waste of time and energy, a sink that absorbs transformational fervor in its placative, treacly folds).
Brand went on,
His more recent essay, Russell Brand on revolution: “We no longer have the luxury of tradition” (The New Statesman) expanded on these ideas further, again in a very eloquent and well-informed manner. That is, this man is well worth listening to and a worthy sparring partner in any debate on the matters outlined above. He is to be taken seriously, even if he is very funny. That someone is funny does not mean that they have nothing serious to say (see Louis C.K. citation below). To the contrary, humor is used to attract attention to the more interesting undercurrents of thought. Interesting thoughts presented without humorous baubles tend to be ignored.
In the video below, Brand elaborated on the reasoning behind encouraging people not to vote in his editorial.
Paxman’s first question set the tone: “what gives you the authority to talk about politics?” What a stupid fucking question. What an arrogant and rude question. In the conversation that would follow, it would quickly become obvious that it was Paxman who had nothing intellectually stimulating or informative to offer, not Brand. Paxman was very dismissive and almost deliberately obtuse – basically, a foil that represents the average idiot. He looked like a fool next to Brand.
To this Paxman responds with an utterly simplistic question: “How do you think people get power? […] You get power by being voted in.” It cannot possibly be that Paxman is really this stupid. He cannot possibly believe in a democratic process that functions in so simple a manner. And he certainly can’t believe that he lives in such a society. Nevertheless, he continued to hector Brand about his abdication of democracy in not voting, to which Brand eventually responded,
Paxman then provocatively—trolling—asked why Brand hates democracy, since he’s so ready for revolution? As if Brand were a quitter who just hadn’t given the current system enough of a chance. Paxman can watch his colleagues take democracy, wipe their arses with it, then hand it back and, when the recipient wrinkles his or her nose and moves to throw it away, says “What? Don’t you like democracy anymore?” For him, it’s the whining losers that are the problem, not the horrifically corrupt winners.
Brand had, by that point, more than adequately expressed his views in a succinct (for him, at least) and clear manner. Instead of refuting Paxman, he simply screamed that “yes, I want revolution!”, but at least unapologetically. It is the only conclusion to which one can come with his views – views with which Paxman concurred, by the way. Paxman is just a comfortable coward who doesn’t care one whit for the common man.
Paxman takes another classic tack, asking Brand “what’s the scheme? What’s the plan for revolution?” as one isn’t allowed to notice that something is total shit—the current politico-capitalist dynamic, in this case—before one has a fully evolved and bulletproof system ready to replace it. This is a classic bullshit position to take.
Still, Brand answers with an outline,
…to which Paxman dismissively crosses his arms, seeming as if he’s doing Brand a favor by even deigning to interview him.
As another answer to this question, in his essay in the New Statesman, Brand had cited Buckminster Fuller’s solution to everything,
The point is that a revolution and a redesign/reboot seems like an impossible task, but then so does almost everything worth doing. That in no way means we shouldn’t embark on the journey and gracefully accept a “failure” that has still carried us a good way toward something better than what we have now. The percentage of people who can truly call what we have now “better” is very small. Around 1%, actually. Or even a tenth of that.
We currently have a system where suffering is endemic: without suffering, nothing works at all.
In order for your pocket of life to flourish, countless others suffer through their beleaguered days on Earth. It’s a zero-sum game, but it doesn’t have to be. However, since the winners wield so much power and they control the democratic process, there is no way a proper solution can realistically arise within the system. About that Brand is 100% correct and the ruling class knows it.
This reminded me of a recent special I’d seen Oh my God by Louis C.K. where he addressed the same issue, with very, very dark humor.
This extremely political and highly judgmental point is made—and can be made—because it’s couched in the language of humor, of sarcasm, of “facetiousness”, as Paxman put it. Without the juxtaposition, without the reductio ad absurdum, people do not notice how horrible their system is. They are like fish who don’t know what water is, blissfully unaware of how much goes on around them to keep their little lives afloat.
Paxman is definitely one of these people, too comfortable in the current system, so he exhorts everyone to work within it, even while acknowledging that it’s all but irrevocably broken.
Still, Brand is game and goes on to explain why people shouldn’t vote—not just not bother voting apathetically, but actively resist voting because it’s a placative designed to keep the sheep from looking up. “[…] These little valves, these cozy little valves of recycling and Prius ” only serve to distract us enough so that we never try to change anything that matters.
The system we have now is a malignant tumor, settled into every organ of our collective body. And those that want it to continue aren’t necessarily evil. Some are, there’s no doubt about it. There are some who know exactly what’s going on and do not care one bit. But there are others who—and I feel that Paxman is a perfect example—truly and honestly do not see what the problem is. They know that something is wrong—Paxman admits as much—but they have roped off large parts of the system as untouchable, unchangeable, as sacrosanct and as enduring as the stars in the sky. Plus, the system works for them most handsomely—those for whom it does not work are simply lazy, jealous whiners. And so it goes.
But we have to just ignore our current lords of creation, ignore their mewling and continue with our work, going around them, giving them only as much notice as is due to dangerous and powerful creatures whose time is past.
We have to wipe the slate clean and reëvaluate all of our ideas. We can’t just stick to “quaint, old-fashioned notions like nation, capitalism and consumerism simply because it’s convenient for the tiny, greedy, myopic sliver of the population that those outmoded ideas serve.” It would sometimes be far more comfortable for us to do so—look at the shiny new iPhone! Don’t you want one?! Of course you do. Now kowtow to your boss and the powers-that-be, take that horrible job doing horrible things to powerless people, put your nose to the grindstone and become one of the sheep again. Stop thinking so much.
And, while we’re choosing ideas, we have to acknowledge the horrendous mistakes, the obviously short-sighted choices made in building up the current system. There are certain parts we can keep—democracy should fit in there somewhere—but there are other parts that are so obviously unbalanced and untenable for any society even thinking of calling itself civilized, that they just have to go.
Brand puts forth preservation of the planet as one such idea, an idea to which only lip-service is paid by our current system.
That sounds like a good, logical place to start. That even sounds like the nascent beginnings of a plan.
 Or at least he plays one on TV. I don’t know very much about him, but what I saw was an intellectually lazy man being deliberately frustrating and making what could have otherwise been a rollicking discussion quite turgid and unsatisfying.↩
5 months Ago
Seven agents. Tailing and taking down a college student for buying beer 1 year early. That’s what they thought they were doing. They turned out to have been wrong. But even if they weren’t, does our society not have better things to do?
She managed to get into her car and took off, “grazing” one of the agents trying to sprawl across her car to prevent her from absconding with her illicit gains. She was arrested by several other officers with several more vehicles and spent the night in jail before it was reluctantly agreed to drop the charges they filed against her for “two counts of assaulting a law enforcement officer and one count of eluding police”. Her only crime was to run when unidentified and ununiformed people assaulted her in a parking lot.
The article The United States of Crazy: You Can Now Go to Jail for a Sarcastic Facebook Comment by William Boardman (AlterNet) isn’t as exciting but is much worse given how long it’s been allowed to continue—especially considering how many law professionals are involved, any one of whom should know better than to let this travesty continue.
An 18-year–old Texan man wrote “I’m f—ed in the head alright. I think I’ma [sic] shoot up a kindergarten and watch the blood of the innocent rain down and eat the beating heart of one of them.‘” on Facebook. There was no reason whatsoever to believe that he had any intention of actually doing this. The context is not important, but exonerates him even more.
What is important is the police and societal reaction. Someone (a woman from Canada) complained and the full force of American justice swept into action. He was arrested and bail was set at $250,000. He had no prior record. Then they let him sit in jail, unprosecuted, unquestioned, “for almost a month”. In the meantime, his apartment was ransacked and, without any discernible reason or supporting evidence, “[t]he state also asked the court to raise Carter’s bail to $500,000”.
Finally, after almost a month, he was charged with “making a “terroristic threat,” a third degree felony […which] carries a potential penalty of 2-10 years in prison and/or a fine of $10,000”. That’s on top of whatever the Texas prison system was allowed to do to him while he hadn’t even been charged yet. All for a sentence written on the Internet, with no other supporting evidence.
The case is still pending as of the beginning of July. The little reporting that has been done by US media is best represented by NPR, which called the story “[a] painful reminder of how online comments can have real-life consequences”. That would be the bastion of left-liberal opinion in America, utterly failing to make a peep about the War on Terror and state power gone absolutely berserk. Charles Cooke of the National Review was much better, writing that “it is not the place of authority to judge what is and what is not acceptable [speech], and it is certainly not the place of the state to designate casual discussion as ‘terrorism.’”
The U.S. is so starved for cases that “prove” that its prosecution of the War on Terror is good and just and effective that it is willing to sacrifice any detritus and build its case on any lies just to justify continued expenditures and giant budgets. An 18-year–old guy with loose lips living on his own and working a dead-end job is perfect fodder for this machine, the poor bastard.
From the article:
From the article Rand Paul’s Confederacy Scandal Is Not an Anomaly – Libertarianism Is a ‘Philosophy’ That Papers Over Deep Racism in America by Thom Hartmann (AlterNet),
And how little do those poor people have?
The articles Whites and African-Americans in America by the numbers by Juan Cole (Informed Comment) and Murderers where the Victim was White are Far more Likely to be Punished in US (Graph) by Juan Cole (Informed Comment) include the following charts illustrating an America that doesn’t look very post-racial at all. The second chart, illustrating median wealth for blacks is only 4% of that for whites (and about 6% for Latinos), is particularly disturbing.
Not only are blacks and Latinos just so much poorer than whites—a trend that, as shown in the charts above, has only increased—they are also incarcerated at much, much higher rates.
With the death penalty still on the menu in so many states, the following chart shows that it is used overwhelmingly to avenge the murder of white people—even though blacks, with only 14% of the population, account for 50% of the murder victims every year.
And how do things look at that other creamy-white and cushy rich end of the spectrum? The article US diplomats cry foul as Obama donors take over top embassy jobs by Dan Roberts (Guardian) offers a hint as to how much political clout blacks have gained with “one of their own” in the White House (as has been so elegantly put by so many pundits).
Obama has never said one word about incarceration rates, but he’s handing out plum government posts like filthy lucre to his biggest donors—donors who gave away more money to a single political campaign than most black families will see in a lifetime (see charts above). Sure, Susan Rice is now Obama’s national security advisor—only one of the many posts she’s had—but she’s richer Croesus and nearly radically right-wing in her policies, so she barely even counts as a very rare exception to the rule. In the history of the U.S. Senate, there have only ever been a paltry handful (Wikpedia) of black Senators. This is including the fifty years after they got their civil rights. Women are also woefully underrepresented (Wikpedia), but not to that same shocking degree.
And trying to explain away these numbers by pointing out that perhaps blacks and Latinos just commit more crime and are too lazy to earn money or waste it all frivolously when they do earn it—well, that’s not very post-racial reasoning, is it? There is something institutionally corrupt at every level in America and these statistics, gathered over decades, show that not only has there been no improvement—but things have gotten drastically and rapidly worse. Where will the U.S. be in ten more years? Twenty?
6 months Ago
Gibney has quite a good string of documentaries behind him, but We Steal Secrets seems to be a good deal shakier. I have not seen it, but it’s a documentary about WikiLeaks that focuses on the personal weaknesses and personality characteristics of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange without having interviewed either one of them, indeed without having interviewed anyone in the WikiLeaks organization. I reserve final judgment until I’ve seen it, but it doesn’t bode well.
Given that background, Gibney’s interview seemed spun a good deal more positively toward Manning and whistleblowing than I expected.
Stephen, though, took his typically roundabout, chess-master/debate-master approach to trapping Gibney into an equivalence that he probably wasn’t comfortable making (or at least agreeing with). It takes a while to get there, but it’s totally worth it.
Stephen elegantly managed to chastise Gibney for making a take-down documentary of people that they both just agreed are actually heroes, while ignoring the far greater evil of torture in the Bush administration. Gibney’s other documentary Taxi to the Dark Side follows the story of a taxi driver kidnapped in Afghanistan and taken to Guantánamo prison. I have not yet seen it, so again I must reserve judgment as to how well he treated the subject.
Not only were Reuter’s journalists killed—the only reason many in the West cared about the video—but Iraqi civilians were also killed. The worst part of the video was actually that the gunners in the helicopter waited until a civilian truck showed up to pick up the wounded, then killed those civilians as well, laughing and joking the whole time. There were two small children clearly visible in the rescue truck.
In U.S. military parlance, cleaning up the rescue team after an attack is called executing a “double-tap”.
If you watch the video, the fact that two of the victims were Reuter’s journalists is far down the list of things that are offensive and morally repugnant about the movie. Unless you don’t really care about Iraqi civilians.↩
 The logs and cabled were leaked, not killed. The grammar was a bit unclear there.↩
 When the U.S. was forced to turn to the “dark side” in order to defend itself, a statement attributed to Dick Cheney.↩
 This is, by definition, exactly the reason for such an act that is explicitly covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act in the U.S. Instead, the Obama administration and justice department are prosecuting him under the Foreign Espionage Act, in order to charge him with aiding the enemy.↩