Letters

For what cause, O man, chargest thou me thy daily complaint? - Boethius

December 1989; pages 11, 12; Volume 1, No. 3
Polemicist

Dear editors:

I was reluctant to write this letter, for a couple of reasons. The foremost is that as a white male law student with both feel firmly entrenched in mainstream society (read as: practicing apologist), I feel any quibble I have with radical polemicists will be tainted with hypocrisy. Secondly, I am offering criticism of what I believe is a brilliantly written piece of prose Polemicist's manifesto against objectivity (issue 1). Nonetheless, I've decided to launch the following "apologist polemic" (and by the way, despite the dichotomy set up by the editors of this magazine between apologists and polemicists, "apologist polemic" is not an oxymoron).

I have been a journalist for a significant portion of my young life. During that time I have attempted as best I could to report events "objectively." However, I've never believed I could actually achieve objectivity - only that I should strive to model reality as completely as possible, making conscious efforts to eliminate my own biases in the process. And despite the shortcomings of this process, I think the results serve a valuable social function.

I agree with almost every criticism of the "objective" school of journalism which Henson and Philpott offer. Even Atlas ceased to be objective when he opened his mouth to interpret what he saw, and reporters certainly don't have as advantageous a position as Atlas from which to view the world. Furthermore, there are certainly more than two sides to any given story, and it is indeed reductionist to assume otherwise. I also agree that the mainstream media encourage political stagnation by too often turning to those in positions of power as conveyors of truth, Finally, I would encourage the editors of this magazine and others like it to continue their efforts to make up for the gaping holes left by the objective journalists. But I would still not do away with the "objective" school of journalism. I would keep "objective" journalism not because it succeeds in what it purports to do, but because of the potential ramifications of getting rid of it.

Objective journalism imposes what one might call a tyrannical stranglehold over the nation's flow of information, but I would posit that the alternative is an even less appealing form of tyranny - the tyranny of the demagogue. Without "objective" journalists making their best efforts to tell the whole story from an unbiased perspective, consumers of information wilt have to choose which biased perspective is closest to the truth. John Stuart Mill thought this was a grand idea, and he believed that truth will always emerge to the forefront in the "marketplace of ideas." But history has shown that people don't always believe the truth. Rather, they believe the side which presents its case most persuasively. The German people believed Hitler when he told them that the Aryan race is a superior breed, and the results were horrifying. While it's true that Nazi Germany was not a hotbed for free speech, before Hitler came into power there was political dialogue. The German people chose to believe Hitler because he proved to be one of history's most persuasive figures - he told the German people what they wanted to hear.

The most obvious result of "objective" journalism's shortcomings is that it fails to tell the complete story. But most of the time, that part of the story it does tell is true. Without "objective" journalists trying to remove their biases from their interpretations of reality, information consumers would have to rely on their own experiences and judgment to decide whose version of reality came closest to the truth. I don't think we're equipped to do that effectively. There is too much going on in the world which is far removed from the scopes of our own individual experiences. Without a medium of information which is at least making an honest attempt to convey reality without a bias, information consumers would be an too likely to believe what they want to hear, just as Germans did in the 1930's.

Furthermore, as this magazine's own financial troubles make clear, it is much easier for those in power to put together widely distributed, flashy, well-written, persuasive polemics than it is for those not in power. I believe that without "objective" journalism, we would be even more likely to be stuck with our current power structure.

But let me reiterate, I agree with most of what you said and believe the manifesto was extremely well written. The magazine has had some great articles so far and I look forward to future issues.

Steve Baughman

Tom Philpott responds:

Steve has launched a principled and intelligent attack - but I think that that almost every point, he is wrong. Just as objective journalists divide the world into "liberals" and "conservatives" (and as we, half in jest, dichotomized between "polemicists" and "apologists"), Steve can see only two possibilities for journalism, each of which he describes as a "tyranny": the current U.S. order, and the journalistic culture of Nazi Germany.

First of all, Steve, we are both too young to choose between tyrannies. Polemicists pride themselves on their jadedness, on their pessimism, on what they call with roguish delight their "nihilism"; but accepting tyranny as inevitable without a bitter fight amounts to despair, which Polemicist will always oppose.

Second, Steve argues that the Nazis gained power by telling the German people "what they wanted to hear." The U.S. media, for their part, simply report what their corporate owners and sponsors want the public to hear. It doesn't help the process of capital accumulation when people know that their tax dollars support repressive and murderous regimes. So our media relegate U.S.-mandated repression to the back pages or off the pages altogether (e.g., traditional U.S. coverage of El Salvador); or they suggest that the objects of our repression are somehow unworthy of basic political rights (note that for more than twenty years the U.S. government has opposed the creation of a sovereign, democratic Palestinian state, a stance which our media report without question).

Such objectivity, so different from Atlas', allows the government to define the terms of debate. The Israel-Palestine question becomes, "Should we support or oppose Israel's violent repression of Palestinians," instead of, "Should we support or oppose democracy in the West Bank and Gaza?"

Thus U.S. citizens can argue against (or, as many do, for) shooting Palestinian children without ever addressing Israel's fundamentally repressive and anti-democratic relationship with Palestine. This distinction may not seem urgent here in the United States. But to people in the occupied territories - whose disenfranchisement and subjugation is enforced by weapons paid for by the American public - the distinction is urgent indeed.

Steve also errs most badly in declaring that what today's journalists produce is somehow "true," although not quite "complete." Compare Polemicist's El Salvador articles with The New York Times'; or read Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman's Manufacturing Consent. I think you'll find that U.S. journalism is often incomplete to the point of fiction.

When Steve claims that it would be "much easier for those in power to put together widely distributed, flashy, well-written, persuasive polemics," I assume he knows that those in power" already do practice journalism: They call their publications things like Time, Newsweek, and The Washington Post. Maybe he means that even if current media outlets were to imitate our direct and polemical style, they would still overwhelm us with their economic clout.

But would they? Who's to say that when editors at major media outlets admit their state and corporate biases, the public will keep buying their tripe?

As Hamlet told his friend, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Against the tyranny of Steve's dichotomy, we propose a third scenario: a press that admits it biases - be they pro-corporate, pro-status quo, pro-student, or even, like the Nazis, pro-fascist.

The good journalists, like Steve, would still strive for authentic objectivity - that is to say, they would try to portray the fullest and most accurate account of "what happened." But they would do so without supporting any fictions or trying to hide the inherent limitations of their task.

We call for, in short, honest journalism. If, as Steve scorns to think, the American public is unprepared for so radical a concept, then the nation has sunk to a depth that this polemicist. even in his most cynical moments, just can't fathom.

- T.P.