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July 17, 2005

Institutionalizing Biased War Reporting

Pretty much all mainstream media institutions insist they are "objective" and "unbiased." How either of those can be true when those same outlets take explicit sides in wars is beyond me. But what is worse -- there is really not even an understanding among journalists or journalism ethicists with regard to taking sides in war. It's just a given; journalists, editors, producers and publishers are all supposed to root for the home team -- even assist the home team. And they don't even bother hiding this, despite their insistence on "objectivity."

A piece on National Public Radio's weekly show On the Media put this truism on ugly display last weekend. Entitled "Murderous Intent," the segment (transcript / audio) is an interview with correspondent Aparisim Ghosh of Time magazine, who recently interviewed a suicide bomber-to-be. OtM co-host Bob Garfield seemed to find a fascinating moral dilema in the concept of interviewing a man intent on killing Americans and then doing anything other than seeing to that source's arrest.

Now obviously, this is a worthy story and it was a very good story. But here's a guy telling you he will kill Americans, and God knows how many Iraqi civilians, and when the interview ends you watch him walk out of the room. Did that take any soulsearching on your part?

I can't help wondering if Garfield would have asked the same thing if the subject of the interview had been a US Marine who looked forward to his next opportunity to slaughter Iraqis -- even armed Iraqi resistance fighters.

Ghosh's response was equally curious:

At the time he left us [after] the interview, I suppose we could have tried to follow him. It was a very public place where he met us. And if we did try to follow him, I would be putting the lives of my Iraqi staff at risk, just in case we were, we were caught. I made the call that we shouldn't do that.

Now, as much as I think it's unethical to invite someone to do an interview with promises of confidentiality and then consider turning them over to authorities, what troubles me most about this is the implication that Ghosh might have tried to help apprehend his source. I, too, think it would be difficult to hear someone intent on killing human beings -- even invasion or occupation forces -- in a haphazard manner that endangers noncombatants, and then just let them go on their merry way. I understand the conflict; I really do.

But what I do not understand is one thing that is left unsaid in this interview: why not feel equally distressed when one interviews an American occupation trooper -- even one who just says he wants to kill Iraqi insurgents -- and not be equally concerned about that man? Why the one-sided moral repulsion at the would-be terrorist suicide bomber but not the foreign rifleman who aspires to shoot Iraqis?

We all know that, in fact, the opposite is true. Mainstream news outlets -- including the Western and Middle Eastern media alike -- regularly promise to keep US military secrets. They even withhold plans of invasions that will certainly result in significant casualties.

The mainstream media love to pretend they are objective even while they favor "our troops." But when even one of their more liberal industry analysis shows operates on the assumption that Americans are the good guys, that is an obvious sign that nothing resembling real "objectivity" is on their agenda.

Objectivity does not mean unbiased or impartial, to be sure. But it does mean not standing firmly in the camp of one side. They can't have it both ways.

The only ethical way to approach these kinds of things -- even for media outlets that qualify their objectivity, like TNS -- is with tremendous doses of skepticism and a long arm's length between you and your subject. Even if you decide you are firmly in one camp (which would be fairly preposterous in the current conflict in Iraq), you should admit it. Actually aiding either side is a different prospect altogether.

Comments...

VivekApte: Institutionalizing Biased War Reporting

Stop being so evolved already. Saying the U.S. media is objective is a lot like a new mother's relatives all saying in unison and with evident conviction how very much like the woman's husband the new baby looks, unmistakably so in fact. This is more to confirm the mother's honor than to mark the unique resemblances of the baby's features; the mother's relatives would say exactly the same thing whether the woman's husband really was the father or not. And so it is with the media. Often everyone knows that the U.S. media is far from objective, but the commitment to "our" side of the genetic battleground is so ingrained that whether we're saints or ogres, the momentum is overwhelmingly toward declaring "our"selves pure and without taint. So, regardless of whether a moment's thought would clearly reveal the media's biases to just about anyone, just about anyone isn't about to "take sides" against "our"selves and admit it; just about anyone is much more likely to dig in his heels and insist that "we" are, indeed, as pure as can be, and a "damn sight" purer than "them." I don't think any amount of talking will change that. Brian, i don't know why the world doesn't have more people who think outside their parochial boxes. Or who think, period. I think figuring that out is more likely to lead to frustration and even resignation, if you think about the fact that the world has _always_ been like this. Can you think of exceptions in human history when the wise ruled the stupid rather than the other way around? Sure, these examples exist, but they are so few in number that their only purpose seems to be to pull the wool over people's eyes as to the power-obsessed nature of the overwhelming majority of ruling systems and ideologies that have ever existed in the world. For every Shakespeare who says "All the world's a stage" there are a million idiots screaming "Ooga Booga, Let's Kill." I know i'm making the mistake of condemning the "side" that's not "my" side as being a bunch of evil neanderthals, but it's fucking true. Plus people are selfish, too. Every "side" is selfish. Human nature is selfish. The gene is selfish. It really sucks, it's really frustrating. But yeah, so my point is the real problem isn't that the media calls itself objective, it's more that "we" go along with it even when it's clearly untrue, and that enough of "us" enjoy the feeling of superiority over "others" to give momentum to these lies, silence the doubters, and reassure those with any kind of conscience not to worry, accept that it's good to feel ok about "us," that in fact it's a weakness of character not to feel that way. It really sucks. It will change when the dominant voices that tell "us" what to believe are no longer the rulers of the world, and that time will probably come within our lifetimes, but i imagine after that, hearing the same facts from another side's perspective, while refreshing, won't necessarily be objective either. I say the hell with objectivity, let's start with decency. Oh wait, that might be even harder. I don't know.


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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.