Polite Meaningless Words

by zunguzungu

As we watch the shells of once-not-shitty newspapers downsize themselves into irrelevance — in 2008 alone, American newsrooms let go 11% of their reporters, columnists, and editors — it seems like we’re also seeing an uptick in efforts by “real” journalists to discipline, regulate, and ghettoize other journalists for their failures of journalistic ethics, particularly bloggers. The firing of Dave Weigel and Octavia Nasr, after all, followed so fast on the heels of Helen Thomas’ forced resignation that it’s hard not to see a pattern emerging, especially since, in each case, these journalistic thought-crimes were revealed online. Greenwald sees it as ideological, and he makes a strong case.

But I think it’s also important that the internet is becoming the fault line for these tea-pot tempests (if I may mix my metaphor, and I may). Nasr and Thomas were about as establishment old-media as it is possible to be, but none of these firings (along with Breitbart or the Journolist fandangos) would have happened were it not for the ways the internet is blurring the old distinctions between public and private, news and opinion. Moreover, you can’t talk about the crisis in journalism — which is always the backdrop to this stuff — without talking about the internet, or at least journalists never do. Which makes sense:  internet writers are outdoing establishment dead-tree media in all sorts of ways, and (if you’ll allow me to read the situation through the lens of The Wire, and you will) as establishment newspapers put out an inferior product,  the only way they can maintain their corners is to beef with the competition. To make things even weirder, even the prestige establishment media outlets are trying to incorporate new media practices into the old media  repertoire, which combines with the fact that the old-heads are also trying to use “bloggers” as a scapegoat to produce a stunning cognitive dissonance. It’s unsurprising, then, that we’re seeing hysterical double-think followed by violent self-discipline.

Anyway, in a nice piece on Weigel and Nasr — which will catch you up if you haven’t been following and want to be caught up — Jack Shafer found that “speak your mind, lose your job” is the obvious pattern here, pointing out that the reasons given for firing Weigel and Nasr were not only internally inconsistent, but also inconsistent with the original meaning of journalistic objectivity. As he writes,

“[t]he journalistic method was the thing that was supposed to be objective, not the journalist, a method that depended on verification of results and findings…As Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach explain in their 2001 book, The Elements of Journalism:

“When the concept originally evolved, it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Quite the contrary. The term began to appear as part of journalism early in the last century, particularly in the 1920s, out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconsciously. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and culture biases would not undermine their work.”

This seems like a really important point. Many scientists, after all, have an ideological stake in their work, but that doesn‘t mean science can‘t aspire towards the truth. Even the most cursory reading of Kuhn gives you a picture of science progressing by way of ideologically interested discoveries: Western Europe discovers the sun to be the center of the solar system at more or less the moment when that cosmology was the sort of thing that it made sense for people there and then to believe. When scientists wanted to show that black people were genetically inferior to white people, they sought out data to support their claims. Then, when the tides turned for all sorts of reasons, science came to be the means of proving precisely the opposite.

But this is not, then, to say that science is a crock and all knowledge is ideological, tempting as that sort of postmodern license to give up and enjoy yourself may be. Rather, it becomes really, really important that scientists show their work. The problem with 19th century racial “science,” after all, is that it was bad science, first and foremost, that the sorts of data those kinds of people adduced to support their claims did not, in fact, actually prove their claims. And one of the most important ways that scientists started looking for evidence that black people were not, in fact, more like animals than humans, was that the evidence pointed in that direction, and an honest reading of that evidence tended to push you in that direction. If human beings, fallible creatures that we are, tend to believe the sorts of things we want and need to believe, we also sometimes observe patterns in reality and learn from it, even when those patterns contradict what we think we think. Cognitive dissonance is learning. Which is why, if journalism is to actually mean anything or to have any kind of legitimacy, the approach that Shafer is highlighting there is the right one: let your personal biases lead you to ask the sort of questions that seem right, but then take on the burden of proving and verifying the answers you report, test the things you think against the things you can prove.

Instead, what we are seeing is a magnificently perverse inversion, a professional standard based on a sense of “credibility” that seems to preclude, rather than demand, verifiability. The NY Times, after all, said they fired Nasr because “we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.” And Dave Weigel was fired for exactly the same complaint, exactly not that he was reporting unverified facts — quite pointedly, no one has even bothered to impugn his reporting — but the fear that the newspaper’s customers would not have confidence in his freedom from bias. As Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, put it “Dave did excellent work for us…[But] we can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work.”

In other words, a good reporter is not defined by what they do, but what they are perceived to do by the people that really matter, the (conservative, apparently) customers. And instead of taking the suspicion that Weigel and Nasr might be producing slanted news and subjecting it to a standard of verification, the people that run these newspapers effectively took the existence of suspicion as its own proof, such that, in a puff of Orwell, we have a standard of proof that is precisely the opposite of what it should be: if someone else has the perception that you are unbiased, you are the one who cannot be tolerated and you must be fired. The actual facts of the matter, your ability to verify your own truth claims, is the one thing that doesn’t actually need to be investigated or verified.

* * *

As I was writing this, I came across (via) some words from Sonum Kochru that speak, however, slant to all this. But I’ll let him and them stand on their own:

…these poems, I feel, are not entirely unrelated to our time. They are not unrelated in something like the way a frame is not unrelated to a picture, though it is not what the picture is about. Or, perhaps, they are not unrelated in the way environments are not unrelated to houses and those who build them to live. Some poems are not unlike rooms in houses built for certain climates; others make a climate for our times in which it is possible for us to go on to build. In the matter of fathoming our climate there is a quality of attention to be had in poetry distinct from the opportunities of a headline. We have been, these many generations, on fire, Moti Lal Saqi writes. So many fires, and this, our unholy normalcy, only one among the kinds of burning. It is not in bad taste, I think, to celebrate words at a time when one is, to borrow a phrase from W. B. Yeats, painfully conscious of “polite, meaningless words.