Monday, July 01, 2013

The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled

A few months ago, I wrote a post called, "That Power of Accurate Observation Is Called Political By Those Who Have Not Got It."  The post was about critiques of my novels as being "political" because of some of their themes -- such as depicting gays as human beings deserving of equal protection under the law; depicting the blow-back costs of US drone warfare; depicting the personal doubts of western spies about the efficacy of their means and the morality of their mission.  My conclusion:  of course my novels are political (they're political thrillers, after all).  But what's important to understand is that all novels are in various ways political. Choosing "not to be political" is like choosing "not to make a choice" -- it's a logical and practical impossibility.  Choosing not to make a choice is a choice.  And choosing not to be political is a profoundly political act.

Consider these quotes:

Sooner or has to take sides -- if one is to remain human.  -- Graham Greene, The Quiet American

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  -- Desmond Tutu

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.  -- Edmund Burke

The concept behind the quotes above seems axiomatic to me:  we cannot help but choose, and our choices are inherently political.  It's important to understand this about novels, and at least as important to understand it about journalism.

Why journalism, you ask?  Aren't reporters just objective reporters of the facts, reporting impartially without fear or favor, all the news that's fit to print, fair and balanced and all that?

No, they are not.  It is impossible not to be political (or call it biased, or activist, or polemical, or whatever else dishonest and ignorant people would have you believe) in journalism.  Because even the journalistic decision that seems least obtrusive is in fact the most consequential:  that is, what topic to cover.  If you provide coverage to what whistleblower Edward Snowden's girlfriend does for exercise and not to how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper perjured himself to Congress, then whether you're aware of it or not you are making a political decision, because you are implying gossipy bullshit is more important than governmental lying (and yes, of course, prioritizing governmental lying over gossipy bullshit is also political -- the point is, they both are).  If you obsess over the personality of another journalist instead of dedicating yourself to uncovering the truth about the NSA's massive, illegal domestic spying operation, you are implicitly claiming (and explicitly trying to achieve) that people should focus on the former rather than on the latter -- that what is best for society is that we focus on individual personalities rather than on governmental misdeeds.  I think such priorities are terrible, but that's not really the point.  The point is, these are political priorities, and inherently, inescapably so.  Not even a computer could provide apolitical coverage.  Certainly no human can.

And it's not just topics that are impossible to choose without making political decisions -- it's diction, too.  If you use phrases like "aid and abet" when you ask about a journalist's activities, that is a political choice (and so again, obviously, is the decision to focus on the reporter rather than on what's been reported).  When you choose whether to call someone a journalist, a reporter, an investigative reporter, a blogger, an activist, a polemicist… these are all inherently (albeit insidiously) political choices.  When news organizations use phrases like "harsh interrogation" to describe what they had previously described as "torture," they are making political choices.  "Targeted killing" vs assassination… "detainee" vs prisoner… "detainment facility" vs gulag… "security fence" vs wall… even phrases we might not otherwise pause to consider, such as "oil spill" rather than geyser or eruption… all of these inescapably involve profoundly political choices.

Why is it so important to understand all this?

Because so many journalists are invested in fooling you (and perhaps in fooling themselves) into believing that those bad reporters are political, while we good reporters are not.  The message is, "Trust and empower me, the good objective journalist, not that bad political one over there!"

This is bullshit intended to fool you into giving greater credence to the journalists who pretend not to be political while marginalizing the ones who don't engage in such dishonesty and denial.  Remember that great line from The Usual Suspects about Keyser Soze?  "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist" (careful about clicking on the link... there's so much amazing dialogue in that movie you might spend a half hour there, the way I just did).  That's precisely the insidious tactic of ignorant and dishonest journalists everywhere.  In fact, what should cause us to doubt a journalist's worth isn't the presence of politics, which are inescapable, but the ability and willingness of a journalist to acknowledge that he is no less inherently political than anyone else.  Trust should begin with honesty, and any journalist who tries to make you think she's not political is not being honest.

What matters in journalism isn't politics, which are as universal and inescapable as breathing.  What matters -- along with a fundamentally adversarial attitude toward government, without which "journalism" is simply public relations -- is integrity, transparency, evidence, coherence, and principle.  These are the principles on which we should evaluate the quality of journalism, and their absence is why some journalists are so desperate to get you to focus on something else.

P.S.  There's been a lot of excellent commentary on this topic of late.  For anyone as obsessed about it as I am, here are some articles.

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

Margaret Sullivan, New York Times

Jay Rosen, NYU

Frank Rich, New York Magazine

Jay Rosen, NYU

Kevin Gosztola, Firedoglake

David Carr, New York Times

Barton Gellman, Washington Post


Big Evil said...

Do you think the journalistic bias is always conscious? Or are you saying that pure objectivity is simply impossible?

More curiously do you really believe that ALL fiction is political? It is certainly possible to look at any work through a political lens and apply one's own metaphors and symbolism, but I'm not sure that there's political intention to all fiction. Unless again you're saying it's so inherent that it's impossible for the subtext to not be there.

Rob @ 52 Novels said...

Jay Rosen: so awesome he needed to be listed twice.

My favorite is David Carr. He's got a great story. Doesn't suffer fools or foolishness. Replacements fan. Fantastic writer.

Anonymous said...

@Big Evil - The decision to not write with political intent is, in itself, a political decision. Every writer has a bias regardless.

Besides a neutral voice in writing is boring, especially in fiction. And it's just lazy, too.

Big Evil said...

@Sean - don't we run into a dilution of our discourse? If everything is political then nothing is, and so on?

Also, I don't think anyone has set an operating definition for what we mean by political. If by political we mean "imbued with a person's experiences and beliefs" then there is no doubt you are correct. But if political means "designed to advance a political belief or policy agenda" then I'm not sure that's as applicable to everything. Obviously there are more potential definitions and I'm not trying to draw anyone into a false choice fallacy, just providing examples. The latter definition is closest the one I'm operating from.

To choose not to be political requires prior knowledge of what you are actively choosing not to participate in. It is possible to not be political out of ignorance and have it not be a statement of any kind.

And no one is advocating for a neutral voice. Being non political and having a neutral fictional voice aren't necessarily fungible.

Thanks for your reply.

Anonymous said...

@Big Evil - Yeah, I see what you're talking about. I apologize for misunderstanding your original point.

David Gaughran said...

I thought Taibbi's article was exceptional. The myth of "objectivity" is one that needs to be punctured.

Of course journalists - either wittingly or unwittingly - allow their own assumptions and prejudices to influence what they write about and how they write about it. It manifests itself overtly in the slant put on a particular story, but less overtly in the decisions on what story to cover or what talking head to get a quote from. But it's always there.

David Gaughran said...

P.S. John Bruton - former Irish prime minister/former EU commissioner/former EU Ambassador to the USA has written an Op Ed in the Irish Times stating that the US has breached the Vienna Convention with it's spying on the EU and that the EU should take a case to the International

Aside from the obvious, there are two interesting things about this article.

1. Bruton is very much a moderate/centrist/status quo/establishment figure. That he is calling for something like this shows the depth of feeling in the EU on the issue.

2. Bruton states quite plainly that the EU mission in Washington would never have discussed security issues, and would have discussed things like trade negotiations or commercial interests of European countries. He questions why the NSA would bug the EU mission in the first place, and hints that the NSA were gleaning information on commercial/economic matters. That opens another Pandora's Box - namely what all this information is being used for and who the end user is of it.