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Who Is An Objective Journalist?

In a recent New York Times article article David Carr questioned whether someone could be both a journalist and an activist, a question that was prompted by the role of Glenn Greenwald, a writer for The Guardian and a political activist, in reporting on Edward Snowden's National Security Agency leaks.
As Carr put it, "The question of who is a journalist and who is an activist and whether they can be one and the same continues to roar along, most recently in the instance of Glenn Greenwald's reporting for The Guardian on the secrets revealed by Edward J. Snowden." Carr also framed the question as "a fight between objectivity and subjectivity."

Carr initially seemed to concede that one and the same person could be both an activist and a journalist, even though the activists are "driven by an agenda." In fact, the title of his article conveyed exactly that point: "Journalism, Even When It's Tilted." And, as Carr noted, this is an important concession since journalists are afforded special legal protections in the case of reporting leaks. Mr. Greenwald needs this protection because there are some government officials who would like to see him prosecuted.

However, towards the end of his article Carr began to raise caveats. Activism, he concluded, does not prevent someone from being a journalist; it rather tends to make them bad journalists: "But I think activism - which is admittedly accompanied by the kind of determination that can prompt discovery - can also impair vision." And he added: "... the tendentiousness of ideology creates its own narrative." In other words, activism can on rare occasions be helpful in unearthing the truth, but usually it is a barrier.

But perhaps Mr. Carr has failed to grasp the larger picture, possibly due to his own unspoken commitments. Everyone falls into one of two categories. There are those who basically have resigned themselves to established society, perhaps because of ideological compatibility, a strong strain of pragmatism, or a conviction that attempts to change society are entirely futile. Then there are others who are critical and are prepared to embark on a campaign to try to change what they find objectionable. Neither of these groups has a monopoly on objectivity; both positions rest on a set of fundamental values that can be rationally supported. And both involve a kind of activism: one aims at changing society while the other aims at refraining from changing it.

Yet there is a superficial difference between the two: those who want to change society do stand out. Unlike Mr. Carr, they do not seamlessly blend in with the surrounding social institutions and the values embodied in them. Accordingly, they might seem as if they have an agenda that uniquely distinguishes them, but that is only from the perspective of people like Mr. Carr, whose agenda ties him to the status quo but who has not sufficiently reflected on his own social commitments and therefore is unable to acknowledge them. No one, in other words, is exempt from having an "agenda."

This point was graphically illustrated when "Meet the Press" host David Gregory pointedly asked Greenwald why he should not be charged with a crime for divulging Edward Snowden's leaks. Here Gregory stood smugly on the side of those who wield power and was quick to demonstrate this point by his tendentious question, perhaps with the thought in mind of winning a promotion, which is a rampant form of another kind of activism.

To his credit, Carr elicited Greenwald's response to the counterposing of activism and journalism, and this was Greenwald's response: "It is not a matter of being an activist or a journalist; it's a false dichotomy. It is a matter of being honest or dishonest. All activists are not journalists, but all real journalists are activists. Journalism has a value, a purpose - to serve as a check on power." And Greenwald added: "I have seen all sorts of so-called objective journalists who have all kinds of assumptions in every sentence they write. Rather than serve as an adversary of government, they want to bolster the credibility of those in power. That is a classic case of a certain kind of activism."

Greenwald's rejection of the purported dichotomy between activism and journalism is, of course, entirely correct. Everyone is an activist of one kind or another. The distinction should rather be drawn between those who are conscious activists and those who, like Mr. Carr and Mr. Gregory, are unconscious activists. Those who fail to reflect on their own commitments are sometimes the most vicious.

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re 03.Jul.2013 23:53

ply

The concept of the "Objective Journalist" is the lie the corporate media tells to justify its own monopoly.

_(_ 04.Jul.2013 16:15

Marc

Yeah, but in being a "good journalist," there's essentially one cause you need to take up, freedom of information. That being said this isn't some slanted bit of activism being thrown out there but its a cause that in and of itself defines journalistic integrity. But people in journalisms job is to report facts. If you want editorials go to an editorial page. I personally think the Guardian is about as generic as "good journalism" gets.

OK 05.Jul.2013 08:24

Shaker

One uses the tools that one has available to them. One can't fault Greenwald in that respect.

But it's been fairly obvious even to someone such as myself that this sort of thing has been happening for a long time. I could give examples of why I thought that, even before the inception of Google and cookies (and I'm not a hacker or a technician; just a guy who still believes 2+2=4) which was the icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned, but that's another matter. The article itself or the discussion upon which it was reporting was not an exposition of anything new in discussion or fact in the case. I would hope (though I lose that hope daily with our concepts of 'science' becoming more and more valid in our collective minds and its 'objectivity') that more would become uncomfortable. Objectivity has very narrow parameters, and personally I've given up being such a thing unless it's shoved in my face through dicrete action, like having a gun shoved up my nose. I guess, though, that constant suspicion is as uncomfortable as uncomfortable facts, and we hardly have microscopic eyes or know the complete history of anything, even our personal selves. Do anyone, outside of narrow parameters, own such a thing as objectivity? Hell, even our gods aren't objective.

As for Greenwald, I would hope that he's aware of his part in the performance here. Maybe he is, and he's as blues has suggested. In these discussions, though they might seem useful and a satisfying exercise of intellect, he's allowing himself to be made-up and costumed. His lines are already known to the producers of the play, aren't they? They're hardly looking for a discussion of objectivity with the performance, but an opinionated reaction from the audience. Myself, I would think it prudent stay out of the spotlight, not because I don't want to be known for the exposition of fact or that I'm afraid, but because the facts need to stand on their own. He, as mouthpiece, is a distraction. He can have these discussions with his peers over coffee or his editors. I would be happier if he let the audience be disappointed and force them to deal simply with the facts.

I would think that if we did have microscopic eyes, we might find that the genes of heroes, martyrs, and fools are essentially the same. For his sake, I hope Greenwald knows that. Maybe he feels that his public associations protect him. I don't know. I would hope, also, that somehow what he (Greenwald) does is protecting Snowden, not simply thinking that he does, but I suspect that the spotlight is narrow and Snowden becomes scenery that is in the background. These discussions in no way protect Snowden, and we already know that he isn't objective. I know we should be protecting him, as we all share those genes, whatever political perspective one has. But, as I said, maybe suspicion is as uncomfortable as uncomfortable fact, and we're happier exercising egos and our intellect than our ethics.