Friday, November 5, 2010

More Inept Garbage from the NYTimes

This is so confused it's hard to know where to begin. Here's how this heap of bullshit begins:
Keith Olbermann, the pre-eminent liberal voice on American television, was suspended Friday after his employer, MSNBC, discovered that he made campaign contributions to three Democrats last month.

The indefinite suspension was a stark display of the clash between objective journalism and opinion journalism on television.

Hold it right there. How is it that someone can be the "pre-eminent liberal voice on American television" and then be rebuked for making campaign contributions to Democrats? If Olbermann's TV persona is, quite literally, one of "pre-eminent liberal voice" then why should we expect that he wouldn't make contributions to campaigns that are, ostensibly at least, left-liberal? Why are we surprised?

Then there is this obscure crap about a "stark display of the clash between objective journalism and opinion journalism on television". First of all, what the fuck is this distinction anyway? Second, how is it supposed to be relevant here?

Are we really to believe that journalists don't have political views of their own? How could journalists not have political views? Everyone already knew what Olbermann's politics were, in fact this is part of who he is and why people watch him. So what has changed? Why is this predictable fact supposed to impinge on his journalistic work? People don't flip on Bill O'Reilly because they think it's possible they might get a Maoist analysis of U.S. politics; they watch precisely because he's got political things to say that resonate with them.

The distinction between "objective journalism and opinion journalism" is a red herring. It only muddies the waters, since the distinction doesn't pick out anything real at all. As I argued in a recent post, it is impossible to report on politics neutrally. It simply cannot be done. Reporting on politics requires that you have an idea of what it is you're reporting on, i.e. you must first have an idea of what politics is and what it isn't, what is political and what's not. Unfortunately, the determination of what's political and what's not is itself a political battleground. Concrete struggles determine what's "normal" and what's "controversial", what's legitimately "political" and what's not up for contestation. For example, the feminist slogan "the personal is political" was subversive precisely because it declared that an entire sphere of modern life (e.g. housework, marriage, the 'private' realm, etc. etc.) was political, whereas it had hitherto been deemed apolitical.

The idea of what politics is in much contemporary mainstream journalism is preposterous. It is a narrow conception that takes our eyes off the real targets and focuses our attention on trivial bullshit. It is a conception of politics that helps to preserve and stabilize the status quo.

So, the idea that there is "objective" journalism and "opinion" journalism is not a well-founded one. All journalism, even mere reporting of fact, requires that the journalist decide what's of significance and what's not. The set of possible facts that one could report on at any one given moment is massive, nearly infinite. The only neutral course of action would be to report on everything all at once (e.g. the roaming habits of zebra, the price of tomato paste, the chemical composition of toothpaste, etc. etc.). But reporting on everything all at once is impossible, and even it were possible it would be practically useless to us. The unavoidable fact of journalism is that some judgments about what's worth reporting on and what's not must be made. Some decision about what's of significance and what's not are a necessary precursor to any journalism whatsoever. And like it or not, judgments about what's important, what's significant, what's relevant, etc. are political. Such judgments are evaluative, i.e. they invoke ideas about value, political ideals, what ought to come to pass, etc. etc.

Our task must not be to pretend we're doing "objective" journalism. Our task must be to understand and criticize the judgments about significance and value that guide journalistic practices. If an article presupposes a narrow, implausible conception of politics, we should criticize and reject this conception. But we can't even have a public discussion about what's important if we aren't aware that such judgments are being made. You cannot criticize what you don't see as a possible object of criticism. We can't argue about something that is hidden, implicit and never brought to the fore.

This is often how it goes: the evaluative/political infrastructure of culture and media is never made explicit. The article under examination here makes impressive headway in concealing the evaluative judgments that structure it. It muddies things up so thoroughly, that it's difficult to know what's at stake in the politics of media at all. The article itself has such fallacious presuppositions about what politics is, that we cannot hope to find anything but garbage there.

Finally one point about the supposed contrary of "neutral" journalism: so-called "opinion journalism". "Opinion" is another bullshit term. I think we should expunge our vocabulary of it entirely. It is an individualist term that makes it appear as though our political convictions are like our preference for chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Our political views aren't like mere "tastes". If there are any beliefs for which we should be expected to give justifying reasons, political beliefs are the leading candidates.

Politics necessarily involves other people. It is the least personal thing there is. So how could beliefs about something that involves everyone possibly be the same as individual tastes or preferences for one flavor or other? Political beliefs must be thought of as claims that we endorse on the basis of reasons that we could give to others in order to justify ourselves. They aren't mere "opinions" or individual "tastes" we can hide behind when someone challenges them.

When someone prefaces statements with "well, this is only my opinion" I cringe. If it is merely your "personal preference", why bother disclosing it to others at all? If it could not in principle have a claim on someone else, why even utter it in a public situation?

The moral of the story is this: all journalism is political. The only questions are what are the politics involved? and are the politics justifiable, i.e. can they be backed up by convincing reasons?

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