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The Mirage of Media Objectivity

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“Writing becomes a contest between mutually incompatible conceptions of public life. We do not simply have varying prescriptions for social ills; the afflictions we observe are fundamentally different.”

An unforgettable scene in the 1979 satire Life of Brian has the protagonist trying to disabuse a flock of Judean peasants of the conviction that he is the savior of their immortal souls. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he pleads from a window under which the colorless mass has gathered. “You don’t need to follow me; you don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You are all individuals!” The mob assents in unison, “Yes—we are all individuals.” A series of such atoms affirming their autonomy, in a new promotional video for Euronews, is identical save for a complete unawareness of irony: “Nobody twists my truths,” it drools, “Nobody moulds my views,” “I make up my own mind.” It ends with the broadcaster’s logo floating above the depressing factoid that it has 145 million monthly viewers. If all of them are as self-assured as that, what do they need Euronews for?

There is an undying misbelief that thinking for oneself involves collecting as many independently existing things called “facts” as one can and gluing them into an unshakeable mosaic of reality. Once-seaworthy papers and news networks have assumed the role of supplier: sage merchants of the raw materials required for the business of thinking. No one capable of the act should buy such rubbish or allow the illusion to persist: The political media is a market of variously informed opinions, not of neutral and unprocessed data. It is time all publishers wiped the glaze of objectivity off their brightly painted merchandise.

Yaron Steinbuch of the New York Post might not realize that his July headline “Danish Cartoonist Whose Drawing Sparked Charlie Hebdo Massacre Dead at 86” is not clinical reportage. It is true that the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard expired this summer (in his sleep—contrary to the wishes of Muslim thugs to have it be elsewhere). And set aside that his satire in the Danish Jyllands-Posten, reprinted in Charlie Hebdo in 2006, is unrelated to the barbarism against the French magazine’s staff in 2011 and 2015 (earned proudly by the French for different cartoons and in their own right). With the verb sparked, the headline implies that Westergaard is at least somewhat culpable for sectarian murder. Whether this is accurate reporting does not much matter; it is a bad opinion on causation and moral responsibility.

Facts do not exist apart from an interpretive framework. To identify, say, a political or historical or scientific fact, one must already have a political or historical or scientific worldview—a set of implicit assumptions about how things work—through which one filters what is relevant from an inexhaustible universe of information. This, a radical worldview in itself, Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn articulated in 1958 and 1962 in the context of natural science. If at dusk you stood on a hilltop with Pope Urban VIII (who ordered the inquisition of an indebted stargazer for suggesting that the Earth orbits the Sun rather than the other way around), the vicar of Christ would observe the Sun rising. You would observe the Earth rotating. While looking in the same direction, you and his Holiness would register different facts. There cannot be a mere matter of perspective when perspective is everything. Think just how operative such theoretical frameworks—unvoiced understandings that precede ideology—are in public discourse. Or try to forget about it if you can. 

In “What One Photo from the Border Tells Us about the Evolving Migrant Crisis,” in The Washington Post last month, it is the correspondent, Philip Bump, who tells us everything. The annotation of a picture with 1,300 words makes it rather worthwhile: “Every detail—” writes Bump, “the apparent anger on the face of the officer…is evocative and revealing. Nor is it possible to ignore the historical echoes suggested by a White officer of the law apprehending a fleeing Black man.” All evocations and revelations are the author’s, which of course makes them no less valuable. Martha Pskowski’s report for the El Paso Times also “evoked an unpleasant historical comparison to White enslavers hunting down enslaved Blacks,” even though, in this case, aspiring migrants are leaving their home country for the United States, and white (perhaps beige) men are turning them away. Unspoken axioms—such as free movement being a human right, probably—shade and color the journalists’ interpretation of this incident. They could not identify countless other occurrences last month as ones worth writing or reading about.

Banish the temptation to aspire to, seek, or claim objectivity. Without a consensus theory, this is impossible. Journalistic attempts at comprehensiveness fail comprehensively and are, worse, frightfully boring. Everyone might have an opinion, but it is all we have. Something must be there to shade and color if we are to see anything at all. Without a theoretical lens, one would respond to novelty and adventitious sensory stimulus like an infant in a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” as William James’ publisher misprinted it in the Principles of Psychology. Beyond babyhood, even “simple sensations” are, in fact, “products of discrimination carried to a high pitch.” But unlike the germ theory of disease, for eminent example, which is the presiding paradigm and discriminatory mechanism in medicine, there is no equivalent in politics or moral philosophy: Writing becomes a contest between mutually incompatible conceptions of public life. We do not simply have varying prescriptions for social ills; the afflictions we observe are fundamentally different.

Return for another moment to the realm of crises and cowboys: libertarian (but occasionally funny) commentator Greg Gutfeld observes last month’s goings-on at the American southwest border from up high. He thinks that journalists at The Washington Post and elsewhere chose not to use helicopter video by the Texas Department of Safety and drone footage by Fox News of some 12,000 migrants camping under the Acuna International Bridge, which it is United States Border Patrol’s mandate to monitor and contain. That, according to Gutfeld and his audience, is a relevant fact and reportable problem. And the theoretical lens through which one can see this fact is incompatible with Bump’s and Pskowski’s, for whom enforcement is by definition a hazard: Gutfeld could not—choice has little to do with it—mistake mounted agents’ reins for whips. (The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) promptly banned horseback patrolling in Del Rio, almost ratifying this perception.) If there is a problem here, what is its cause? One might point at the ossified American immigration system or global wealth inequality or the slave-trade of Saint-Domingue; the rising temperature, good human nature or bad human nature; Grace or Henry (the tropical storm or the Haitian president); Columbus (the Christopher) or former President Donald Trump; President Joe Biden or the horses (as is the official view of the DHS). Any one and any combination is exclusive to a different heuristic perspective: in a sense or another true, elaborate or unexamined, and by no means equal.

The Irish historian J.B. Bury, cued by Blaise Pascal, pondered that Cleopatra’s nose (or Mark Antony’s mammalian virility) caused the Battle of Actium and the founding of the Roman Empire. This is perfectly true, but what good is that on its own? As an historical opinion, it is rather a bad one. E.H. Carr’s advice, which anybody with the slightest interest in politics ought to adopt, is to subject to rational interpretation some part of human experience such that it can “serve as a guide to action,” or, in the sciences, to generate more and more riveting puzzles—to advance enquiry. An effort to correlate war with the surface area of commanders’ nasal cartilages would be useless to the academic enterprise, even if it showed some statistical significance because that is not (yet) woven in a theoretical web that can similarly reframe other events and carry the entire discipline. Utility, in addition to truth, is what separates good opinion from trivia.

That drawings can lead to violence is a popular view, based—have no doubt about it—on fact, and it entails certain behaviors, such as deciding not to reproduce cartoons of Muhammad in book about cartoons of Muhammad. An alternative opinion—based just as well on fact—is that cultists get violent when they find the free press to be unkind, which calls forth in us very different manners. One fact this worldview deems relevant is the health of individual liberty in two European states that, between them in the last century, have capitulated thrice to fascism. What it does not deem relevant is how loudly those who dislike this liberty express themselves. Which of these two interpretive lenses seems more likely to pose questions and propose answers conducive to the project of achieving a free society?

Superior opinions (and the conceptual frames on which they hang) are distinguished not only by their explanatory and predictive power and usefulness but also by their simplicity and elegance. I assume that a free society is, in fact, the Danish and French and American aspiration and that it ought to be so because, to speak in a tautology, it is loftier for our species to flourish than to wither. If we share this sentiment, then we likely agree on the beauty of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, or of Thomas Paine’s ninth proposition that “every Man being presumed innocent till he has been convicted.” Moral and aesthetic judgments overlap: What we consider virtuous or vicious inspire sensations similar to those we feel when we behold beauty or ugliness. In both cases, we implicitly evaluate how symmetrically or harmoniously the constitutive elements of a complex thing have been arranged—how well the form of a thing (a poem, a parking lot, a person, a page) fulfills a purpose. 

The purpose of a writer who aspires to any measure of literary merit is, as Horace teaches in the prologue to Ars Poetica, to enlighten and entertain (“The tribes of the senior rail against every thing that is void of edification: the exalted knights disregard poems which are austere.”) That we refer without sarcasm to reports by Euronews or The New York Times as “stories” is quite appropriate. We do not expect them to be fabulous, of course, but we should be alert to the moral with which they are invariably imbued—one that always precedes the plot. The story is tinted in the color of an ideal and surrounded by the shadows that darken it. The New York Times’ motto, All the news that’s fit to print, should be taken as apology and not as boast: Fitness for print is, more and more evidently now, a criterion contingent on the editorial board’s evolving moral sensibilities. Evelyn Waugh offers this beautifully absurd scene of an old English hack explaining how the most reputable American journalist of his generation ended up winning a Nobel Peace Prize:

“Why, once Jakes [the American] went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand word story about barricades in the streets… 

Well they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special [correspondent] in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution underway, just as Jakes had said.”

To be sure, this is fabrication rather than interpretation, and Scoop is a novel. But it preserves the fact (from this author’s conceptual perspective, unalterably) that the media does not and cannot transmit detached observations. The national newspapers of Waugh’s England wanted to cover a war in the way they knew war to be, and they found it. Each sentient person sees light as refracted through a conceptual prism; sees, in effect, different events. The camera lens and the ink participate in this unavoidable bending of the light. And the artifacts they yield must not be dismissed as valueless contrivances but instead compared and tested against another.

In this endless normative contest, one side of a story usually tends to be far truer, lovelier, better than the others. It is not within the media’s capacity to deliver a complete line-up (Euronews is naïve to adopt for its motto the terse pomposity All views), and one should not cede to the media the responsibility of determining which opinion is the defter, sprucer, timelier. How should the kind reader have read this very article? Well, as an opinion and nothing less: an opinion, generally, on opinion.

Vahaken Mouradian is a contributing editor at Merion West.

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