The New York Times published a thought-provoking exchange last week between its former editor Bill Keller and journalist Glenn Greenwald, expositor of the infamous Snowden files. The dialogue was highly entertaining and articulate, with veiled nastiness simmering just beneath the surface. Keller played his typical hand, that of the coolly dispassionate paladin of journalism, while Greenwald was his usual feisty self, unapologetically so. The tete-a-tete revolved around the question of whether there was or could be or should be objective journalism. Keller, representing the fatally corrupted establishment, suggested it was the shining ideal to which all journalists should aspire. Greenwald said that every journalist had an opinion, which was better disclosed than masked. It is hard to imagine anyone eluding the grip of bias. Doesn’t conviction quietly shade every sentence, each minute construction, every essay? If nobody is objective, why not reveal one’s stance in advance? But Keller hews to his position, one that I believe is belied by a look at The Times coverage in practice.
Keller then claims that when journalists—or activists, to use the pejorative—reveal their actual views, it “becomes tempting to omit or minimize facts, or frame the argument, in ways that support your declared viewpoint”, or undeclared views, as it were. This is, of course, what The New York Times excels at—minimizing facts. And as Greenwald later points out, why does revealing one’s views make it more tempting to shade the argument than if one disguises one’s views? In fact, the latter provides more “latitude” to deceive. Keller later claims the opposite, that the self-declared partisan has put his pride on the line, and thus has greater incentives to deceive. This definitely may be true, but it cuts both ways. There is more pronounced pressure on the partisan to recognize and deal with facts contrary to his argument. The closet partisan can simply omit or overlook uncomfortable facts without feeling his publically visible personal ideology is at stake.
Rather, the relevant distinction is between those journalists who try to reveal all the facts, and those who deliberately conceal half of them. Or, in some cases, deliberately falsify them. As Orwell said, the power of propaganda is in what it conceals, not what it reveals. That is indeed the power of The New York Times in its capacity to win the faith of millions of liberal readers who, without the least apprehension, finds its even-tempered journalism entirely trustworthy. Even as The Times, usually in its political pages, presents half the facts. For instance, to take the recent case of Syria, The Times deliver the facts of the chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb. All very well and good. Then they offer the stated opinion of the State Department that these attacks were carried out by the al-Assad government. The Times does not usually include the consensus of myriad nations that contest the State Department line, or the findings of U.N. investigators that offer evidence that contradicts the U.S. position. If these contrary opinions are noted, it is infrequently and with significantly fewer column inches than is devoted to the official White House position. Never is the U.S. opinion critiqued for its truthfulness. Never is the veracity of the U.S. claim established. Journalism is by definition an attempt to find and report facts; since The Times fails to pursue and report facts in instances like this, it is here abdicating its journalistic ethos and rather practicing an elaborate form of stenography. This is tantamount to being the official press service of the White House.
Even so, Keller claims his paper succeeds by, “telling them (readers) what they needed to know to decide for themselves”. He uses waterboarding as an example. And in this instance, he has a point. The waterboarding facts were laid plain in the paper, as far as I know. In this instance he defends the substitution of “enhanced interrogation techniques” for the word “torture”, rejecting the argument that to do so is a failure of courage. And yet—to use an unbracketed phrase such as, “enhanced interrogation techniques” is tantamount to an endorsement, is it not? Words are sanctioned by their use.
Recognizing a need to deal with omitted stories, which include the paper’s advance knowledge of illegal wiretapping prior to the 2004 elections, Keller argues that the real test for journalists is judging whether to withhold information because it may jeopardize lives. He points to a decision in the late nineties to not publish information on unsecure enriched uranium in the Caucasus. Smart move by The Times that probably did save lives. But against this single instance one might counterpoise countless stories of biased reportage that certainly helped lose lives. The case for the Iraq war being foremost among them. World opinion, informed research and conclusions by people like former UNSCOM investigator Scott Ritter, were laid aside, and the unproven and unsubstantiated word of the State Department and White House were afforded complete credibility. If this isn’t an instance of minimizing facts, framing an argument, concealing one’s opinion, failing a test of courage, and endangering lives through institutional bias, then what is?
This model of half-truth reporting is the standard operating procedure of The Times. We’ve seen it on countless occasions. Noam Chomsky first documented it for the masses in his writing on The Times lack of coverage of the East Timor massacres in the seventies by the Indonesian military. The Times, as mouthpiece of the establishment, had a direct conflict of interest in reporting fully on the slaughter—the United States had engineered the rise of Indonesian ruler and perpetrator Suharto. Carl Bernstein reported in the late seventies on the paper’s relationship with the CIA, which included crafting and planting stories on behalf of the CIA. We saw the half-truth model practiced par excellence throughout the rule of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Fact after fact was deposited into the aural canal of readers about high crime in Venezuela, about the rate of inflation, about Chavez’ effort to extend his presidency through constitutional amendment. All of these gloomy facts, while certainly valid, amounted to an unmistakably negative portrayal of the South American leader.
What was absent from The Times criticism was a trove of facts about his presidency that didn’t fit the darker narrative The Times was developing. Namely, facts about the reduction in hunger, the expansion of health care, the eradication of illiteracy, the country’s independence from controversial international lending regimes, and the considerable reduction of poverty. Nor were certain conditions, like crime and inflation and debt, contextualized through comparisons with other Latin nations, or with American or European countries. To have done that would have dramatically altered the perception of the Venezuela under Chavez. But to have done so would have also undermined the official U.S. position, which demonized Chavez because he had dared to defy American dominion in their “backyard”.
Moreover, when the U.S. position is offered and its counterpoint—often the position of the rest of the world—is not, the former is reinforced with editorial articles on the opinion pages that subjectively justify the American stance. A recent article by scholar Robin Wright discussed the potential for the fragmentation of the Middle East, its causes, and possible outcomes. Wright pointed to British colonialism and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire as root causes of sectarian conflict. Beyond that, Wright rather typically points to the, “rival beliefs, tribes, and ethnicities—empowered by the unintended consequences of the Arab Spring” for the fraying bonds of Middle Eastern states. Again—all of these are fair facts and Wright is right to cite them. He then discusses variously the regional conflicts.
Wright then moves into murkier territory. Each point begs a larger question. He talks of Iraq’s volatile factionalism. He says Syria, “set the match to itself.” Did it? He points to tribal enmities as a spark of the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi. But were these enmities the decisive factor in his overthrow? He says hope lies in “good governance, decent services and security, fair justice, jobs and equitably shared resources”, but concludes those “factors” are a distant hope for the region. Is tribalism the real reason the region lacks these foundational goods?
Nowhere in the article, nor in the capricious redrawing of the Middle East (perhaps channeling the spirit of Sykes-Picot) appended to it, does Wright note the influence of the United States. Its invasion and occupation of Iraq, its backing of Israeli action against Lebanon, its efforts through NATO to overthrow Qaddafi, or its supply of arms to dubious “Syrian rebels”. These are incredibly important factors in the sectarian conflicts of the Middle East. There was little factionalism in Iraq before the invasion. Qaddafi would not have fallen to sectarian forces without NATO. Likewise, the so-called Syrian revolution would likely be over but for American arms, training, and money—and targeted strikes from our regional ally Israel. Given these facts, a reader might reasonably conclude that the United States is the primary recent cause of the sectarian strife, and not the incessantly repeated, and racially tinged, “tribal” conflicts.
To cast the absurdity of this kind of non-journalism in stark relief, consider the following hypothetical situation: Imagine if the American South rose up and decided to secede from the Union. As the rebellion was about to be put down, suppose Russia and China chose to back it with small and heavy arms, logistical support, and infusions of cash. At this point, the tide turns and secession seems likely. Then imagine reading an article in the South China Morning Post that blamed the dissolution of the country on the fiery and uncontrollable “tribal” disputes among Caucasians—from centuries of hatred between Northerners and Southerners to the unfathomable enmities between Democrats and Republicans, and among fringe radicals on both ends of the political spectrum. Imagine the article never once mentioning the decisive involvement of the Russia-China alliance that was ensuring secession happened. Would the informed reader find this evasion or oversight strange and unjustified? Would she see it as an indication of bias, or at the least shoddy journalism? Or would she see it as a thoroughly reasonable exclusion for the staff at the SCMP to make?
The New York Times greatest sin is one of omission. Presenting half the facts is not journalism, it’s partisanship—the very thing former NYT editor Bill Keller claims journalists like Greenwald are practicing. Much like the government of Oceania in Orwell’s 1984, which claims that “war is peace”, Keller gets it backward. By design, perhaps?