I’m surprised no one has highlighted this fascinating exchange between NYT editor Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald. It’s lengthy but worth reading, even if you utterly despise one or both men, if only for what it reveals about how two players in an evolving media complex perceive their roles — and each other’s.
A couple of highlights — Greenwald calls out the mainstream media for fetishizing balance here:
A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge (i.e., reporting is reduced to “X says Y” rather than “X says Y and that’s false”).
He cites the way the Times served as cheerleader for the Iraq War and its squeamishness about calling waterboarding “torture,” etc. Much of their exchange centers on the objectivity issue, with Greenwald arguing that everyone is biased, so a pretense of impartiality is dishonest. Keller makes his best (in my opinion) counterargument here:
I believe that impartiality is a worthwhile aspiration in journalism, even if it is not perfectly achieved. I believe that in most cases it gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own. That discipline does not come naturally. I believe journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get to the truth, and less likely to be convincing to those who are not already convinced. (Exhibit A: Fox News.) And yes, writers are more likely to manipulate the evidence to support a declared point of view than one that is privately held, because pride is on the line.
There’s also a fairly amusing and somewhat rancorous exchange about David Brooks, in which Greenwald slams Brooks as a dishonest, elitist hack and Keller accuses Greenwald of failing to appreciate Brooks’ elevation of reason over passion.
Nothing in it will change anyone’s mind. But the discussion on media bias and impartiality is interesting, with Greenwald arguing (correctly, in my view) that mainstream outlets like the NYT have an undeclared interest in carrying establishment water and Keller countering (again correctly, in my opinion) that focus on an agenda can lead a writer to select and interpret evidence to support preconceived notions. Neither of those ideas is new, of course, but it’s interesting to read prominent purveyors of both genres discussing the phenomenon candidly.
There’s a lot of complaining around here (with some justice, I think) that every discussion about the surveillance issue devolves into a donnybrook centering on personalities, but the question of motives and intent isn’t irrelevant — not to this issue or any other that requires us to rely at least to some extent on the interpretation of material we can’t directly access or lack the expertise to evaluate properly. Ultimately, in the absence of independently verifiable facts, doesn’t it come down to integrity?