Objective Journalism And Hen's Teeth
In Search Of The Impossible
January 28, 2005
I get email from people who say they wish that journalists would engage in objective coverage of the war in Iraq. They are always indignant and often bitter, but they mean opposite things. Those against the war assert that the fascist press is slanted in favor. Those in favor assert that the leftist press is slanted against. All agree that reporters are reprehensible. I wonder whether either group has any idea what it is talking about.
When people say that they want the press to be objective, they usually mean that they want reporters to cheerlead for their point of view. They do not want objectivity, however imagined, but concurring propaganda. Anything else, they believe, is bias.
Most of them seem to lack the sophistication to know that their particular prejudices are in fact prejudices. Since whatever they believe seems to them obviously true, they regard anything that does not support their cause as evidence of depraved indifference to truth or as outright lying. Then they attach diabolical motives. A story that does not make the war look appetizing demonstrates that the reporter hates America, espouses Marxism, and all the other perfervid twaddle that makes reporters wonder whether they are not writing for an asylum of bellicose half-wits.
To all of these I say, “Try looking at things as they appear to journalists on the ground. Ask yourself how you would cover Iraq. Then tell me what “objective” means.”
Suppose that you (I continue saying to them) are a reporter somewhere in Baghdad with a squad of Marines. An Iraqi family in a car, not knowing the patrol is there, turn the corner. The Marines open fire on the car. The parents are killed. Their young daughter, splattered with their blood, stands screaming in horror. Mommy, though dead, is still moving. Ugly things are coming out of her stomach. The girl is ten.
This happens. What do you think automatic weapons do to people? Groom them? Being a reporter, you shoot pictures. It’s what reporters do: make notes, take pictures. Report.
What next? How do you report the—is “occurrence” a suitably neutral word?--objectively?
You have no apolitical choice. People react powerfully to wounded or emotionally devastated children, particularly little girls. If you publish that picture, it will tend to turn people against the war. Not being stupid, you know this perfectly well. On the other hand if you suppress it, you will be supporting the war by hiding the truth. You know this too. It’s A or B: you file the photo or you don’t. Which?
The military will want you not to write the story at all. They can’t quite say so, but will want you to emphasize that the Marines with good reason are frightened of car bombs (which is true) and that the killing was an accident, and couldn’t you leave out the photographs? It was an isolated mishap, a colonel will say. The military’s PR apparatus will want you to write about some Marines somewhere else who repaired a school. Hawks will say that the incident was unfortunate, but necessary in pursuit of a greater good. War is hell; get over it.
Doves will say that publishing the picture will show people what is really happening, that the public has a right to know what its soldiers are in fact doing. It wasn’t an isolated mishap, they will say (and they will be right). So: What do you do?
I would file the story, and the pictures, with no hesitation at all. My job as a reporter is not to shill for the war as a volunteer amateur Goebbels, nor to play Jane Fonda Goes To Baghdad, but to report what happens. If the military doesn’t want such incidents reported, it can stop committing them.
Again, suppose that you are trying very hard to be objective, whatever you think that means. How do you do it? Reporting of necessity requires that a reporter make choices. Any choice constitutes a slant.
Do you write pleasant home-towners—boyish young Marine relaxing in the compound and remembering his high-school sweetheart waiting in Roanoke? Do you focus on the alert courage of our young men as they patrol the mean streets, etc? On the sniper who says he likes to shoot a man in the stomach so that his screams will demoralize the enemy, before maybe finishing him off? On the Marine with his eyes and half his face gone because of a roadside bomb? The twenty-seven Iraqis killed by a car bomb downtown? Beheadings? Where do you put your emphasis?
Usually journalists turn against wars. Why? Consult the foregoing paragraph. It is not because they are Commies. It is because they are there. After a few weeks on the ground, you will find yourself acquiring pronounced opinions about things. This is inevitable. No one short of a diagnosable psychopath remains emotionally remote.
You have to be very ideologically committed indeed not to be worn down by the destruction and ghastliness of it all, by the mutilated kids and head-shot snipers’ victims, by flies crawling in the mouths of the dead. This is especially true of doubtful wars of uncertain provenance and murky purpose. Remember that what appears on the screen in Dallas is sanitized, adjusted, shaped at corporate to whatever end the networks seek to promote. The reporter on the ground sees the exit wounds, the woman’s face three days gone into decomposition.
Without profound ideological commitment, you will come to loathe the military command. This will happen regardless of whether you think the particular war necessary. The military lies, and lies, and lies. The flacks of the armed services, like any other PR types, do not recognize truth and falsehood as legitimate categories, but only positive and negative. They will tell you over and over with chirpy optimism things that you know by daily observation to be false. Everything is hunky-dory. There may have been a minor problem but we’ve got it licked. It was a precision strike with a 1000-pound bomb in a residential neighborhood. The people love us because we rebuilt fifty schools.
You get sick of it. In Vietnam it was the Five O’clock Follies, the press conferences with officers lying about pacification, lying about body counts, lying, lying, lying. The spin coming out of Iraq is exactly the same.
How do you juggle all of these things? Unless you are a witting propagandist, you will find that the best you can do is report the truth as well as you can discover it, as you would want it reported to you if someone else were doing it—not let interested parties tell you how to report it, and not give a damn who likes it.