I’ve written a number of pieces over the years about objectivity, whether that be reporting in the media, the recording and study of history, or relying on science for truth. As usual, something I have read and stuff I have heard puts my own ideas in much clearer language than I have so far achieved, this time in the case of journalism. John Pilger’s 1998 book, Hidden Agendas, that came out the year I was born, basically says truly objective journalism needs one key thing – context.
The best journalism and analysis doesn’t just come from a keen eye on what is occurring and who is carrying it out, but also delves into why and how those circumstances came to be. This requires an honest look at history and events that many journalists and intellectuals either lack or have distorted for one reason or other (knowingly or not is another question). One of Pilger’s examples is the impact of economic policy on poorer parts of society, specifically using the case of Thatcher’s Britain and the rise of New Labour under Tony Blair.
He interviews one elderly man who accuses the media of “moralising” over poverty, but not “looking beneath the surface”. There is solemn recognition that it exists, but Pilger notes reports about the mental and physical health impacts poverty has on the population were barely covered by any media outlets, even the BBC, and follow-ups are rarely if ever done – other than the “customary silence”. They are, he says borrowing Orwell’s phrase, “Unpeople” who can be forgotten.
Noam Chomsky applies this to American intellectuals in the US following the horrifying atrocities carried out during the Vietnam War and the campaigns in Cambodia and Laos. On the hawk end, obviously if there was more time and force the US could have won. On the dove end, the War was a “blundering effort to do good” – not a mistake or moral wrong, just a strategic blunder. Many believe the Vietnam War began in 1965 (that is, if I recall, what I was taught in school), but the US had invaded South Vietnam many years before, taking over from the French, and Kennedy, a liberal sweetheart, drastically escalated the War in 1962.
Henry Kissinger, giving a blunt order for the destruction of Cambodia, said “anything that flies on anything that moves”. Chomsky claims he has not found any other statement in archival records as honest as that in calling for genocide. He also said that one line elicited no real response from anyone at the time it was revealed, or since.
Point being, the way things are framed and approached in media, in academia, or anywhere else have massive influence over how things are reported, recounted and talked about. It’s easy to look back on 9/11 twenty years later, with the clownish withdrawal from Afghanistan, and discuss the “cost” to America in terms of lives and money. But why was that money spent? Who did it go to? What could that money have been spent on instead, either domestically or in genuine foreign aid? What would that look like?
What about the cost to the victims – the Afghans and Iraqis who have died and had their countries riddled with Islamic extremists created or fuelled by American intervention? The Taliban and al Qaeda was used by the US to fight against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the effects of the Gulf War in the early 1990’s are still felt by Iraqis through things such as depleted uranium rounds being used or the economic sanctions since. Now Afghanistan is again overrun by the Taliban and Iraq is trying to recover from the rise and current fall of ISIS in the region.
How many people or media outlets “never forgot” about the first 9/11 in 1973, when the democratically elected Chilean government under Salvadore Allende was overthrown in a vicious military coup backed by the US?
Objectivity does not mean you can’t or don’t take a stance or have basic principles. Pilger says “it is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers, without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.” Journalism of this kind goes beyond the role of observer and bleeds into activism and raising awareness. Call it “bias” if you wish, but reaching a rational conclusion based on the evidence and facts at hand is objective.
In a dialogue between Chomsky and Lawrence Krauss, they make that very point. Believing in a cause that you can justify with evidence to prove its validity and worth does not sacrifice the objectivity of your stance. You may have a subjective emotional attachment to it, but if it’s true it has impact.
An objective review of reality paints a very different picture in countless scenarios than the mainstream peddlers of opinion do, and very often it supplies concrete solutions to issues, or at least temporary steps to alleviate the more devastating aspects. “Truth is always subversive”, an Indonesian journalist told Pilger. Little wonder truth is a rare find these days.