Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting our news.

Early in October, Justice Antonin Scalia submitted to a long interview published by NY Magazine.  Not surprisingly, the Justice spoke of his "originalist" views of the Constitution and his religious beliefs.  I have always seen them as one and the same, a kind of fundamentalist consistency that pervades all his thinking.  There is little church-state separation in Scalia's head, something manifest both on and off the bench.   Scalia is also known for his transparently partisan sounding and driven opinions, his unabashed conservatism.  It's easy to predict where he will come down on most cases, a sense that his opinions are formed long before the legal briefs reach his desk or are formally argued before the Court.

For sure Scalia's discourse on his devil belief drew some attention, but what I found most revealing and troubling were his responses to questions about where he gets his news.  As to newspapers, the Justice noted just, "...The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times.  We used to get the Washington Post, but it just … went too far for me. I couldn’t handle it anymore."  Asked why, he replied, "It was the treatment of almost any conservative issue.  It was slanted and often nasty. And, you know, why should I get upset every morning" by what he characterized as the "shrilly liberal".  And where else does he get his news?  Talk radio, most especially from "my good friend Bill Bennett.  He’s off the air by the time I’m driving in, but I listen to him sometimes when I’m shaving. He has a wonderful talk show. It’s very thoughtful. He has good callers. I think they keep off stupid people."  Wow!

What's somewhat laughable about Scalia's comments is that the papers he reads, The Journal (certainly its editorial page) and the Washington Times might be characterized in the same way, only this time "shrilly conservative".  Both assessments are probably a tad simplistic.  What's notable is that Scalia's reading and listening is in line with what's happened to many, if not all, of us.  We tune in to the media that reflects our views and tune out all contrary voices.  Paraphrasing his words, "why should we get upset?"  What's sad here is that one would hope what's being taken in my members of our highest court, a place to which we look for objectively, would be a larger and diverse pallet of information.  If other Justices have similarly narrow intake patterns, it may explain in part why their positions appear to be more partisan and fixed than might have been the case in earlier days.  We don't see the kind of position transformations that characterized the careers of, for example a Hugo Black or William Brennan. 

I was thinking of Scalia's interview in reading Bill Keller's recent Times column devoted to his extended exchange with Glen Greenwald.  Back in September, I wrote about the implications of Jeff Bezos' $250M acquisition of The Washington Post and specifically of the sea change in how our news was being delivered to us.  Now another tech billionaire, Pierre Omidyar (founder and chairman of eBay), is investing an equal amount to fund a journalistic venture with, Greenwald, who while working for The Guardian, broke the Edward Snowden story.  According to Greenwald, the still to be launched venture will, take an, "adversarial [view of] journalism".  That is to say, the journalists will have a declared point of view that is reflected in their reporting.

I can't do adequate service to their exchange here, but do recommend that you read it in full.  Keller joined the Times in 1984 and had a distinguished reporting career there culminating in an eight-year tenure as executive editor.  He has been writing an opinion column since 2011.  Greenwald is a journalist, blogger and best selling author.  He was a columnist at the Guardian for two years.  He holds a law degree and has written for many publications including the Times.  Their exchange is focused on their sharply different journalistic philosophy.

Keller, quoting media critic Jack Shafer, suggests that Greenwald works within the framework of "partisan journalism".  In contrast, he puts himself within the tradition of journalists who, "have plenty of opinions" but set "them aside to follow the facts — as a judge in court is supposed to set aside prejudices to follow the law and the evidence."  (Ah, Scalia)  He contends that the results "are more substantial and more credible".  Greenwald rejects this approach.  He finds "suffocating" the "constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves", which "produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring".  Greenwald believes reporters should disclose their point of view, not hide it, and that the even-handed reporting required in Keller's world diminishes the work, doesn't enhance it.

This brings me back to Scalia's news consumption and indeed to our own.  I totally understand Greenwald's point of view and can relate especially to his suggestion that objective based reporting requires many journalists to perhaps disingenuously (and often not successfully) hide their viewpoint, something that he says goes against human nature and thus hurts to product.  He calls it "a false conceit" because "human beings are not objectivity-driven machines," but..."intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms."  He sees no "...value in pretending otherwise". 

The problem is that this approach, especially applied broadly, which is likely considering Greenwald's contention that objective journalism is "impossible" and "ineffectual", only reinforces that already far too selective reading/listening.  So I'd suggest that his and Omidyar's venture might be very the last thing we need in our far too divisive society.  This is not to say that some of the journalism in Keller's camp doesn't fail to live up to its charter or promise of objectivity.  Ironically, where it often falls short is in its effort to report all sides of a story.  Here reporters often quote one or another view without ever challenging its accuracy or whether what's being said is in fact only blatant propaganda.  We see this when the media pick up on politically created and slanted nomenclature like the now routinely used Obamacare.

This sometimes rote reporting can become particularly egregious during the heat of a political campaign or a created crisis like we just experienced over the debt ceiling, but it happens elsewhere.  It's hard not to read, watch or listen to news these days without encountering what seems to be a kind of journalistic laziness, a reluctance to vet information by doing serious due diligence or even simple homework.  Putting forth "news" as if it is "true or accurate" when the opposite is the case does a disservice to a public that is already woefully ill informed.  In fact, such reporting may be exactly why they are so ignorant of facts. 

When the press allows itself to be instruments and thus verifiers of partisan messaging we are in trouble.  That happens more often in Keller's world than it should, but it's more likely to raise its ugly head in what Greenwald proposes.  When the Pentagon Papers were published by the Times in 1971, the reporter Neil Sheehan wasn't using them as a vehicle to express his opinion.  That may well be true of Greenwald relative to the NSA disclosures, but when the reporter is practicing "activist journalism" objectivity comes into question.  News, it seems to me should measured against its content not by the messenger.  In the long run that works against both the reporting and the story.  It's the last thing we need today in getting our news.

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