WikiLeaks and the Myth of Objective Journalism

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | December 03, 2010

“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.” – Henry Anatole Grunwald

There is a very simple reason WikiLeaks has sent a furious storm of outrage across the globe and it has very little to do with diplomatic impropriety.  It is this: The public is uninformed because of inadequate journalism.  Consumers of information have little more to digest than Kim Kardashian’s latest paramour or the size of Mark Zuckerberg’s jet.  Very few publishers or broadcasters post reporters to foreign datelines and give them time to develop relationships that lead to information. Consequently, journalism is atrophying from the extremities inward and the small heart it has will soon become even more endangered.

Hero in Disguise?

So, long live WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.  And if Pfc. Bradley Manning is the leaker, he deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Good government, if such a thing exists, is the product of transparency.  Americans have very little idea of the back-stories that lead to the events they see on the nightly news or read about on the net.  How did such messes end up being such messes?  If journalism were functioning at appropriate levels, there would have been stories that reported some of the information contained in the cables now published around the globe.  If my government is giving away suitcases of cash to foreign leaders, I damn sure have a right to know there is a diplomatic thug sucking away my tax dollars on false promises.  I want to know if the leader of a country getting billions in foreign aid from the US is involved in drug trafficking.  The fact that a few Arab countries are very concerned about Iran’s nuclear capabilities might have helped build political support for the US-Israeli position against the construction of uranium gas separators.
Secrecy tends to lead to disaster and there are several object lessons to study as a result of American adventures abroad.  Saddam Hussein was Donald Rumsfeld’s and Ronald Reagan’s secret friend as long as he was bombing and gassing Iranians to the east. Secrecy led to Iran-Contra and back door dealing in arms to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, who did not have the support of the country’s population and were eventually defeated.  There are, of course, countless other examples ranging from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Bay of Pigs and the information contained in the Pentagon Papers, and, uh, of course, the lies about WMD that propagated our current misadventure in Iraq.  Democracy ought not be bribing and lying in the name of democracy.

Hero in Uniform?

The horror over WikiLeaks, which is being expressed mostly by inept diplomats, is disingenuous in the extreme.  The consistent claims that lives are being endangered by the information borders on the hilarious.  How many lives have been lost to erroneous, yet secret information that led to our invasion of Iraq?  If WikiLeaks had been around in 2003 the public might have been well armed with information to create political resistance to W’s folly in the ancient deserts.  It is, of course, of equal absurdity to suggest there is no need for clandestine operations. But taxpayers and voters tend to acquire their information after the consequences of secret government endeavors, and, obviously, that is a bit late to be of preventive value.
And where is journalism in all of this?  Not only has it lost resources and a bit of will to cover international affairs, the craft of reporting has surrendered most of its sense of balance and fairness.  Objectivity has never existed.  Stories have always been framed for purpose and over-dramatized because reporters want to lead a newscast or be above the fold on the front page.  Judy Miller’s incompetent reporting, and the New York Times, pathetic editing of her work turned the paper into a trumpet leading troops to war.  She used third hand sources confirmed by a military and a White House that wanted war, a process one intel agent told me was akin to “shouting in a garbage can.” A viewer must watch TV closely or read stories with extreme skepticism for any number of reasons, which is why we need WikiLeaks and its unvarnished and unframed data.
Here’s why journalism is, in the end, inadequate.  Reporters cannot be objective because they are a product of their experiences. They cannot ignore their upbringing, socio-economic status, circle of friends, personal self-interests, and the viability of the employers they serve.  Regardless of what we might think, an African-American reporter is more likely to write with sensitivity about the Civil Rights movement than is an anglo Southern male from rural Alabama.  Their perceptions of the event have a great probability of being diametrically opposed based upon what they heard from parents and peers as they were coming of age.
How is this manifested on TV and in print?  In the previous administration, there was a budget bill that included a number of earmarks but also some critical funding for up-armoring military vehicles in Iraq.  Democrats voted against the bill because of the abundance of pork and, primarily, because the money going to funding the up-armoring was considered wildly inadequate. Republicans voted for the measure and derided Democrats for abandoning our troops.  The headlines on this story, inevitably, reflected the political tilt of the broadcaster or publisher.  MSNBC suggested conservatives were cheating our soldiers by wasting money on projects in the districts of powerful congressmen.  On FOX News, however, producers framed the story by saying, “Democrats vote against a bill that would provide further protection for US troops in Iraq.”  Neither story was completely accurate but they both demonstrate why journalism is not fair in America and why, indeed, it may be irretrievably broken.  Objectivity may be a myth but fairness is an achievable goal. But neither will happen without information that goes un-spun by special interests.
Which is why, for the time being, we all need WikiLeaks.

8 Comments for this entry

  • TESS LAWRENCE

    Dear courageous James,I write to you from Julian Assange’s birthland. Australia.

    Thank you for this beautifully crafted botox-free essay on WikiLeaks and the Myth of Objective Journalism. You shame those of us who could speak up for him. And don’t. You shame those of us who could speak up for him. And won’t.

    The duplicity of his critics, including his own Government, is breathtaking.

    In a question/answer session with readers of The Guardian on Dec 3 (UK time ) Julian Assange lamented the fact that our Prime Minister Julia Gillard and our Attorney General Robert McClelland ” have made it clear that not only is my return impossible but that they are actively working to assist the United States government in its attacks on myself and our people. ”

    Assange quite rightly asks “..what does it mean to be an Australian citizen – does that mean anything at all ? Or are we all to be treated like David Hicks ( Australian citizen who was incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay )at the first possible opportunity merely so that Australian politicians and diplomats can be invited to the best US embassy cocktail parties. ”

    Assange’s mother and son both live in Australia. In his ignored cri de coeur to our Government he said, ” I am an Australian citizen and I miss my country a great deal. ”

    We miss you too Julian. You remind us of what we could be; what we should be. Julian Assange is taking the hits for our profession. Many of us are jealous of him. And of his courage. He’s a game changer. No question. So often we accept without question the pap of propagandists and spin doctors.

    So often we know the truth but dare not speak its name.

    That the Australian Government continues to crawl its way
    up the political rectal passage of the US Government in this instance comes as no surprise to the majority of Australians.

    But for our Government to remain silent while people in other countries call for its citizen Assange to be assassinated, is reprehensible.

    Now threats have been made about his son. Where are you Australia ?

    For the US and Oz governments ( and others ) to suggest WikiLeaks endangers innocent lives, compounds the moral bankruptcy of their collective argument.

    I am much moved at such concern. Outed CIA operative Valerie Plame must be as well, surely. Fair game she was. Betrayed by her own government. And while we’re at it, let’s ask her hubby, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

    Last year,in a breach of security and act of political expediency and aggrandisement, the Australian Government revealed the arrival in Australia of the surviving Iraqi soldiers who had been directly responsible for the rescue of Australian hostage Douglas Wood.

    As a consequence, within 3 days, Al Qaeda murdered yet another family member in Iraq.

    Apparently it’s okay when Governments breach security protocols and cause the death and injury of innocents.
    There is no evidence that informations released on WikiLeaks has caused injury to the dead.

    But in some of the distressing and now unforgettable footage of the murders of civilians, including Reuters journalists,it is clear that the caveat ‘ no human beings were harmed in hte making of this film ‘ does not apply.

    A pity too, that we can’t ask the hundreds of thousands of innocent and dead civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan et al.

    Pity we can’t ask our dead defence personnel if it was worth the dying. Pity we can’t raise the dead. Pity that we continue to kill one another. Pity that we continue to kill the Truth and pedal the proliferation of Little and Great Lies.

    But we can try to protect the living. We can try to protect and help Julian Assange and Team WikiLeaks.

    James Moore, will you please spearhead an International online
    Campaign to support Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
    Count me in.

  • TESS LAWRENCE

    TESS LAWRENCE
    AUSTRALIA
    JOURNALIST ADVOCATE
    SPECIALIST IN ETHICAL MEDIA SERVICES AND CRISIS MANAGEMENT
    * CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR ‘ MOHAMMED COMES TO THE MOUNTAIN ‘ – campaign to secure sanctuary for the few surviving soldiers
    responsible for the rescue of Australian hostage Douglas Wood.

  • Bill

    Good to see you back at it, Jim!

  • Jim

    Thanks, perfesser. I am on Countdown with Keith Olbermann tonight at 850p EST on MSNBC if you are around a TV.

  • John Winters

    I spend a lot of time on the internet. How have I missed you? You are a bright light in the darkness of reactionary patriotism – a wonderful articled about what it means to be free and how difficult it is go remain free.

  • Kirk

    While I think many of the things wikileaks has disclosed are a good thing, they need to be a bit more picky about what they release. While in the short term people may not die because of these releases, your assumption that the assertion that these release will lead to deaths is “laughable” may turn out to be short sighted. Just wait. The next time the US needs to talk with country X behind closed doors, how hesitant will either side be now? How many time have a government needs to tell its people that they are doing one thing, but actually need to be doing something else? A person is smart, people are dumb and there are times in life things do need to be kept from people to get things done that are overall better for the populace. The key thing is to know what those are and wikileaks seems to not have an effective filter.

    I also find it interesting that you fail to give any examples where secrecy actually helped situations, only ones where it was harmful.

  • Bene

    I was with you James until you chose to use Black journalists reporting on the Civil Rights Movement to support your theory that journalism is ineffective due to the absence of objectivity. Of all the examples you could have used, why marginalize Black journalists? Furthermore, your generalization is dangerous. Black people, or black journalists, are not a monolith. Whether intentionally or not, this example suggests Black journalists are incapable of being objective. As a journalist who reads slews of news sources daily, witnessing the subjectivity of white reporters on a myriad of issues, I do not appreciate you singling out Blacks.

  • @Quillpower1

    Bene, maybe you’re just too used to being discriminated against to realise when someone’s on your side. Jim’s example pointed out the likelihood that an involved person would be better informed:
    “. . . an African-American reporter is more likely to write with sensitivity about the Civil Rights movement than is an anglo Southern male from rural Alabama.”

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