Politics & The PressSaturday, May 10, 2014
For The Herald
Objectivity is the form of mediation chosen by modern journalism, especially in the 20th century. It may not exist, but journalists try to manufacture it every day. In Russia this week, a group of journalists was given a state award for being “objective” in their (pro-Kremlin) coverage of the country’s annexation of Ukraine.
President Putin apparently liked the coverage some of these journalists, who are invariably employed by his country’s powerful state media, delivered. He awarded medals of the “Order of Service to the Fatherland” to 300 journalists, including several editors, directors and television hosts known for their Kremlin-friendly coverage.
His executive order was signed on 22 April but only made the news this week, broken on Monday by the Russian-language daily Vedomosti. The Western media is very comfortable with the storyline that the Russian government is manipulating its media to convince the Russian public that the government’s actions were right. The storyline is most likely true though. According to a March survey by the independent Levada Centre cited by The Guardian, 63 percent of Russians believe that national media outlets “cover the events in Ukraine and Crimea objectively” (that word again). As a side note, Putin’s administration has reportedly cracked down on independent media in recent months in order to uphold its version of reality.
The journalists getting the award from President Putin could easily be tagged as “militants” in the Argentina press jargon of the last few years. The Kremlin chose to call them “objective,” just like the enemies of “militant journalism” here like to call themselves “independent.” In other parts of the world, journalists with dubious objectivity also call themselves “fair and balanced.”
The press trope of objectivity, which basically means getting at least two sides of any issue in contention, is put to question in an article published this week by one of the powerhouses of Western Journalism: the University of Columbia (the one that hands out the Pulitzer prizes every year). A story on the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) headlined “The danger of fair and balanced” argues that journalists the world over but most especially in the US took the bait placed in front of them by certain corporate sectors and played the “fair and balanced” card to question the reliability of scientific evidence on global warming. The global warming story started almost three decades ago in the 1980s.
“Since those early days of climate coverage, scientists have grown more certain that there is unassailable evidence that human behaviour is making a dire contribution to the planet’s rising temperatures,” reads the CJR article. “Yet it’s as if journalists are stuck in time, presenting the science as something still under debate. A notion to be evaluated, tossed around. As scientific certainty grows — 97 percent of qualified scientists agree that the planet is warming and humans are the cause-— today’s reporters, editors, and producers should cease with the false conceit about a debate and instead drill deeply into the political terrain.”
The debate scene on climate change resurfaced this week with a report published by the White House stating that the decade starting in 2000 was the hottest on record and that climate change is already affecting every part of the US. A quick look at the headlines and stories on the US government assessment of the climate situation shows detractors of the warming theory losing credit. Yet there are still headlines the type of “Alarmists offer untrue, unrelenting doom and gloom” run, predictably, by Fox News. ‘The new report is an alarmist document designed to scare people and build political support for unpopular policies such as carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and EPA regulatory mandates,” writes Marlo Lewis in Fox.
Here and there, journalism continues to be about giving the public an angle. Malpractice has triggered two different lines of questioning. One: that the angles are biased for the wrong reasons — political or money interests being the most prominent. Two, that with the public now in control of social media tools like Facebook or Twitter, it does not need that mediation anymore.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner followed this latter line of reasoning on Wednesday, when she attended the inauguration of Facebook’s local headquarters. ‘People love being connected without any intermediaries, without anybody selling them lies,‘ she said. “People feel mediated by the legacy media, controlled, wondering all the time whether the things they hear are true or not.” Her government’s political communications policy has shifted back and forth between trying to avoid these intermediaries and paying too much attention to them — be it via sticks or carrots. As a result, virtually no massive public voice is bankable in Argentina’s political life. No “selfie” can fix that.