Monthly Archives: July 2007

On the Message Board

A recent Irish Times opinion article by Theodore Dalrymple, ‘Fanaticism has real consequences for relations with Muslims‘, attempted to rationalise discrimination against Muslims:

“The fundamental problem is this: there is an asymmetry between the good that many moderate Muslims can do for Britain and the harm that a few fanatics can do to it. The one in 1,000 chance that a man is a murderous fanatic is more important to me than the 999 in 1,000 chance that he is not a murderous fanatic; if, that is, he is not especially valuable or indispensable to me in some way.

And the plain fact of the matter is that British society could get by perfectly well without the contribution even of moderate Muslims. The only thing we really want from Muslims is their oil money for bank deposits, to prop up London property prices and to sustain the luxury market. Their cheap labour that we imported in the 1960s in a vain effort to shore up the dying textile industry, which could not find local labour, is now redundant.”

We responded to Mr. Dalrymple’s piece, as did Gabriele Zamparini of ‘The Cat’s Dream‘:

Dear Ms. Kennedy,

Theodore Dalrymple’s piece in today’s Irish Times (via The LA Times), ‘Fanaticism has real consequences for relations with Muslims’, really should have began with “I’m not racist, but…”

His introduction explains that the lack of violence towards British Muslims following the recent terrorist attacks is a result of either Briton’s (but not British Muslims, they are different) tolerance or ‘inability, or unwillingness, to make the effort to defend’ themselves. A morally reprehensible cul-de-sac you would not have thought he could find his way out of. But you’d be wrong.

He continues – ‘we have had Somali, Pakistani, Arab, Jamaican, Algerian and British Muslim terrorists’, in an excellently crafted piece of work, that shrewdly omits unfortunate elements of the story which may have forced him to actually address the question of why Britain is a target. Such as the news that one of the latest terror suspects is an Iraqi doctor.

Media Sceptic, a UK based media monitoring organisation, noted that “Only 0.2% of all “terrorism” in Europe (in 2006) was “Islamist”, according to new figures from Europol.” In other words, it seems that, to use Mr. Dalrymple’s formula, the fundamental problem is that there is an asymmetry between reality and the Europe relayed in this article.

Of course what Mr. Dalrymple could not have been aware of is that being demonised and tarred with the same brush as a violent minority is not something Irish people are unfamiliar with.

Yours sincerely,

David Manning

The Irish Times has also made clear it’s refusal to put the Iranian nuclear ‘stand-off’ in perspective, obediently relaying the West’s (i.e. Washington’s) ‘suspicions’:

“Iran has offered to draw up an “action plan” to address Western suspicions that its nuclear programme is a front to obtain nuclear arms. Tehran says it needs nuclear technology only to generate power.”

We wrote to ask they consider the “possibility they are inadvertently helping to build a false case for another unwarranted and deadly war.”

RTE Radio 1 recently broadcast an interview with George Galloway and Professor Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics and Political Science. However the interview was cut short following Galloway’s departure, though not before he had taken the opportunity to highlight the absurdity of what had gone before. We wrote to the interviewer Derek Davis, also copying the email to Professor Prins:

Dear Derek Davis,

Your interview with Professor Gwyn Prins on Today this morning struck me with the same impression George Galloway verbalised in his ‘brief interlude’; I could imagine a similar discussion took place somewhere in polite English society at the height of the troubles. You simply offered Professor Prins a ‘clear run’ to expound the merits and mistakes of ‘imperialism light’. Yet almost as soon as Mr. Galloway began, you interrupted him with your opinion – stating that Saddam was a ‘blood thirsty barbarian’, and thus had to be removed? That is no doubt the disparity that caused him to discontinue the interview.

In answer to your statement, an uncontroversial one at that, but one that actually implicitly defines your support for the invasion and thus highlights your opinion as that shared by Professor Prins, thus explaining his willingness to ‘engage’ – the US led invasion and occupation has caused far more deaths in the last 4 years than Saddam’s 24 years of rule. Saddam’s killing, as Professor Prins alluded to, was also made possible by tacit and direct Western support. Would you re-evaluate your position in light of this stark fact?

No one questions Saddam’s despotic title, what is validly questioned is the idea that Western imperialists acted with some sort of benign intent, or ‘moral motive’ – which was ‘devalued’ by unfortunate revelations of fabrications and deception. Not once did you posit that the invasion was not just a ‘mistake’ but a crime, as was stated by the UN’s Kofi Annan when he called the invasion ‘illegal’. Nor did you seek to examine the situation from an Iraqi perspective, a point made to you by George Galloway. The vast majority of Iraqi people are opposed to the continued occupation and a similar number support attacks on coalition troops – who are the predominant target of insurgents. Instead you simply offered Professor Prins the opportunity to eloquently hammer out, almost verbatim, the imperialist’s rhetoric.

I accept the Today show is light radio, but if you are going to treat issues such as these like this, perhaps it would be better to forgo the pretence of impartiality.

Yours sincerely,

David Manning

Professor Prins responded in defense of Derek Davis:

Dear Mr Manning

Thank you for taking the trouble to write.

I feel that you are being a little unfair to Mr Davis when you accuse him of unprofessionalism by reason of not opening a wider raft of questions than those which were slated for this interview. Plainly there is a debate to be had about “legality” – it has been had at great length; plainly there are different judgements about the strategic interests of the West (of which Ireland is part) and how best to pursue them; plainly there is – as always – a judgement on greater and lesser evils. Those especially were the delicate matters that I sought to open when the interview continued after Mr Galloway chose to go away. But the agenda for that conversation was none of those: it was about the consequences of the mess made by the stubborn and arrogant Mr Rumsfeld. That is an especially painful subject for thise, like me, who believe that the removal of the Saddam regime was moral (had both ius ad bellum and in bello), legal and made strategic good sense

I would have been perfectly prepared to discuss that in a triangular conversation with Mr Galloway; but he refused to do so and then behaved in the way that you heard. Calling names rarely advances understanding of anything in my experience.

But Mr Davis exposed nothing of his own views – certainly not those which you ascribe to him. He did, however, observe that he (as I also) had a knowledge of irish history when accused of not have such

Yours sincerely

GP

We responded the same day:

Dear Mr. Prins,

Thank you for responding.

Like you I would have welcomed a debate between yourself and Mr. Galloway. Though my concern is that Mr. Davis really did relinquish all claims to professionalism for the reasons I mentioned; also pointed out by Mr. Galloway.

That Mr. Davis can, even with his extensive knowledge of Irish history, allow discussion of an event such as the invasion and occupation of a sovereign country descend in to abstract musings of mending broken china evidences much about the state of informed discussion on Irish radio. A moral case for the removal of Saddam perhaps did exist, but if it did, it existed at a time when the West fully supported the despot – and as you know indirectly encouraged his ‘despotic-ness’. ‘You cannot use deaths which occurred in 1988 as a post-hoc justification for invading in 2003. The only relevant statistic is what was happening in the years immediately preceding the war and on the eve of war, not what had happened fifteen or twenty years before.’ According to Amnesty International Saddam was responsible for ‘scores’ of killings in the years leading up to the invasion – a despicable record, but not a moral case for causing the deaths of over 650,000 people.

I realise too that there was debate over the legality of the war, but this has long since been clarified. There was no legal basis for regime change, therefore the facts were ‘fixed around the policy’ in order for it to appear an act of defence – which I may add was not in accordance with international law and could not have been thought to have been sanctioned by previous UN resolutions.

It was self evident that Mr. Davis fully agreed with the frame imposed by Washington and London, and that the interview sought not to discuss anything outside this illogical frame. This is supported by his interjection to Mr. Galloway’s, perhaps forthright, introduction. This is in direct contradiction to the weight of public opinion in both Ireland and the UK.

I co-edit a media monitoring organisation www.mediabite.org, would you object to my publishing this correspondence in full?

Yours sincerely,

David Manning

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Beyond Advocacy v. Objective Journalism

Who is really objective?
By Robert Jensen

MediaBite’s latest guest contributor is Robert Jensen, Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas, who challenges the notion that journalism which disputes the conventional wisdom should always be labelled as “advocacy” or “activist”, and seen as less trustworthy than traditional mainstream ‘objective’ journalism. He contrasts the journalism and perspective of John Pilger with that of John Burns from the New York Times – the former often disregarded as ‘left wing’ and the latter widely regarded as a trusted and objective mainstream voice.

In a recent discussion with other journalism professors, I suggested that mainstream journalists have failed to grasp the depth of the crises — cultural and political, economic and ecological — that the United States and modern industrial society face, and hence are failing in their fundamental task in a democratic society, the work of monitoring the centers of power.

A colleague acknowledged the importance of such issues, but said that university schools of journalism don’t teach “advocacy journalism” or promote the idea of “the journalist as activist.”

This advocacy/activist tag is often applied to journalists who don’t accept the conventional wisdom of the powerful and dare to challenge the more basic frameworks within which news is reported. The idea seems to be that anyone who doesn’t fall in line with the worldview of the powerful people and institutions in society is not “objective,” and therefore must be motivated not by a principled search for truth but some pre-determined political agenda.

But the crucial distinction is not between “objective” and “advocacy/activist” journalists but (1) between propagandists and journalists, and then (2) between journalists who do the job well and those who do it poorly. If there is a label we might valorize, it should be “independent” — we need journalists who are independent not only from the powerful but also from any political movements.

While this may seem to be a hyper-sensitivity about terminology, an examination of these labels can help us understand both the problems with, and possibilities of, contemporary journalism.

The term advocacy journalism typically is used to describe the use of techniques to promote a specific political or social cause. The term is potentially meaningful only in opposition to a category of journalism that does not engage in advocacy, so-called objective journalism.

This distinction is a focus of attention most intensely in the United States, especially in the last half of the 20th century; use of these terms does not necessarily translate for other political landscapes, though U.S. (and more generally Western) models are becoming dominant. In Western Europe, some newspapers have long identified openly with a political position, even though journalists from those papers are considered professionals not typically engaged in advocacy. For example, in Italy Il Manifesto identifies itself as a communist newspaper philosophically but does not associate with any party and operates as a workers’ cooperative. In the nations of the Third World that became independent since World War II, journalism typically was part of freedom movements inherently in support of liberation from colonialism. Many independent publications retain that opposition to entrenched power, such as The Hindu in India.

The press in the United States, which was distinctly partisan well into the 19th century, developed objectivity norms that now define the practices of corporate-commercial news media. Many journalists found (and find) those norms constraining, and in the political fervor of the 1960s and 1970s, advocacy journalism emerged with counterculture and revolutionary political activity. Other terms used for practice outside the mainstream include alternative, gonzo, or new journalism. Within those forms, journalists may openly identify with a group or movement or remain independent while adopting similar values and political positions.

This advocacy-objectivity dichotomy springs from political theory that asserts a special role for journalists in complex democratic societies. Journalists’ claims to credibility are based in an assertion of neutrality. They argue for public trust by basing their report of facts, analysis, and opinion on rigorous information gathering. Professional self-monitoring produces what journalists consider an unbiased account of reality, rather than a selective account reflecting a guiding political agenda.

At one level, the term advocacy might be useful in distinguishing, for example, journalistic efforts clearly serving a partisan agenda (such as a political party publication) from those officially serving non-partisan ends (such as a commercial newspaper). But the distinction is not really between forms of journalism as much as between persuasion and journalism. Although so-called objective journalism assumes that, as a rule, disinterested observers tend to produce more reliable reports, a publication advocating a cause might have more accurate information and compelling analysis than a non-partisan one. The intentions of those writing and editing the publication are the key distinguishing factor.

More complex is categorizing different approaches to journalism by those not in the direct service of an organization or movement. Can those who advocate a particular philosophical or political perspective — but remain independent of a partisan group — produce journalism that the general public can trust?

An extended example is helpful here. In general usage, freelance reporter John Pilger (Australian born, now living in the United Kingdom) could be considered an advocacy journalist, and New York Times reporter, John Burns, an objective journalist. Both are experienced and hard-working, with a sophisticated grasp of world affairs, and both have reported extensively about Iraq. Pilger primarily writes for newspapers and magazines in England but has a large following in the United States, and he also is a documentary filmmaker. Burns writes almost exclusively for the Times but also gives frequent interviews on television and radio programs about his reporting. Anti-war and anti-empire groups circulate Pilger’s reports and screen his documentaries, but he, like Burns, describes himself as an independent journalist and rejects affiliations with any political groups.

Pilger is, however, openly critical of U.S. and U.K. policies toward Iraq, including unambiguous denunciations of the self-interested motivations and criminal consequences of state policies. His reporting leads him not only to describe these policies but to offer an analysis that directly challenges the framework of the powerful. Burns, in contrast, avoids such assessments, not only in news reports but also in articles labeled analysis . His reporting tends to accept the framework of the powers promoting these policies, and his criticism tends to question their strategy and tactics, not their basic motivations. In some sense, both journalists advocate for a particular view of state power and how it operates in the areas they cover. Both have reputations for accurately reporting; the difference resides in their interpretations. The language of mainstream journalism would see Burns as objective but not Pilger.

The example illustrates the limits of conceptions of journalism as practiced in the media industries, especially those under corporate commercial control. All reporters use a framework of analysis to understand the world and report on it. But reporting containing open references to underlying political assumptions and conclusions seems to engage in advocacy, while the more conventional approach appears neutral. Both are independent, in the sense of not being directed by a party or movement, but neither approach is in fact neutral. One explicitly endorses a political perspective critical of the powerful, while implicitly reinforcing the political perspective of the elite.

Accounts of the world, including journalistic ones, must begin from some assumptions about the way the world works. None is neutral. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can know or trust about the world, or that journalists can’t offer us reliable information. It simply means that those who report from the conventional wisdom are not exempt from the questions about perspective.

Readers should keep that in mind. So should journalists.

 

4th July 2007

Robert Jensen is Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Formerly a journalist himself, Jensen is a regular contributor to the Znet Commentaries and has published a number of books including “Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity” (City Lights, 2004) and “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream” (Peter Lang, 2001). His latest book is concerned with pornography “Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity” (South End Press, 2007).

More about Robert Jensen here:
http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/%7Erjensen/index.html 

On the Message Board

The Irish Examiner recently relayed the thoughts of US senator Joseph Lieberman who favours military action against Iran in order to force them to ‘play by the rules’. We wrote in response:

Dear Tim, [Tim Vaughan, Editor, Irish Examiner]

We write to enquire about a recent unattributed report in the Irish Examiner concerning Joseph Liebermann’s recommendation that the US should use military ‘force’ against Iran in response to the unsubstantiated allegations of support for Iraqi insurgents. (Irish Examiner, Monday June 11th)

We notice that your reporter quotes exclusively from Mr Liebermann’s statement as if to attach a value of truth to the comments. Why was there no attempt to put Mr. Liebermann’s statement in context?

Mr. Lieberman’s ironic reference to ‘the international rule of law’ should have offered the perfect opportunity to question the legality of a military resolution to a fabricated threat – not least because Mr. Liberman is the Democrat’s most prominent defender of the Republican’s ‘interventionist’ policies; policies referred to as illegal by the UN’s Kofi Annan.

The effect of this one-sided report is to imply that what Mr Liebermann says is factual – even though these allegations have not been demonstrated to be true. This could be referred to as propaganda.

With best wishes

David Manning &
Miriam Cotton [Email, 28th June 2007] [1]
An article in the 26th June edition of the Irish Examiner detailed Israel’s announced ‘gesture of good will towards the Palestinians’, the release of 250 Fatah prisoners:

“The Arabs and Palestinians are pressing Israel to take immediate advantage of the Hamas militants’ expulsion from the coalition government and make quick peace progress despite the Palestinians’ split between a Gaza ruled by the Iranian-backed Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank run by Mr Abbas’ Western-backed Fatah in the West Bank.”

We wrote to the author the same day:

Dear Nadia

In your article you refer to “the Hamas militants expulsion from the coalition government.” This statement is misleading. As with Fatah, Hamas have both militant and political sides. It was Hamas, the democratically elected political group, that have been forced from government. In elections last year, Hamas won an outright majority of the votes and 76 of the 136 seats in their parliament.

Since the election Israel and the US have been doing everything possible to bring about the current crisis. In our latest media shot we have quoted The New York Times which reported that:

“Since the election victory of Hamas in January 2006, the United States and Israel have worked to isolate and damage Hamas and build up Fatah with recognition and weaponry.”

This economic violence was a precursor to Hamas’ military violence, which was in itself a response to the real threat of a US-backed Fatah coup. Hamas cannot be excused for it’s recent violence, but would any other democratically elected government allow foreign forces to undermine its democratic mandate in favour of a group widely regarded as corrupt and incompetent?

Why does your article accept the legitimacy of the new Palestinian Authority – imposed on Palestinians, without question?

Yours sincerely
Miriam Cotton &
David Manning