14
Feb
11

Glenn Greenwald goes wharrgarbl

It’s funny how small anecdotes, especially those attached to direct experience, can overwhelm larger trends in one’s impression of a person or institution.  For example, five or six months ago the Los Angeles Times ran a series of well-researched articles on teacher performance testing in LA’s schools.  Since then, every time I come across the proper noun “LA Times” I remember the anecdote — the investigative reporting that pissed off the teachers’ union — and neglect the overall trend of Mk. 1 mod 0 newspaper journalism.  Turns out I’m a soft-hearted optimist when I neglect statistics.

And now I’m going to remember Anderson Cooper as “that guy who called Mubarak’s lies ‘lies’ and pissed off the LA Times”, rather than as CNN’s pet docutainment director.  Let me let Glenn explain:

Over the weekend, The Los Angeles‘ Times James Rainey mocked CNN’s Anderson Cooper for repeatedly using the word “lie” to describe the factually false statements of Egyptian leaders.  Though Rainey ultimately concluded that “it’s hard to find fault with what Cooper had to say” — meaning that everything Cooper identified as a “lie” was, in fact, a “lie” — the bulk of Rainey’s column derided the CNN anchor for his statements […].  Rainey also suggested that the harsh denunciations of Mubarak’s false statements were merely part of “Cooper’s pronounced shift toward more opinion-making in recent months . . . trying to adopt the more commentary-heavy approach of [CNN’s] higher-rated competitors, Fox and MSNBC.”  To Rainey, when a journalist calls a government lie a “lie,” that’s veering into “commentary-heavy opinion-making” rather than objective journalism[…].

The funny thing is, I’m basically amenable to Rainey’s accusation that CNN is more focused on commentary than on disinterested reporting — given, and this is a big “given”, a filter extending over six months or so.  That is, if you look at six months of CNN, I wouldn’t be surprised if the “opinion journalism” contained therein vastly outweighs any incidental facts that get reported.  But we’re not talking about a low-pass filter, here; we’re talking about factual details within a single story.

Cooper got it right: Egyptian officials lied.  Rainey admits that Cooper got it right, and that Egyptian officials lied.  But to a modern journalist, lies must be given equal air time in the name of “balance”.  Rainey would call it objectivity, but objectivity is judgement based on observation and observation has given us to conclude that, yes, Egyptian officials lied.

This is the same false compromise fallacy that creationists invoke when they screech about “teaching the controversy” — the misapprehension that if there are two sides to an argument, then the proper course is to give due respect to both.  It is endemic in modern journalism.

It wasn’t always.  Greenwald again:

Identifying lies told by powerful political leaders — and describing them as such — is what good journalists do, by definition.  It’s the crux of adversarial journalism, of a “watchdog” press.

Watergate much?

The rest of the article is simply outstanding.  RTWT.

Greenwald concludes with this update, which will underline my post quite well:

The important point is not whether something is labeled a “lie” — whether that word is used (although it should be when appropriate and clear); what matters is that factually false statements are clearly designated and documented as such, not treated as merely “one side of the story” deserving neutral and respectful airing on equal footing with the truth.

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