The NYT's View of 'Journalistic Objectivity'
I've written many times before about Sami al-Hajj, the Al Jazeera cameraman who was abducted by the U.S. in late 2001, tortured at Bagram, sent to Guantanamo for seven years -- where he was never charged with any crime and was interrogated overwhelmingly about Al Jazeera's operations, not about Terrorism -- and then suddenly released without explanation last year, as though the whole thing never happened. The due-process-free imprisonment of this journalist by the U.S. government was ignored almost completely by the American media (other than Nicholas Kristof), even as it righteously obsessed on the far shorter imprisonment of journalists by countries such as Iran and North Korea (hey, look over there at those tyrannical countries - they imprison our journalists!!!!!). Aside from al-Hajj, we've imprisoned numerous other journalists without charges in Iraq -- and continue to this day to do so -- including ones who work for Reuters and the Associated Press.
Today, The New York Times' media reporter Brian Stelter profiles al-Hajj, who is now an on-air correspondent for Al Jazeera. The article recounts the details of al-Hajj's detention, his description of his torture, and the physical and psychological wounds he still suffers from his treatment at the hands of his American captors. All things considered, the article is a decent effort to explain what happened, and Stelter deserves credit for bringing some desperately needed attention to this story. Nonetheless, the article contains some rather striking and revealing passages, beginning with this:
Among Al Jazeera's viewers in the Arab world since the 9/11 attacks, perhaps nothing has damaged perceptions of America more than Guantánamo Bay. For that reason, Mr. Hajj, who did a six-part series on the prison after his release, is a potent weapon for the network, which does not always strive for journalistic objectivity on the subject of his treatment. In an interview, Ahmed Sheikh, the editor in chief of Al Jazeera, called Mr. Hajj "one of the victims of the human rights atrocities committed by the ex-U.S. administration."
It's amazing that the NYT would claim that Al Jazeera's description of the Bush administration's conduct as it concerns al-Hajj and other detainees -- "one of the victims of the human rights atrocities committed by the ex-U.S. administration" -- departs from precepts of "journalistic objectivity." How can the lawless detention, brutal torture, numerous detainee deaths, obvious targeting of unfriendly media outlets, and explicit renunciation of the Gevena Conventions be described in any other way? The breach of "journalistic objectivity" comes not from calling this conduct what it is, but from refusing to do so -- from obfuscating what took place by using soothing euphemisms and according equal deference to the plainly false denials of those who did it, such as what takes place in these passages Stelter wrote:
Asked about questioning about Al Jazeera, a Pentagon spokesman said members of the media "are not targeted by U.S. forces, but there is no special category that gives members of media organizations immunity if captured engaging in suspicious, terror-related activity." The spokesman added that all detainees were treated humanely while in custody.
Are the Pentagon's denials true? Stelter doesn't say, instead merely passing on al-Hajj's allegations and the governments' denials. Using the standard definition of American journalism, resolving conflicting claims and stating the actual truth is a violation of "journalistic objectivity." Journalists only neutrally pass on claims, not report which ones are true. That's why Al Jazeera's doing so with regard to the Bush administration's conduct is so offensive to The New York Times.
Notably, however, The New York Times itself, in news articles, has repeatedly accused other countries of engaging in "human rights atrocities," often using that exact phrase to do so: see, for instance, here (America intervened to stop "atrocities" in Somalia, Haiti and Kosovo); here (accusing Peru of "human rights atrocities"); here (accusing Central American militias of being "guilty of wartime human rights atrocities"); here (referencing "human rights atrocities" in Bosnia); here (describing "human rights atrocities" by Sri Lanka); and here (detailing "human rights atrocities" by Serbia) Apparently, it's a perfectly acceptable "objective" journalistic practice to describe a government's actions as "human rights atrocities" -- just as long as it's not the U.S. Government being so accused. What a strange concept of "journalistic objectivity" The New York Times has adopted.
Even more amazing, the newspaper accusing Al Jazeera of deviating from "journalistic objectivity" itself explicitly bans the use of the word "torture" -- when describing what the U.S. Government did, that is, even as it uses that word promiscuously to describe similar conduct by foreign governments. When interviewing al-Hajj, Stelter faithfully followed the NYT's language ban, resulting in this illuminating exchange:
When a visitor mentioned "enhanced interrogation techniques," an American term that characterizes harsh treatment of detainees, Mr. Hajj interrupted the interpreter and said, in Arabic, "instead of torture?"
"We are giving the wrong impression" with that term, he said. "We as journalists are violating human rights because we are changing the perception of reality."
When Stelter -- as a journalist -- used the warped, U.S.-government-approved euphemism to describe torture, al-Hajj interrupted him and had to explain what should be obvious to any journalist: namely, that media outlets like the NYT (and The Washington Post and NPR) who do that are themselves distorting reality and thus enabling human rights abuses. Along those same lines, this sentence from Stelter's article is also incredibly revealing and ironic:
Mr. Hajj's story is well known to Al Jazeera viewers, but not to most Americans.
This is absolutely true, and it's amazing if you think about it. Americans love to believe that the differences in perception between themselves and the Muslim world are due to the fact that Americans are rational, well-informed, free and advanced, while those in predominantly Arab or Muslim countries are propagandized, irrational, primitive, conspiratorial, and misled (here's a classic case of that self-loving view from The New Republic's Michael Crowley today, fretting that anti-Americanism is so high in Pakistan not because of what we do [God forbid] but because those Muslims are so paranoid and irrational that they insanely fantasize that we're up to all sorts of nefarious things).
Yet the al-Hajj case shows how often exactly the opposite is true. That the U.S. Government imprisoned Muslim journalists without any charges of any kind is, as Stelter says, very well known in the Muslim world. Indeed, as Rachel Morris wrote in her superb piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about this case, "al-Haj has become a cause celebre in the Arab world." The Muslim world is very well-informed about what the U.S. Government did -- and continues to do -- with regard to the due-process-free imprisonment of Muslim journalists.
By stark contrast, the American public is, as Stelter notes, almost completely ignorant of what our government has done in this regard. And why is that? Because the same media that fixates endlessly on the imprisonment of American journalists by other countries all but blacked out any reporting on what we did to al-Hajj (again, other than columnist Nicholas Kristof, who is commendably as concerned by the American imprisonment of foreign journalists as he is when other government do it to ours). As I documented back in May, a Nexis search of media outlets finds that "Roxana Saberi" -- the American journalist detained for three months by Iran and then quickly given a trial and appeal -- was mentioned 2,201 times during the first two months of her ordeal alone; by contrast "Sami al-Haj" was mentioned a grand total of 101 times during the first six years of his lawless detention at Guantanamo. The short imprisonment of an American journalist by a hated nation merits a full-on media blitz from the American press; the imprisonment of a foreign journalist by the U.S. Government merits almost nothing. Indeed, Stelter's own paper ran countless stories on Saberi, but other than this very brief 2002 mention of an Al-Jazeera statement regarding al-Hajj, it did not publish a single news article mentioning his imprisonment until he was released.
So just consider the record here. The New York Times will frequently label what other governments do as "torture" but steadfastly refuses to use that term for what the American government did. It promiscuously accuses foreign countries of "human rights atrocities" but self-righteously objects when that term is applied to our own government even after it abducts, disappears, lawlessly imprisons, and tortures people even to the point of death. It accords extreme deference and respect to the claims of government officials even when those claims are patently false. In other words, The New York Times' journalistic practices create -- either by design or effect -- the false impression that torture and human rights abuses are things that other governments do, but not our own. Who is it exactly, then, who is departing from "journalistic objectivity"?
* * * * *
UPDATE: One other point: after detailing the way his life was devastated by what was done to him -- seven years imprisoned with no charges and multiple acts of torture -- Stelter mentions that al-Hajj "is helping to prepare legal action against former President George W. Bush and officials of his administration." Unfortunately for al-Hajj, though, while many other countries have acknowledged wrongdoing, conducted criminal investigations, and compensated torture and detention victims of the "War on Terror," the U.S. is a country that vigorously resists all such efforts at accountability or even disclosure, even for the most gruesome injustices perpetrated by our government.
© 2009 Salon.com