Numerous commentators (including me) were complimentary of the performance of Martha Raddatz as the moderator of Wednesday night's vice presidential debate. She was assertive, asked mostly substantive questions, and covered substantial ground in 90 minutes. That's all true enough, but the questions she asked reveal something significant about American journalism in general and especially its pretense of objectivity.
For establishment journalists like Raddatz, "objectivity" is the holy grail. In their minds, it is what distinguishes "real reporters" from mere "opinionists" and, worse, partisans. As they tell it, this objectivity means they traffic only in straight facts, unvarnished by ideology or agenda. This journalistic code obligates them to speak only from what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, citing the philosopher Thomas Nagel, derides as "the View from Nowhere"a term Rosen explains this way:
"Three things. In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position 'impartial'. Second, it's a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it's an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance."
Leave aside whether that is even a desirable mindset. The reality is that, as desperately as they try, virtually no journalists are driven by this type of objectivity. They are, instead, awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective.
These assumptions are almost always unacknowledged as such and are usually unexamined, which means that often the journalists themselves are not even consciously aware that they have embraced them. But embraced them they have, with unquestioning vigor, and this renders their worldview every bit as subjective and ideological as the opinionists and partisans they scorn.
(In fact, one could reasonably make the case that those whose thinking is shaped by unexamined, unacknowledged assumptions are more biased than those who have consciously examined and knowingly embraced their assumptions, because the refusal or inability to recognize one's own assumptions creates the self-delusion of unbiased objectivity, placing those assumptions beyond the realm of what can be challenged and thus leading one to lay claim to an unearned authority steeped in nonexistent neutrality. That is why I believe that journalists who candidly acknowledge their opinions are better at informing others than those who conceal their opinions: conceal them either from others or, as is often the case, even from themselves.)
At best, "objectivity" in this world of journalists usually means nothing more than: the absence of obvious and intended favoritism toward either of the two major political parties. As long as a journalist treats Democrats and Republicans more or less equally, they will be hailed - and will hail themselves - as "objective journalists".
But that is a conception of objectivity so shallow as to be virtually meaningless, in large part because the two parties so often share highly questionable assumptions and orthodoxies on the most critical issues. One can adhere to steadfast neutrality in the endless bickering between Democrats and Republicans while still having hard-core ideology shape one's journalism.
The highly questionable assumptions tacitly embedded in the questions Raddatz asked illustrate how this works, as does the questions she pointedly and predictably did not ask. Let's begin with Iran, where Raddatz posed a series of questions and made numerous observations that she undoubtedly believes are factual but which are laden with all sorts of ideological assumptions. First there is this:
RADDATZ: Let's move to Iran. I'd actually like to move to Iran, because there's really no bigger national security...
RADDATZ: ... this country is facing.
Ryan's interruption made it difficult to hear whether Raddatz said that there is "no bigger national security threat the country is facing" or "national security issue". Either way, the very idea that Iran poses some kind of major "national security" crisis for the US - let alone that there is "really no bigger national security" issue "this country is facing" - is absurd. At the very least, it's highly debatable.
The US has Iran virtually encircled militarily. Even with the highly implausible fear-mongering claims earlier this year about Tehran's planned increases in military spending, that nation's total military expenditures is a tiny fraction of what the US spends. Iran has demonstrated no propensity to launch attacks on US soil, has no meaningful capability to do so, and would be instantly damaged, if not (as Hillary Clinton once put it) "totally obliterated" if they tried. Even the Israelis are clear that Iran has not even committed itself to building a nuclear weapon.
That Iran is some major national security issue for the US is a concoction of the bipartisan DC class that always needs a scary foreign enemy. The claim is frequently debunked in multiple venues. But because both political parties embrace this highly ideological claim, Raddatz does, too. Indeed, one of the most strictly enforced taboos in establishment journalism is the prohibition on aggressively challenging those views that are shared by the two parties. Doing that makes one fringe, unserious and radical: the opposite of solemn objectivity.
Most of Raddatz's Iran questions were thus snugly within this bipartisan framework. At one point, she even chided Biden for appearing to suggest that Iran may not be actively pursuing a nuclear weapon: "You are acting a little bit like they don't want one" (Biden, of course, urgently disclaimed any such view: "Oh, I didn't say - no, I'm not saying that"). To the extent that she questioned the possibility of attacking Iran, it was purely on the grounds of whether an attack would be tactically effective, citing former defense secretary Bob Gates' warning that that such an attack "could prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations," and then asking: "Can the two of you be absolutely clear and specific to the American people how effective would a military strike be?"
Note what Raddatz did not ask and never would. Even after both candidates re-affirmed their commitment to attacking Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon (Biden dismissed Gates' warning about an attack by saying that "it could prove catastrophic, if we didn't
do it with precision"), there were no questions about whether the US would have the legal or moral right to launch an aggressive attack on Iran. That the US has the right to attack any country it wants is one of those unexamined assumptions in Washington discourse, probably the supreme orthodoxy of the nation's "foreign policy community".
Worse, even after Biden boasted about the destruction of the Iranian economy from US sanctions - "the ayatollah sees his economy being crippled. . . . He sees the currency going into the tank. He sees the economy going into freefall" - there was no discussion about the severe suffering imposed on Iranian civilians by the US, whether the US wants to repeat the mass death and starvation it brought to millions of Iraqis for a full decade, or what the consequences of doing that will be.
In sum, all of Raddatz's questions were squarely within the extremely narrow - and highly ideological - DC consensus about US foreign policy generally and Iran specifically: namely, Iran is a national security threat to the US; it is trying to obtain nuclear weapons; the US must stop them; the US has the unchallenged right to suffocate Iranian civilians and attack militarily. As usual, the only question worth debating is whether a military attack on Iran now would be strategically wise, whether it would advance US interests.
One can say many things about the worldview promoted by her questions. That it is "objective" or free of ideology is most certainly not one of them.
Exactly the same is true of Raddatz's statements and questions about America's entitlement programs. Here is the "question" she asked to launch the discussion:
"Let's talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process."
"Will benefits for Americans under these programs have to change for the programs to survive?"
That Social Security is "going broke" - a core premise of her question - is, to put it as generously as possible, a claim that is dubious in the extreme. "Factually false" is more apt. This claim lies at the heart of the right-wing and neo-liberal quest to slash entitlement benefits for ordinary Americans - Ryan predictably responded by saying: "Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts." - but the claim is baseless.
As the Pulitzer Prize winning former New York Times economics reporter David Cay Johnston has repeatedly explained, this is the primary demonstrable myth being used by the DC class - which largely does not need entitlements - to deceive ordinary Americans into believing that they must "sacrifice" the pittances on which they are now living:
"Which federal program took in more than it spent last year, added $95 billion to its surplus and lifted 20 million Americans of all ages out of poverty?
"Why, Social Security, of course, which ended 2011 with a $2.7 trillion surplus.
"That surplus is almost twice the $1.4 trillion collected in personal and corporate income taxes last year. And it is projected to go on growing until 2021, the year the youngest Baby Boomers turn 67 and qualify for full old-age benefits.
"So why all the talk about Social Security 'going broke?' . . . . The reason is that the people who want to kill Social Security have for years worked hard to persuade the young that the Social Security taxes they pay to support today's gray hairs will do nothing for them when their own hair turns gray.
"That narrative has become the conventional wisdom because it is easily reduced to a headline or sound bite. The facts, which require more nuance and detail, show that, with a few fixes, Social Security can be safe for as long as we want."
That Medicare is "going broke" is as dubious and controversial a claim as the one about Social Security. Numerous economists and fact-checking journalists have documented quite clearly why this claim is misleading in the extreme.
Yet this claim has also become DC orthodoxy. That is because, as the economist Dean Baker has explained, "Social Security and Medicare are hugely important for the security of the non-rich population of the United States," and "for this reason" many Washington media outlets and think tanks "hate them".
Nonetheless, Raddatz announced this assertion as fact. That's because she's long embedded in the DC culture that equates its own ideological desires with neutral facts. As a result, the entire discussion on entitlement programs proceeded within this narrow, highly ideological, dubious framework. As Jonathan Schwarz put it after the debate:
That is what this faux journalistic neutrality, whether by design or otherwise, always achieves. It glorifies highly ideological claims that benefit a narrow elite class (the one that happens to own the largest media outlets which employ these journalists) by allowing that ideology to masquerade as journalistic fact.
These establishment journalists are creatures of the DC and corporate culture in which they spend their careers, and thus absorb and then regurgitate all of the assumptions of that culture. That may be inevitable, but having everyone indulge the ludicrous fantasy that they are "objective" and "neutral" most certainly is not.
Read the full article with updates at The Guardian