For Journalism, Objectivity vs. Subjectivity Is False Dichotomy
In a recent New York Times article David Carr questioned whether someone could be both a journalist and an activist, a question that was prompted by the role of Glenn Greenwald, a writer for The Guardian and a political activist, in reporting on Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks.
As Carr put it, “The question of who is a journalist and who is an activist and whether they can be one and the same continues to roar along, most recently in the instance of Glenn Greenwald’s reporting for The Guardian on the secrets revealed by Edward J. Snowden.” Carr also framed the question as “a fight between objectivity and subjectivity.”
Carr initially seemed to concede that one and the same person could be both an activist and a journalist, even though the activists are “driven by an agenda.” In fact, the title of his article conveyed exactly that point: “Journalism, Even When It’s Tilted.” And, as Carr noted, this is an important concession since journalists are afforded special legal protections in the case of reporting leaks. Mr. Greenwald needs this protection because there are some government officials who would like to see him prosecuted.
However, towards the end of his article Carr began to raise caveats. Activism, he concluded, does not prevent someone from being a journalist; it rather tends to make them bad journalists: “But I think activism – which is admittedly accompanied by the kind of determination that can prompt discovery – can also impair vision.” And he added: “…the tendentiousness of ideology creates its own narrative.” In other words, activism can on rare occasions be helpful in unearthing the truth, but usually it is a barrier.
But perhaps Mr. Carr has failed to grasp the larger picture, possibly due to his own unspoken commitments. Everyone falls into one of two categories. There are those who basically have resigned themselves to established society, perhaps because of ideological compatibility, a strong strain of pragmatism, or a conviction that attempts to change society are entirely futile. Then there are others who are critical and are prepared to embark on a campaign to try to change what they find objectionable. Neither of these groups has a monopoly on objectivity; both positions rest on a set of fundamental values that can be rationally supported. And both involve a kind of activism: one aims at changing society while the other aims at refraining from changing it.
Yet there is a superficial difference between the two: those who want to change society do stand out. Unlike Mr. Carr, they do not seamlessly blend in with the surrounding social institutions and the values embodied in them. Accordingly, they might seem as if they have an agenda that uniquely distinguishes them, but that is only from the perspective of people like Mr. Carr, whose agenda ties him to the status quo but who has not sufficiently reflected on his own social commitments and therefore is unable to acknowledge them. No one, in other words, is exempt from having an “agenda.”
This point was graphically illustrated when “Meet the Press” host David Gregory pointedly asked Greenwald why he should not be charged with a crime for divulging Edward Snowden’s leaks. Here Gregory stood smugly on the side of those who wield power and was quick to demonstrate this point by his tendentious question, perhaps with the thought in mind of winning a promotion, which is a rampant form of another kind of activism.
To his credit, Carr elicited Greenwald’s response to the counterposing of activism and journalism, and this was Greenwald’s response: “It is not a matter of being an activist or a journalist; it’s a false dichotomy. It is a matter of being honest or dishonest. All activists are not journalists, but all real journalists are activists. Journalism has a value, a purpose – to serve as a check on power.” And Greenwald added: “I have seen all sorts of so-called objective journalists who have all kinds of assumptions in every sentence they write. Rather than serve as an adversary of government, they want to bolster the credibility of those in power. That is a classic case of a certain kind of activism.”
Greenwald’s rejection of the purported dichotomy between activism and journalism is, of course, entirely correct. Everyone is an activist of one kind or another. The distinction should rather be drawn between those who are conscious activists and those who, like Mr. Carr and Mr. Gregory, are unconscious activists. Those who fail to reflect on their own commitments are sometimes the most vicious.