Buzzfeed Editor and Chief, Ben Smith, opined on “advocacy journalism”, this past Friday at Columbia University:
BEN SMITH: Um, yeah, I hate advocacy. Partly because I think, you know, telling people to be outraged about something is the least useful thing in the world.
Firedoglake has a post up, highlighting the irony of Smith denouncing advocacy journalism as outrage-porn, while simultaneously defending Buzzfeed’s decision to publish a hit job by Rosie Gray on journalist Max Blumenthal, his book, and his father.
That post does a nice job summarizing the inaccuracies that both Smith and Gray have already copped to, as well as previous examples of Gray’s less than even-handed reportage. But I think the Blumenthal story warrants a closer reading than FDL provides. Not for it’s subject matter, which is banal enough to fit under an Onion “Area Man” headline. The “story” here is that Max’s father Sidney is a friend of the Clintons, and he emailed a defense of his son’s anti-Zionist book to an email list of liberal journalists.
This is the kind of story that is newsworthy for its relevance to the concerns of desperate opposition researchers, rather than the concerns of the American public. To conceive of this information as relevant to the public interest, one would have to accept that a former Clinton advisor’s defense of his son’s book is a better indicator of what President Hillary’s position towards Israel would be, than, say, the eight years in which her husband was president, or the four years in which she served as Secretary of State, or the gushing endorsements of Israeli political leaders.
Rather, Gray’s piece deserves attention because the simultaneity of its flagrant bias and commitment to the conventions of “objective” journalism, make it an excellent case study in how journalistic “objectivity” can be utilized for more effective and insidious political advocacy.
The difficulty with “objective” journalism is that it purports to achieve the impossible: It pretends to transcend human subjectivity and the limits of language, to reduce multivalent reality into narrative form, without that process of selection being informed by any empirically unfounded assumptions or latent biases. It is an inherently aspirational mode, and when engaged in with good faith and self-scrutiny, good work can come of such aspiring.
But when practiced in bad faith or without self-reflection, the bias that crops up in objective journalism is far more toxic than the most fascist rhetoric spewed by overweight, pill-popping advocates of The Real America. Because the objective pose acknowledges no perspective, it admits no possibility of dissent. Its unacknowledged assumptions define the boundaries of the possible.
Before engaging with Gray’s smear, I’d like to illustrate the concept of “toxic” objectivity, by referring to one of its most stunning recent manifestations. In the 2012 Vice Presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked the following “question”:
“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?”
Here the assumptions underlying the “objective” perspective are helpfully explicit, tucked into a declarative sentence that prefaces the policy question put before the candidates. It literally defines the terms of the debate with a sentence that contains four separate assertions (1. Medicare is going broke, 2. Medicare is taking a larger share of the budget, etc..), three of which are in no way grounded in empirical reality.
Even if one accepted all of Raddatz’s premises, there’s no objective reason why they would necessarily beg her question. Why ask if benefits for Americans will have to change rather than whether the Social Security (tax) cap will have to be raised? If maintaining current spending levels is our concern, why not ask if the production of obsolete military equipment should be changed, in light of an ever-growing defense budget? With “objective” journalism, it’s all about the notes they don’t play.
Thus our objective moderator’s question advocates explicitly or implicitly, the following contentions:
- Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable in their current form.
- The most intuitive remedy for this un-sustainability is to cut benefits.
- When concerning ourselves with the increasing budget deficit, it is more important to scrutinize our social welfare programs than our defense spending, or our tax levels.
As Raddatz advocates a restricted debate on the budget through misrepresntation and selective focus, Rosie Gray advocates for a restricted debate on Israel, through those very same means.
She begins by describing Max’s book “Goliath”, to the presumably unfamiliar reader. Immediately, Gray employs selective focus to delegitimize Blumenthal’s writing. She does not provide the author or publisher’s description of the book, instead choosing to introduce the work to her reader solely through the pejorative terms of one of it’s critics:
The book was described by Alterman, himself a frequent critic of Israel, as “awful” and something that “could have been published by the Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club (if it existed).”
This is not “advocacy” because Rosie Gray does not herself describe the book as an entry in the “Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club”. She is only objectively presenting the words of a notably liberal critic.
She proceeds in her characterization by writing:
…[the] book has received little attention in the mainstream press but has proved extremely controversial in the corners of the Internet devoted to debate over Israel; its repeated comparisons of Israeli Jews to Nazis have particularly inflamed several commentators.
Gray remains in the realm of the objective, while expanding on an implicit argument that Blumenthal’s views on Israel are not worth the reader’s consideration. We now know that the book is not significant enough to receive mainstream attention, and that even in those dusty corners of cyber-space where the “explosive” topic of Israel is subject to debate, the book is widely rejected. Gray is not saying that she was inflamed by Blumenthal comparing Isreali Jews to Nazis, or that the reader should be, as that would be advocacy. Rather, she asserts that the book has been controversial, implying that there have been opposing reactions to the text, then chooses to highlight a complaint from one side, without citing any rebuttal from the book’s defenders.
Gray is also utilizing misrepresentation to make her case. In asserting that “Goliath” repeatedly compares Isreali Jews to Nazis, without providing any citation or context, Gray suggests that Blumenthal believes there is a general moral equivalence between Isreali Jews and Nazi soliders, rather than that there are disturbing echoes of Aryan ethnic tribalism in the political rhetoric and practice of the Isreali state.
Gray’s grossest and most significant misrepresentation comes in the article’s very next sentence, as she writes that Blumenthal has argued “the ‘non-indigenous’ majority of Israelis should not remain in the country now known as Israel”. Blumenthal’s actual argument, helpfully included in an italicized correction below Gray’s post, is that “the maintenance and engineering of a non-indigenous demographic majority is non-negotiable.” Gray’s paraphrase of Blumenthal conveys a radically different meaning than his actual quote:
*Gray’s summary suggests Blumenthal believes the majority of the Israeli population should be forced to leave the land of Israel.
*Blumenthal’s actual claim is that Israel should not persist as an ethnocracy, walling off land, turning away migrants, and displacing Palestinians so as to maintain a permanent ethnic majority. He does not argue that the majority of Israeli Jews shouldn’t remain in Israel, he argues that Israeli Jews should not remain in the country’s ethnic majority.
What’s so critical about collapsing these separate arguments into one, is that it reinforces the idea that the democratization of Israel is equivalent to its destruction. One could argue that the Jewish character of Israel is more important than its democratic character, or that the reality of the ethnic tensions in the country are such that allowing Jews to become a minority would be to allow for their physical destruction. But these are arguments, and should be presented as arguments, or else they cannot be subjected to debate.
The actual dispute at the center of this story, between Sid Blumenthal and Eric Alterman, is to a certain extent a factual one. Blumenthal believes Alterman’s review of his son’s book was both unfair and inaccurate. This opinion is shared by several other Israel commentators, including The Daily Beast’s avowedly Zionist Ali Gharib.
Gray does not see fit to comment on the legitimacy of Blumenthal Senior’s complaints. She does not evaluate the claims in the article Sid Blumenthal emailed, titled “Fact-Checking Eric Altermann”. As with Blumenthal’s book, she feels it is less important for the reader to engage with the article’s argument, than to be made aware of the untrustable extremity of its author, Philip Weiss. She writes that Weiss “has carved out a niche in making an allegation that is, for most American critics of Israel, beyond the pale, the charge of undue Jewish influence on American foreign policy”.
Again, she does not engage the question of whether Weiss’s allegation has factual merit. She does not acknowledge that there is an organization called AIPAC, which has as its explicit goal to influence American foreign policy on Israel’s behalf. She does not substantiate her claim that most American critics of Israel feel such an allegation is “beyond the pale”. She merely, “objectively” observes that this is so.
After some paragraphs of gossip about Sidney Blumenthal’s poor social skills and paranoia, Gray gives the last word to Alterman:
“I actually feel for Sid,” Alterman said. “Leaving aside the quality of Max’s journalism, it has to be painful for any Jew to see your own kid going around calling Jews ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists,’ and insisting that not only should Israel be destroyed, but its Jewish population should be kicked out.” [emphasis mine]
And so we leave the piece with a reiteration of the equivalence between a democratic Israel and a destroyed Israel, and the entirely false claim that Max Blumenthal believes Israeli Jews should be forcibly removed from the region.
Ben Smith hates advocacy journalism because “telling people to be outraged about something” is the least useful thing he can think of.
Rosie Gray’s article tells us that we should be outraged by Max Blumenthal’s views on Israel. In quoting the book’s critics, but never the actual book, she tells us that those views are so outrageous that their substance need not be engaged. Her article is premised on the notion that Blumenthal’s views are so “beyond the pale”, that Hillary Clinton should be expected to cut ties with anyone who might share them.
Though an appeal to outrage, the article is far from useless. It’s of great use to those who wish to restrict the terms of debate on Israel, and to those who wish to study how “objectivity” achieves such restriction.
Objectively, this is the least useful thing in the world.
It feels worth saying that I do not believe Raddatz or Gray pursue their advocacy here consciously. I don’t think that either is insincere in her pursuit of reportorial neutrality. Rather, like all human beings faced with a world teeming with information too multifarious and complex to be comprehended by the human mind, each has adopted a specific personal identity and ideology that helps them selectively process information, so as to maintain a coherent story they can tell themselves about the world. The problem is not conscious malice, but a lack of self-consciousness. The “objective” gaze not only prevents the audience from engaging in critical inquiry, it often prevents the journalist from doing so herself. The advocate is at least forced to anticipate his opponent’s arguments to be effective. The objective journalist does not recognize that she is making an argument.