Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Balancing Acts

[Crossposted from Free Exchange on Campus]

Writing today for David Horowitz’s Front Page Magazine in an article on the Campus Watch organization, Daniel Pipes says:
Campus Watch's highest priority is to help stimulate a diversity of opinion, so that pro-American scholars… reach parity with the anti-Americans. This goal has two implications.
• That professors today can no longer be expected to engage in disinterested scholarship and instruction, but must be balanced by those who will promote an alternative viewpoint. It is sad to see the ideal of objectivity crumble, but this is a reality one must adapt to.
• That the anti-Americans do not have a monopoly on intelligence or skills, just a near-monopoly on power.

This came, of course, on the heels of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia University, where he said:
Given that the Holocaust is a present reality of our time, a history that occurred, why is there not sufficient research that can approach the topic from different perspectives?

In backing down from his Holocaust “myth” stance, Ahmadinejad put himself squarely in Pipes’ (and Horowitz’s) corner. (During the same session, Columbia President Lee Bollinger made it clear that the power in the universities is not anti-American).

The irony of Pipes’ article appearing the day after the Ahmadinejad talk is delicious.

The shibboleth of the Horowitzians, “balance,” had its mask stripped away by its echo in Ahmadinejad’s words, words of a man who, also today, Front Page Magazine calls a ”maniac.” In each case, Pipes’ and Ahmadinejad’s, these promoters of “balance” claim that, because knowledge is not absolute, “alternate views” should be presented and explored. But they do so not for balance, but for its opposite.

That there is no real belief in “balance” in either case is demonstrated by the selective topics needing “different perspectives”: the Holocaust, evolution, and other topics of political and not historical or scientific debate. Ahmadinejad’s Iran doesn’t even allow debate on certain topics—there are no gays in Iran, he said yesterday (for example). And Horowitz would prohibit criticism of American war efforts (only traitors, in his eyes, would criticize).

Like Horowitz, Ahmadinejad simply throws in “balance” to confuse his enemies. Similar in both style and substance, both take advantage of a tenet of effective “liberal” university systems of thought and exploration and twist them to promote their “illiberal” agendas.

Monday, September 24, 2007

CUNY Matters on The Rise of the Blogosphere

Praise is difficult to manage--for me, at least. Generally, I look around to see who is being talked about. Can't be me or my work! When my work is compared with what I see others doing, I'm generally awed or abashed. Knowing a little of what it takes to produce even small books like mine, I'm astonished by the abilities and insight of writers of much more agility of mind and pen than ever I'll possess.

So, naturally, I didn't know how to react when my dean emailed today me about an article on The Rise of the Blogosphere in the "BookTalk" section of the Fall 2007 issue of CUNY Matters. By Gary Schmidgall, "Exploring the Long Pre-History of Blogging" is full of the nicest possible words about my work, making it seem much more grand than I, even in my most swelled-headed moments, ever imagine it.

He writes, for example, that what I have:
actually produced, in under 200 pages, is a remarkable short history of journalism in the U.S.

Schmidgall, somehow, manages to see deeply into my head and what I was trying to do, even recognizing the centrality of:
the continuing debate, begun in the 1920s, by Jown Dewey and Walter Lippmann, about the purposes of an ideal citizen-serving press.

Simply put, Dewey wished for a press that helped educate the public while Lippmann felt it should lay out options, preferably two, that the populace could easily understand.

Schmidgall captures the motivation behind the book:
Bloggers, Barlow argues, in the late 1990s crashed the rather boring party that was playing out between an increasingly feckless fourth estate and an increasingly passive and alienated readership. "Blogs," he writes, "have shown us just how deep the divide has become between the commercial and professional news media and the people of the United States."

He's got that right. Err...

Guess all I can say is, "Thanks."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Objectivity and Its Blinders

In the premier issue of Bookmark, a new publication for supporters of the New York Public Library, is the excerpted transcript of a panel discussion held May 1 at the library. The participants were Dexter Filkins, a former New York Times correspondent in Baghdad, George Packer of The New Yorker, Dana Priest of The Washington Post along with moderator Alex Jones, a former journalist who now teaches at Harvard. The panel was called “Covering Foreign Conflict and the Military over 20 Tumultuous Years.”

It is disturbing reading.

If these luminaries of journalism still do not understand what has gone wrong with their profession, my recent optimism that journalism had turned the corner, that it might finally manage to recover from its malaise, may be misplaced.

Priest, for example, speaks of the Walter Reed story exposing the problems in care for veterans at what should be the nation’s model facility. After a briefing by the commander of the hospital, he told her he understood she was not being invited to a Pentagon news conference on the topic, “preemptive of a story that had not yet been published.” This, she said, “broke all of our rules. The reporters [who did attend] were so angry at this that they actually held off for a day.”

Expecting the government to obey press “rules” is as naïve as thinking that the administration is not going to fight to protect its image—even when it has been caught in a compromising position. If Priest ever expected that stories needn’t “be done around official obstacles,” she is either stupid (which she is not) or reflecting the press assumption (one that held up through the invasion of Iraq) that it could and was working with the government. That the two were, in the final analysis, on the same side. That she can still hold onto this belief—or even think it is something new for administrations to try to blunt the press—shows that she, at least, still does not understand the failure of the Washington press corps that began during the Reagan administration and continues to this day.

Priest is not the only one on the panel mired in a view of her profession long proved false. Moderator Jones asked a question of Packer that included this: “Have you been able to get closer to the truth, do you think, in Iraq, than reporters writing under the constraints of objective journalism…?”

Alex Jones, I have always respected you, but “constraints of objective journalism”? Do you have any idea what you are saying? If something is constrained, it cannot be objective, for it must (by definition) be pressured or must leave something out. Furthermore, you are making a distinction between “objectivity” and “truth.” What? If you are saying that there really can be something closer to truth than objectivity, then objectivity is meaningless. Or, if not meaningless, is worthless as a goal.

Packer, in trying to be polite, at one point excepts “those at this table” from responsibility for the “atrophy” of journalism. And this, of course, is part of the problem: even when they recognize that things have gone wrong, too many journalists point their fingers at others, ever accepting the blame that rests with them as much as with any others. Like an alcoholic who claims simply to be a heavy drinker, that it’s the others who are alcoholics, journalists will never manage to overcome their problems without first recognizing, each one, that they carry the sickness, too.

Filkins, in relating a car-bombing incident in Baghdad, was shocked that the people at the scene turned upon him and the others of the press: “They were blaming the Americans, and they don’t make any distinction between soldiers and press and diplomats—we’re all part of this same giant thing.” Firkins calls blaming Americans for the car bombings “crazy,” the accusers not understanding that it is opponents of the United States actually constructing and triggering the bombs. Yet the Iraqis who turned on him do have a point, one that he should have understood long ago: the American media is part of the monolith. Even the picture of Filkins on the page with his comment above demonstrates it: Filkins is surrounded by American soldiers. He, and other members of the press, may convince themselves that they are not part of “this same giant thing,” but that is not really the case—certainly not from the perspective of Iraqis, who see press, military, and diplomats all going places where they are not allowed, all fraternizing and talking as pals, all traveling together in their armored vehicles. Furthermore, the Iraqis know that there would be no suicide bombers had the Americans not invaded. They are right to put some responsibility for those bombings on the Americans—right, at least, from their point of view.

Filkins goes on to say that the answer to the question of whether the press has done its job in Iraq is “yes, even with all the constraints. I don’t think there’s any fundamental reality that we’re not reporting there.” Yet, quite clearly, he does not comprehend the reality of Iraq at all—from an Iraqi point of view. He just thinks, to repeat his word, that their view is “crazy.”

Packer jumps in after Filkins, saying:
Back in that day [of David Halberstam], there was some sense of objective truth as a discoverable thing. Now, it’s as if that entire concept is in jeopardy, because what we have are some networks that have their truth and others that have their truth. We have blogs that have their truth. Everyone has their own private truth in their own private blogging world. And is there a sort of area that all of his as citizens can agree on is the body of fact that we then have to make up our minds about? That seems to be shrinking and constantly in contention.”

Where to start?

“Private blogging world”? Maybe with that. A blog, Mr. Packer, is not private; its very raison d’etre is the reaching beyond privacy, to community. It is an attempt to recreate the public sphere that has been squeezed almost into non-existence by a journalism profession that tried to take command of our discussions. Rather than creating private worlds, blogs are an attempt to expand the “real” world in a way that allows for anyone to once again participate substantially in the public debate.

You are wrong, Mr. Packer, to concentrate on “truth” and to bemoan the loss of a common vision of truth. Look instead to the lack of a real public sphere, a place where people can debate and compromise (something that commentators in the journalism world cannot do—for they are paid to contend, not to compromise), a place where truth is less important than solution.

If that can be reestablished, “truth” will follow.

In other words, it is not a body of agreed-upon truth that we should be seeking, but a place for discussion of how we, as a group (as any group), should act. This is what the public sphere once was, and what the blogs are trying to build again.

The last excerpt in the article comes from Priest, and it once more shows that old journalistic pride in wearing blinders, of not seeing that there is something seriously wrong with what they are doing:
I would answer the question “What else can we do?” by saying we should never do anything else. We should just do reporting.

That completely begs the question, Ms. Priest, and leaves you and your profession in the same malaise that has been dragging it down for a generation.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Bush's Brain--The Frozen One

A couple of years ago, an NPR commentator named Jay Keyser said that Wallace Stevens’ "The Snow Man" is “the best short poem in the English language.” While I think it unproductive to call any work of art “best” in any category, I won’t say that Keyser is wrong.

These days, for me, “The Snow Man” is an extremely sad poem, for it brings to me the idea of a particular person so frozen that he can no longer (if he ever could) “think of any misery in the sound of the wind,” who contemplates the world only in terms of an imagination that is so meager that it contains nothing and sees nothing—and not just nothing, but “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The seasons the rest of us know are completely separate from his paltry perception and different from his lacking imagination.

The “listener, who listens in the snow,” but who doesn’t hear, for he is “nothing himself” sounds to me, today, like our president (of course), to whom the voice and vision of the world really does mean nothing, and so he will not (adamantly) learn from it. Like our president who, with nothing inside, tries to imagine himself into being—but still is nothing.

“One must have a mind of winter” to be so frozen into place and idea that the sublimity of “the pine-trees crusted with snow” move one not. The world we live in isn’t even worth considering, let alone worthy of protection. The sparkles of “the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter” do nothing for one who, unlike these evergreens, has no life himself in the winter (or in any other time).

Certainly, one must be attuned to nothing in America today not to hear “the sound of the land.” The people and the world have spoken, but the sounds are meaningless to him.

My sadness, though, is not for the Snow Man. After all, he never was real, being simply the playful creation of others for their own purposes, others who are now moving on, leaving him to melt as the sun finally starts to shine on him.

As shine it will, and always was bound to do.

No, my sadness is not for him, who will drip slowly into the stream of history and be forgotten (aside from the damage he has done), but for the future he has so callously debased, and for the spring that will no longer come so brightly as once it did.

He may seem to cry, as his ice turns to water. But it is we who cry the genuine, salty tears; we look out over the horizon, one increasingly barren, and see what his frozen mind has condemned us to.