Objective Journalism and the Politics of Language

Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...
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I’ll stop annotating my column attacking “objective” journalism soon, but there’s one important point in there I want to expand on. I wrote, “Human language is too complex, too subjective, and too ambiguous to express non-mathematical propositions in wholly mathematical, objective terms,” but word count restraints kept me from presenting a more detailed argument for that claim.

Conveniently, the past couple of days have presented me with the perfect example of what I was talking about: Adam Serwer (whose new solo blog you should bookmark straightaway) writes about a study showing that the New York Times would only refer to waterboarding as “torture” outside of its opinion pages when the waterboarders were not American agents.

The Times’ defense of this position is worth reading, because it makes clear the impossible choice with which they were presented. Impossible, at least, if you have an ideological commitment to “objectivity,” because, in this case, the whole notion of an objective option is ludicrous.

The definitions of words, after all, are not natural facts about the universe. They can shift and mutate. They’re formed by consensus, by context, by speaker and listener. With that in mind, the Times has a point in one respect: yes, to call waterboarding torture is to take an ideological position. Sure, you could marshal all kinds of evidence to suggest that the practice of waterboarding conforms to the definition of the word “torture”; you could point to historical precedent and cite the Oxford English Dictionary. But historical precedent doesn’t mean much given how mutable language actually is, and to argue that the Oxford English Dictionary is the set-in-stone record of the whole English language as it exists right now is, itself, a hotly contested (and, I think, faintly ridiculous) claim.

So the Times finds itself unable to call waterboarding “torture.” They’re objective! And to take a position on the precise definition of a politically electrified word is wholly inappropriate when done from a place of objectivity. There’s simply no objective authority or phenomenon you can refer to in advancing your claim.

On the other hand: waterboarding is torture. It has been torture. People like Joe Lieberman started shifting their own definition of the word “torture” after it was discovered that the United States waterboards. It was a craven, naked manipulation of the English language, a deliberate attempt to undermine the relative stability of language and meaning in order to cover for, well, torture. And the Times, by couching references to waterboarding in euphemisms like “harsh interrogation techniques,” aided and abetted that process. By refusing to call the process by what it was universally understood to be before the United States started doing it, they were providing cover.

The Times’ defense suggests that this charge doesn’t bother them a great deal. But consider this: by providing cover, and tacitly accepting a warping of the English language also accepted by barely a quarter of English-speaking Americans, they are taking a political position—and, for that matter, a minority position.

So this was the impossible position for the Times: on the one hand, they could take a position that would superficially appear “objective,” but would also be morally atrocious. Their other option was a position that does not appear objective, but would at least be morally permissible and conform to the overwhelming consensus on the meaning of English words.

But the Times, seeing a position where there was no “objective” choice, went for the option that would at least maintain the illusion of objectivity. Maintaining this illusion was more important to them than doing the morally right thing.

But in attempting to maintain the illusion, the Times revealed something else: that the doctrine of objective journalism is not some perfectly cool, dispassionate filter through which to view the world, but a dogma of its own that can have just as great a distortive effect on one’s observations as any acknowledged bias.

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