The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, May 22, 2004

Objective journalism defined

Daniel Hallin's Uncensored War is, as I suspected, full of good things, and what I believe are called contemporary resonances. (I'd read the book before, but before the little exercise in autodidacticism on the media that has preoccupied the blog in recent months: the difference in understanding is striking - or, at least, appears so.)

Hallin helpfully provides (p68) a useful, concise definition of objective journalism, the governing delusion of the 'profession':
Independence Journalists should be independent of political commitments and free of "outside" pressures, including pressures from government and other political actors, advertisers and the news organization itself as an institution with political and economic interests.

Objectivity The journalist's basic task is to present "the facts," to tell what happened, not to pass judgement on it. Opinion should be clearly separated from the presentation of news.

Balance News coverage of any political controversy should be, impartial, representing without favor the positions of all the contending parties.

Hallin illustrates [1] how these apparently transparently good principles were exploited by the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, to the extent that hundreds of thousands of US combat troops could be deployed on a patently dicey adventure without a public backlash.

I'll pull out one or two examples with eery parallels to the news manipulation of the Bush gang.

An illustration, to be going on with (p26): on January 15 1962, Tom Wicker of the Times asked JFK
Mr President, are American troops now in combat in Vietnam?

The response?
Kennedy looked at me - six feet away and slightly beneath his elevated lectern - as if he thought I might be crazy.

"No," he said crisply - not another word - and pointed at someone else for the next question.

Substantially a lie, of course. Justified, Hallin says (p33), by a Clintonesque jesuitical quibble that, since US troops were not organised into combat units, they were not combat troops in the generally understood sense of the word.

And eminently successful: the question had been honed by
long and solemn deliberations around [James 'Scotty'] Reston's desk
- but the bald negative ensured that the denial wasn't even a story in the Times!

The supposed exceptionalism of the contemptuous Bush attitude to the media (what one might call the Ken Auletta thesis) ought, it seems, to be taken with more than a pinch of salt...

  1. It's a short book (just over 200 pages - shame it's not longer!) the first half of which looks at the New York Times' coverage of the war up to November 1965, the second with TV coverage from August 1965, when archives of Vietnam stories on the nightly news programmes begin. I'm more interested in the first half.

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