The death of a chimera

This week in Afghanistan, more than the mounting charges of electoral fraud, or public disillusionment over the Afghan mission, it was the rescue of journalist Stephen Farrell raised the most eyebrows.

The deaths of one of his rescuers, Farrell’s Afghan colleague and fellow hostage Sultan Munadi and several other civilians in the raid triggered divisive (and defensive) reactions. Afghan journalists rightly cry foul over the abandonment of Munadi’s body while the rescuers whisked Farrell to safety. Back in London, the backlash from the death of yet another British soldier led the military to point the finger at frontline newsmen. Their line: lives of military professionals had been needlessly put at risk, and lost, to save those of latter-day Sean Flynns and Dana Stones.

Journalists, with more than a modicum of pride at stake, retort strongly. Peter Beaumont threw counter-accusations against the “anti-democratic urges of some in the armed forces” that attempt to stifle journalistic freedoms in the service of military objectives. Rather more pessimistically, Martin Bell, who filed his wartime correspondence from the likes of Ulster to Saigon, offered a eulogy to the passing of an idealised war journalism.

For Bell, the danger to journalists at today’s frontlines have compromised their ability to seek out the unseen tragedies and unheard stories behind the veils of official PR and fog of war. He wrote in the Guardian: “The truth is that good old-fashioned journalism is no longer possible in today’s war zones, and especially in Afghanistan. Hence the rise of rooftop journalism, in which sharply dressed reporters address the camera from inside fortified compounds.”

In no uncertain terms, Bell lamented: “We are witnessing the death of news. And in its place we have only a war of words.”

Really? The very first reader comment that followed exposed the cavity in Bell’s beliefs.  “Typical journalistic overstated rhetoric. When precisely was the golden age of news reporting? When reporting from war zones was common, unbiased and safe.”

If Bell’s point is that the risks of postmodern warfare, coupled with official and military control, are increasingly undermining the conduct of journalistic enterprise in conflict-ridden regions, there is little to argue against (even though it is hyperbolic to suggest that it has become impossible or dead). But if he thinks the biggest casualty of this trend is objectivity, there is much to pick at.

The idealised war journalism never was. What Bell noted as the “trade-off of freedom for access” is not new; the so-called “embedding” journalists may not have been described as such in the wars of yesteryear, but is of no material difference to how reporters operated then. How else could Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett have gotten close to the murderous affair at Gallipoli, or Robert Capa snapped his iconic photo (staged or not) in Spain? Ernie Pyle certainly had to tag closely along the common fighting man in order to make him the subject of his reports from the front. Editorial independence was also at a premium; military censors had perhaps as much influence over the final copy as did the editors in the newsrooms. With patriotic duty being the foremost priority for publishers, objectivity was unthinkable; emotive renderings of heroic sacrifice and national duty were the sine quibus non of 19th and early 20th century war correspondence.

Perhaps this romanticised ideal did exist once, but only in the minds of its practitioners. The Second Indochina War, or the Vietnam War (depending on whether you’d like to think of the American involvement as the continuation of the French effort) stands out as the first major conflict in which journalists believed that they had a sacred duty to the truth, and that they could and can present “objective” news unvarnished by bias or vested interests.

Before Vietnam, many war journalists were, by default, foot soldiers of the public relations wing of truly national war efforts. Unless of course their own home countries were not directly involved. By today’s standards the news reels and correspondence from the front in those wars of yonder would be labeled as ‘propaganda’, and quite justifiably so.

But the newsmen in Saigon were not quite of the same breed. The arrival of substantial American military involvement in Indochina in the early 1960s had coincided with the professionalisation of the media in the US. Journalists and news organisations came to regard editorial independence as a mark of excellence, and consequently their relationship with political authority became increasingly streaked by ambivalence, even hostility. For the professionalised press corps now mesmerised by the possibilities of “objective journalism”, the subject of war fell under the remit of “objectivity” standards.

There were principles to be adhered to; independence (being free of political pressures and other interests), objectivity (present facts and not pass judgement on it), and balance (impartiality and no favouring of any contending parties to the story). Being professional meant applying these principles scrupulously, and that would ensure the journalistic output would be rationally objective.

It was as if the journalists’ quest for objectivity was a parody of the can-do optimism that epitomised the outlook of Kennedy’s best and brightest. The elegant promises of rational methodologies and powers of science blinkered them to the fallacies of their ideological assumptions and their sufferance from strategic myopia.

Nonetheless, it is a journalistic aspiration that endured. One might recall the fabled “objectivity” of the BBC during the Falklands War, most memorably encapsulated in Brian Hanrahan’s arithmetic prowess on the flight deck of the HMS Hermes. So dogmatically “objective” the BBC strove to be, senior members of the British task force in the South Atlantic vocally lambasted Auntie (more specifically the BBC World Service) for divulging information of operational value.

Yet this “objectivity”, well-intended and professionally striven for as it were, is a myth. When postmodernists launched their assault on history’s claims to veracity and objective truth, they might as well have been pulling the rug from beneath journalism. Just as historians can no longer pretend to offer definitive truths about the past and have to recognise their personal agency in the writing and shaping of history, journalists to ought to admit as much that their output is shaped by base ideological convictions and cultural nuances.

Journalism is not a positive enterprise. It is not simply a presentation of facts. The work of a journalist is normative, whether consciously or unconsciously so.

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~ by spiegel2071 on September 13, 2009.

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