Journalism Should Embody Anarchist Ideals

Bill Keller‘s lengthy online exchange with Glenn Greenwald makes for very interesting reading. It illuminates a great deal, especially the modern ‘mainstream’ understanding of journalism–as ‘objective’ reporter of ‘facts’–and its supposed ‘responsibilities’ and the ‘alternative’ view of journalism as fundamentally adversarial, beholden to no nation or state, dedicated to exposing the machinations of the powerful.

Greenwald’s critique of the former view is, as might be expected, quite pungent:

[T]his model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms….The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers….all journalism is a form of activism.

That last sentence is crucial: it takes journalism out of the sphere of some imagined realm whose contours resemble that of an archetypal scientific laboratory where men in white coats are replaced by reporters with notepads. These diligent collectors and tabulators merely report their observations of little parcels of reality called ‘facts’.

Instead, journalism turns into a form of political activity, its participants struggling just like any other political player to further some ends and not others. In a democratic society’s politics, the journalists are those players whose role is to report on, and make transparent, the workings of those in power. This power is not insignificant: the state can imprison, silence and immiserate its citizens; it can declare war and martial law; it possesses a monopoly of power, and in the modern state, this power is awesome indeed.

This asymmetrical distribution of power can only be offset and compensated for, by way of protecting those who are subject to it, if they are kept fully apprised of their rulers’ doings and deeds. What the citizenry does not possess by way of material power it strives to obtain by means of information and knowledge. Requests for secrecy, for coyness, for message modification, are, all too often, disingenuous requests that the balance of power be tipped back the other way. Thus, we best understand ‘journalist’ as merely a fancy name for ‘citizen activist dedicated to the full transparency of governmentality.’ A journalist represents the segment of the polity dedicated to making the powerful cower, not preen and strut; he is not an observer of the political system, he is part of it.

Understood in this way, a journalist embodies an anarchist ideal: the rejection of opaque, unaccountable power.  The profession’s basic stance is skeptical and adversarial; it should maintain a distance from those in power so that they may be critiqued more frankly and critically. This entails a prickly relationship with those in power, one with many rough edges. But those unable to deal with this consequent unpleasantness would be well advised to stay out of the proverbial kitchen. Critics aren’t supposed to have too many friends.

2012’s Top Five Posts (Here, Not Elsewhere)

2012, the year that was (or still is, for a few more hours), turned out to be a busy one for blogging at this site. I wrote three hundred and twenty-four new posts, bringing the total for this blog to three hundred and fifty-five. The blog finally crossed fifty thousand views. (A humbling figure, if you think that major blogs receive those many hits in a day.)

The five most popular posts in terms of views were the following. (I don’t think these are necessarily the best pieces I wrote, which is a judgment I find hard to make in any case, but they definitely attracted some attention.)

  • David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, And All I Got Was A Stupid Op-Ed: I wrote this post in response to a typical display of asinine, pseudo-profound commentary by a columnist who is an integral component of the embarrassment that is the New York Times Op-Ed page.  It was a bit silly, and I suppose could be described as satire, but really, it was a pretty straightforward reaction to idiocy. Among others, Brian Leiter linked to it, as did Bradford DeLong, and Corey Robin, and that brought in many viewers. Many thanks to you all. (In particular, Leiter and Robin have brought many readers to this site, so I owe them multiple thanks.)
  • Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism: This was an angry reaction to a New York Times Op-Ed that I found profoundly politically offensive. I have grown increasingly depressed by the state of political journalism in the US and Bill Keller’s writing on WikiLeaks at the nation’s premier newspaper summed it up for me. As a public display of confusion about the responsibility of the journalist, and the relationship they should maintain with those in power, Keller’s piece has few parallels. Glenn Greenwald and Corey Robin linked to this post.
  • On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory: This post grew out of a long-held concern of mine that the academic practice of philosophy often betrays what should be its guiding principles, among which should be the creation and maintenance of an atmosphere conducive to open and unfettered inquiry. I find the lack of women in philosophy appalling, and remain convinced that the way male philosophers run the profession has a great deal to do with it. This post was prompted by articles by Jennifer Saul and Helen Beebee.
  • Occupy Wall Street And The Police: Why So Estranged?: In this post, I wondered why the police, who should be on the side of those protesting the 1%, are instead, so committed to doing the bidding of those that would keep them in a state of economic and political deprivation. Again, Brian Leiter cited this post.

I wrote three hundred and nineteen other posts of course (check ’em out!). Most of them sank into obscurity, but that’s quite all right. I’m still amazed that anyone bothers to read anything posted out here.

So there you have it folks. Another year awaits, and while I’m not quite sure that I will blog at the same rate as I did in 2012–primarily because I two new book projects planned (besides a newborn!)–I will continue to write as often as I can. Do stick around.

Note: I also owe thanks to all those folks on Facebook and Twitter who linked to, and shared my posts. Much appreciated.

Bill Keller and Some Elementary Confusions About Technology and Privacy

Bill Keller argues for a national identification card, urging Americans to ‘get over’ their fears about its abuse:

You might start with the Social Security card. You would issue a plastic version, and in it you would embed a chip containing biometric information: a fingerprint, an eye scan or a digital photo. The employer would swipe the card and match it to the real you. Unlike your present Social Security card, the new version would be useless to a thief because it would contain your unique identifier. The information would not need to go into a database….This will not satisfy those who fear that any such mandate is potentially “a tool for social control,” as Chris Calabrese of the A.C.L.U. put it. But the only way to completely eliminate the risks of a connected world is to burn your documents, throw away your cellphone, cancel your Internet service and live off the grid.

Er. First, ‘the information would not need to go into a database’ does not mean the information will not go into a database. On this matter, I’d defer to the man quoted by Keller himself, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who points out that,

The one thing we know with certainty about databases is that they grow….[The official urge to amass and use information] takes on a life of its own.

When storage is cheap and ubiquitous, and so is data collection and analysis, searchable, analyzable data banks are an obvious consequence. These databases, whose primary outputs are analytical reports, then lend themselves to precisely the clumsy, pernicious, ‘social control’ worried about by their opponents.

Second, Keller slides all too quickly into ‘the only way to completely eliminate the risks of a connected world.’ But who ever said anything about completely eliminating those risks? Thus, the fallacy of the false dichotomy raises its head again, as it does all too often in debates about technology’s ambiguous blessings. The general format of these disputes is as follows. In response to the claim that ‘Technology X has possible problematic outcome Y,’ our interlocutor supplies ‘Good luck trying to live without technology today.’  Bingo. You’re an impractical Luddite.

There is another rhetorical template visible in Keller’s piece: the incomplete noting of the ambivalent attitude that most people appear to have toward their privacy:

But on the subject of privacy, we are an ambivalent nation. Americans — especially younger Americans, who swim in a sea of shared information — are casual to the point of recklessness about what we put online.

So in response to the claim that ‘privacy should be protected in domain X‘ our interlocutor says ‘But look at Facebook!’ The problem, of course, is that Facebook is a space designed in its interface and its user affordances to encourage and facilitate privacy-destructive behavior. Exhibit Numero Uno: the Wall, which lets users make their formerly private emails public.

It’s going to take better arguments than the ones offered by Keller to diminish the CQ–the Creepiness Quotient–of national identification cards.

Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism

Over at the New York Times, Bill Keller, who has been doing his best to make sure it will be hard to take him for a serious  journalist, writes a piece–bursting to the seams with snark–on Wikileaks. Keller thinks he is providing a serious evaluation of the fallout of Wikileaks (most particularly, its leaking of a gigantic corpus of military and diplomatic secrets last year). But Keller–whose trafficking in superficiality has been embarassingly on display for all too long on the NYT’s Op-Ed’s pages–simply cannot be bothered with seriously engaging with the issues that Wikileaks raised. Like: the need for transparency for those in power (as opposed to the privacy rights of individuals); the relationship of journalists with politicians; and most importantly, the all-too-evident eagerness of modern journalists to roll over and play faithful stenographer or megaphone for Wall Street, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

Instead, all Keller can do, in a pathetic display of lame attempts at sophomoric snark, is dish out one jibe after the other at Julian Assange. (His evident dislike for Assange tells me that Assange really hit home.) There are, count-em, sixteen paragraphs in Keller’s peice. It’s not till we get to the seventh or eighth paragraph that Keller stops being juvenile and starts to say something substantive.

And it’s not much. Roughly: Wikileaks exposed too much. In response, the always-secretive have become more secretive. And now life is harder for all us Serious Journalists[tm]. So let me get this straight:  in response to exposure,  those ensconced in power have dug their heels in, become more opaque, stepped up their chilling attacks on journalists and potential whistle-blowers, and this is Wikileaks fault? Could Keller be more offensive, more of a fawning lapdog of the powerful and the opaque, if he tried? I don’t think so.

Keller also forgets, in his Why-Did-This-Nonconformist-Crash-This-Comfortable-Politician-And-Media-Garden-Party litany, the role that the rest of his supine media crew played in ensuring that Wikileaks’ impact was minimized. Who took up cudgels on Wikileaks behalf? Did the media give ample column inches and airtime to the case for Wikileaks? Were the corporate-government smear jobs on Wikileaks adequately highlighted? Has the media establishment stepped back from its passionate embrace of those in power and looked a little more closely, a little more aggressively, at their pronouncements? They are the ones in power, remember?

If the secretive and powerful have become more secretive in response to exposure, the response of a serious journalist should be to make sure the secrecy is investigated even more closely.  It most emphatically should not be to shower scorn and ridicule on those who took risks in trying to expose the powerful. The idiotic quoting of the off-base SNL skit, which confuses the privacy of private citizens with the opacity of governmental entities, is perhaps the best indication that Keller has lost the plot. But far more offensive is the simpleminded acceptance of the government’s position: if you dare expose us, we’ll become even more secretive.

Keller is pushing back at the wrong forces in this debate. In doing that, he is merely the latest depressing example of the incestuous embrace of the political and media establishments in this nation.