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Your host, PM 'Papa' Carpenter
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October 28, 2013

Comments

I'm in favor of being up-front about declaring one's biases, PM. But declaring one's biases doesn't give one license to wallow in them, if one wants to be an honest journalist, historian, or political blogger. Recognizing one's biases in a scientific enterprise means constructing research that tries to filter out the effects confirmation bias, rather than embrace them, and social scientists should aspire to the same standard. That's the difference between your legitimate journalist/historian/political blogger and a simple hack. It's the hacks we have to watch out for.

I agree with Sully in that being candid about one's biases is more "honest" than trying to hide them or pretend they don't exist (when they always do, in some form).

But as you get at, Greenwald, and others before him such as Zinn, write journalism or history in pursuit of vindication for their preexisting biases. Like so many right-wingers these days, they begin with their first principle and work backwards to prove it to be the One Pure Truth. For right-wingers, Obama = Evil is the premise from which all of their current "beliefs" are reverse-engineered to fit.

For Greenwald, it's become "US = oppressive, borderlin fascist, police state." He works backward from there to vindicate. For Zinn, he began with a first principle that US democracy does not, and never has, worked to make the non-rich, non-elite's lives better.

Then, in at least some cases, confirmation bias kicks in and the writer comes to believe, and write, that the evidence confirming their One Pure Truth is overwhelming and undeniable, and those who don't see it are dupes or worse. I've read Zinn but don't know much about him or how zealously he believed that his writing was THE TRUTH, as opposed to being a sort of self-conscious counterargument to the airbrushed, sometimes downright propagandistic history of the US that kids tend to learn in their early years.

So, sure, admitting one's biases does present a more transparent, honest viewpoint to the reader, in the abstract. But it is not per se preferable. It takes a somewhat rare type of journalist or writer to be honest upfront while also being honest in how facts are gathered, understood, and presented.

In any event, this exchange is pretty interesting and puts many of the tensions within journalism on display in ways we don't usually see.

PM, well said and I couldn't agree more. I specialize in research on the propaganda of the Rwandan genocide. What I've found among leftist scholars in my field and in general is this annoyingly relentless compulsion to equate those who've committed any wrongdoing at all, such as the current Rwandan government, with those who've committed clearly monstrous acts, such as the previous genocidal regime. They refuse to admit any nuance or larger context. It's all so very black and white--and really rather juvenile. You also get guys like Chomsky who refuse to even apply the term "genocide" to what happened in Rwanda because they think this deflects attention away from the U.S.'s history of human rights abuses. Honestly, I think a lot of it is contrarianism for the sake egotistical self-indulgence. It feels so good, after all, to view yourself as the lonely voice of justice in this dark, nefarious world--actual facts and context be damned.

I think few reflective people would prefer that anyone giving them information mask their personal opinions. Such a journalist can only be a deceptive filter of the facts either intentionally or unintentionally. As far as journalism goes one effectively has but two choices. One can be an insider who has access to sources and lives with the fact that this comes with a price, a symbiotic relationship with sources who will almost certainly use the journalist for their own ends. Or you can be a complete outsider with a clear agenda who almost no one will talk to at all except the odd "whistleblower" quite a few of whom are just plain nuts. Then you can peck at the threads of stories and hypothesize on the true significance of whatever comes your way. The truth is that both types of journalist as individuals kind of suck. But, oddly, when you have both paradigms at work the net result isn't so bad. When there actually is fire where someone observed a wisp of smoke the herd instinct of journalists takes over and the next thing you know we actually have facts. It is an astonishing thing to observe.

I completely agree that you have identified a danger of having journalism become a series of highly opinionated partisans, and would much prefer to have a relatively neutral observer.

Unfortunately, the "mainstream media" has huge blindspots, and most often merely parrots conventional thinking and the talking points of those they interview. They are like the CIA being surprised by the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the Bush Administration that the Iraqi's did not welcome us with open arms. They not only fail to catch stories that are right in front of them, they seem to be actively engaged in pushing the conventional thinking. If they are only confirming my biases and conventional thinking, and not providing me with actual useful information, why should I read them??

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