In December 2016, comedian and host of The Daily Show Trevor Noah was a guest on the BBC’s in-depth interview show, ‘Hardtalk’. South African-born Noah was there ostensibly to talk about his experiences of what it was like growing up under apartheid—a story also recounted in his autobiography ‘Born A Crime’—but at one point during the interview, Noah and host Zeinab Badawi went on a little tangent about the hyper-partisan nature of the U.S. media-political axis, fake news, and the connotations and implications of ‘objective journalism’. There is a specific clip from this segment that I want to share, just 4 minutes long, which is a real treat, as Noah displays the full depth of his understanding of the powers and nature of the media, as well as offering a trenchant criticism of the inherent dangers and hypocrisies of this thing people like to call ‘objective journalism’.
Have a look:
This, naturally, reminds me of someone.
Once upon a time, an august and serious doctor of journalism—
—wrote some very powerful words on this exact topic.
So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here—not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.
—Hunter S. Thompson, ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72’
Indeed. ‘Objectivity’ is the master that all serious journalists swear fealty to when they are starting out on their careers, and through repetition and reinforcement that concept becomes inextricably tied to not only their conception of their profession, but also to their sense of self. Journalists, especially at large, prestigious publications such as the BBC, consider themselves to be ‘above the rabble’ of partisan politics. Their job, as they see it, is to ‘just report the news’. To present a clear, unbiased account of events, examining the story from a 360 degree viewpoint, and to allow the readers to subsequently make up their mind about things. They consider it a holy duty and they believe in it totally, even when presented with damming evidence to the contrary.
Last night, BBC photoshopped a photograph of Jeremy Corbyn onto a red background, adjacent to the Kremlin, Moscow, and altered his hat to match communist style headwear. They ran that as their background to BBC Newsnight discussion on the Salisbury Attack. pic.twitter.com/UOIbxf6rBp— Tory Fibs (@ToryFibs) March 16, 2018
The trouble with this conception of the media as unbiased gatekeepers of the sacred truth is that it is horseshit. As the good doctor Thompson said, there is no such thing as objective journalism, and the farce of an ‘objectively reported’ story is revealed by examining it from two angles: By how it was framed and by who was given a platform to comment on it.
As far as framing goes, well: There is always an agenda, a bias, buried deep within the DNA of whichever organisation is doing the reporting of a story—no matter how many sincere-sounding claims to objectivity may abound there—and that agenda will be reflected in the emphasis, choice of words, and tone used to report that story. The average journalist doing the work for that organisation may well not be consciously aware of the agenda or bias, but they will eventually, bit by bit, end up self-correcting their reporting to match it, and the longer this goes on the deeper the understanding will be buried, the more internalised the impulse. The more they do so, the more likely they are to succeed in that organisation, and vice versa. I wrote before about this phenomenon here:
The famous linguist, scholar, and political commentator Noam Chomsky famously came up with a model to describe this phenomenon. Working with Edward S. Herman in the 80’s he developed the Propaganda Model of media control. It argued that large media companies, owned by big business and dependent on advertising revenue as they are, would have a vested interest in not challenging the status quo beyond a certain point. Yes, there would be a freedom of debate allowed, but that freedom would only be permissible within accepted margins. Crucially, Chomsky and Herman explained, these ideals would not be enforced in any overt way. This would not be a hammer-fisted Soviet approach, but a far more sophisticated and self-enforcing system, much more efficacious by this design. Journalists would come to learn what was acceptable. The Iraq War serves as a useful case study once again. Commentators — respected conscientious liberals and hawkish conservatives alike — joined the chorus of drum beats for that invasion. They may have framed their reasons differently, but the end result was the same. Those who voiced opposition were either marginalised, ridiculed, or attacked, and visibly so. The idea, the reflex, of conformity that way becomes ingrained, invisible, within the profession. Dissent still exists, of course, but again within very specific boundaries.
(If you haven’t yet seen veteran BBC journalist Andrew Marr confronted with this harsh reality in his interview with Chomsky, then you’re in for a treat.)
Platforming is the other factor which Noah so effectively highlights in the above clip. The media calls it ‘objectivity’—giving all figures of note from all sides a say on the matter at hand—but ‘objectivity’ does not mean giving nonsense a platform, and it certainly doesn’t excuse giving hatred or fascism a platform. There is a fine line to walk between silencing dissent and providing a space for open discussion, but it’s an indisputable truth that at some point, platforming under the guise of objectivity becomes a form of legitimisation. Of normalisation. And that can be very dangerous. Yet that is exactly where we find ourselves now in 2018, with Donald Trump in the White House thanks to in no small part to the ‘$4.96 billion in free earned media in the year leading up to the presidential election’ afforded to him (according to MediaQuant); and with neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer being given disturbingly fawning profiles in major media outlets, some of which outright refuse to call him what he is. The media—old and new—has tremendous power over us. It shapes our viewpoints, decides what is acceptable to debate, and it sets the limits of our imagination. It cannot repeatedly give a platform to figures who espouse hateful views and then complain about the proliferation of hatred in our society.
Watch that Noah clip again. There’s a great bit just after 3 minutes when he points out how uncomfortable Badawi gets when faced with the prospect of saying that perhaps Trump’s overtures to ‘unifying America’ should maybe not be taken at face value, and that rather his actions and who he chooses to surround himself with should be taken as indicators of his beliefs and intentions. As Noah so wonderfully says of her plight: ‘You have to appear to not say anything that implies anything even though it is laid out before us’. And that’s a huge problem with media that aims for something they call ‘objectivity’. Cartoonish hyper-partisanship helps no one, but goddamn it, sometimes you gotta call a fascist spade a fascist spade.
A whole other article could be written about how the mainstream ‘objective’ media is almost always way more protective of right-leaning views as opposed to those from the left, but that’s a discussion for another time, so let’s just leave it at this: There ain’t no such thing as ‘objective journalism’, and when it pretends to be as such all it’s really mostly just doing is pandering, and giving way too much fucking ground to, the right.