Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

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Short-Fuses  Embedded Journalists

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Chen Wenling, “What You See Might Not Be Real” (2009)

I’ll admit, there are times when I regret the fact that I’m a relativist. Wouldn’t it be nice, I say to myself on occasion, to be able to claim—beyond a shadow of a doubt, to my students, colleagues, or readers of this blog—that something or other (neoclassical economics or capitalism or name your poison) is wrong and that the alternative (Marxian economics or socialism or what have you) is absolutely correct.

But then I read a defense of capital-T truth—such as David Roberts’s [ht: ja] attack on the alt-right and fake news and his presumption that the liberal mainstream is uniquely capable of upholding “truth, justice, and the American way”—and I thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to make such outlandish, embarrassing arguments. Fortunately, my relativism means I’m not saddled with the mainstream liberals’ delusion that they have, if not God, at least Superman on their side.

I’ve been over this epistemological terrain before (e.g., here, here, and here). But it seems, in the current conjuncture, mainstream liberals—in their zeal to attack Donald Trump and the right-wing media’s defense of his administration’s outlandish claims about a wide variety of issues, from climate change to the Mueller investigation—increasingly invoke and rely on an absolutist theory of knowledge. And then, of course, claim for themselves the correct side in the current debates.

As Roberts sees it, the United States

is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know — what we believe exists, is true, has happened and is happening.

The primary source of this breach, to make a long story short, is the US conservative movement’s rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy) — the ones society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute.

In their place, the right has created its own parallel set of institutions, most notably its own media ecosystem.

Consider the assumptions built into those statements for a moment. Roberts believes that society has appointed a unique set of mainstream institutions—journalism, science, the academy—to serve as referees when it comes to adjudicating the facts in play. Nowhere does he discuss how, historically, those institutions came to occupy such an exalted position. Perhaps even more important, he never considers the disputes—about the facts and much else—that exist among journalists, scientists, and academics. And, finally, Roberts never mentions all the times, in recent years and over the centuries, the members of those institutions who got it wrong.

What about the reporting on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Or the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male? Or the university professors and presidents, at Yale, Harvard, and elsewhere, who supported and helped devise the U.S. war in Vietnam?

The list could go on.

There is, in fact, good reason not to simply accept the “facts” as gathered and disseminated by mainstream institutions. Historically, we have often been misled, and even mangled and killed, by those supposed facts. And, epistemologically, the members of those institutions—not to mention others, located in different institutions—produce and disseminate alternative sets of facts.

Maybe that’s Roberts’s problem. He actually thinks facts are gathered, as if they’re just out there in the world, waiting to be plucked, harvested, or dug up like fruits and vegetables by people who have no particular interest in which facts find their way into their baskets.

Alternatively, we might see those facts as being created and manufactured, through a process of knowledge-production, which relies on concepts and theories that are set to work on the raw materials generated by still other concepts and theories. The implication is that different sets of concepts and theories lead to the production of different knowledges—different sets of facts and their discursive and social conditions of existence.

I have no doubt that many journalists, scientists, and academics “see themselves as beholden to values and standards that transcend party or faction.” But that doesn’t mean they actually operate that way, somehow above and apart from the paradigms they use and the social influences exerted on them and the institutions where they work.

As for as Roberts is concerned, only the “far right” rejects the “very idea of neutral, binding arbiters” and adheres to a “tribal epistemology.” And mainstream liberals? Well, supposedly, they have the facts on their side.

If one side rejects the epistemic authority of society’s core institutions and practices, there’s just nothing left to be done. Truth cannot speak for itself, like the voice of God from above. It can only speak through human institutions and practices.

For Roberts, it’s either epistemic authority or nihilism. Absolute truth or an “epistemic gulf” that separates an “increasingly large chunk of Americans,” who believe “a whole bunch of crazy things,” from liberal Democrats.

What Roberts can’t abide is that we “live in different worlds, with different stories and facts shaping our lives.” But, from a relativist perspective, that’s all we’ve ever had, inside and outside the institutions of journalism, science, and the academy. Throughout their entire history. Different stories and different sets of facts.

And that hasn’t stopped the conversation—the discussion and debate within and between those different, often incommensurable, stories and facts. The only time the conversation ends is when one set of stories and facts is imposed on and used to stamp out all the others. A project always carried out in the name of Truth.

Clearly, Roberts mourns the passing of a time of epistemological certainty and universal agreement that never existed.

Roberts instead should mourn the effects of a Superman theory of knowledge that got him and other mainstream liberals into trouble in the first place. In recent years, they and their cherished facts simply haven’t been persuasive to a large and perhaps growing part of the population.

And the rest of us are suffering the consequences.

 

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The appointment in England of Noreena Hertz as ITV’s economics editor has raised the issue of whether or not a Marxist (which she has been accused of but denies she is) can do an effective and fair job in reporting the news.

I certainly don’t see why not. Nor does Chris Dillow:

First, some of us Marxists – unlike many of our opponents – are not spittle-flecked fanatics. Instead, our Marxism arises from a cool-headed scepticism about whether capitalism really can maximally advance living standards and real freedom for all. Such scepticism is a virtue in any proper journalist. And it’s surely a vast improvement on the churnalism and unthinking deference to the rich and powerful that passes for most of journalism today.

Secondly, we Marxists know that we are in a minority, so we know which of our opinions aren’t mainstream. This makes us much more aware of potential biases in our own thinking, and so able to slough them off when necessary. By contrast, “mainstream” reporters might be more prone to groupthink and so pass off their own opinions as impartial fact.

I’ve made much the same argument in teaching economics. In both cases, Marxists are forced into the position of knowing both the mainstream stuff and the Marxian critique, which those firmly ensconced within mainstream thought simply aren’t equipped to handle. It isn’t impartiality but it is a kind of openness to alternative perspectives.

And then, of course, there’s the example of Marx himself, who served as a journalist—both to earn a living and to disseminate his analysis of the world—for much of his life, most famously for Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune.

This is from an interview with Jim Ledbetter, who edited Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx:

Q: Can you talk a little about Marx’s approach to journalism?

A: The dispatches that Marx published don’t greatly resemble most of what gets published as journalism today, and in many respects they don’t greatly resemble what was published as Anglo-American journalism in the 19th century, either.

That is to say: they contain essentially nothing that would today be called”reporting”: no first-hand accounts of events, large or small; no interviews with sources, official or otherwise. They are critical essays constructed, as so much of Marx’s work was, out of the research materials available to him in the British Library.

This isn’t to say that Marx’s dispatches were not timely. Indeed, he was quite fastidious about making his pieces as up-to-date as possible, including last-minute tidbits he got from personal correspondence or that day’s newspaper (which seems quaintly ironic today, given that the articles traveled by steamship to New York , and thus would typically be published some 10-15 days after they were written).

But the basic Marx approach to his New York Tribune column was to take an event that was in the news — an election, an uprising, the second Opium War, the outbreak of the American Civil War — and sift through it until he could boil it down to some fundamental questions of politics or economics. And then on those questions he would make his judgment. In this sense, Marx’s journalism does resemble some of the writing that is published today in journals of opinion, and it’s not hard to see a direct line between Marx’s journalistic writing and the kind of tendentious writing on public affairs that characterized much political journalism (especially in Europe) in the twentieth century.

A good example is Marx’s 14 October 1861 article on the British cotton trade, in which he analyses the specific effects of the rise in prices of raw cotton on British textile factories and the more general role of the British empire in the rise of capitalist industry in England:

The consumption of Indian cotton is rapidly growing, and with a further rise in prices, the Indian supply will come forward at increasing ratios; but still it remains impossible to change, at a few months’ notice, all the conditions of production and turn the current of commerce. England pays now, in fact, the penalty for her protracted misrule of that vast Indian empire. The two main obstacles she has now to grapple with in her attempts at supplanting American cotton by Indian cotton, is the want of means of communication and transport throughout India, and the miserable state of the Indian peasant, disabling him from improving favorable circumstances. Both these difficulties the English have themselves to thank for. English modern industry, in general, relied upon two pivots equally monstrous. The one was the potato as the only means of feeding Ireland and a great part of the English working class. This pivot was swept away by the potato disease and the subsequent Irish catastrophe. A larger basis for the reproduction and maintenance of the toiling millions had then to be adopted. The second pivot of English industry was the slave-grown cotton of the United States. The present American crisis forces them to enlarge their field of supply and emancipate cotton from slave-breeding and slave-consuming oligarchies. As long as the English cotton manufactures depended on slave-grown cotton, it could be truthfully asserted that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black men on the other side of the Atlantic.

Now, that’s the kind of honest, serious, and critical economic journalism one would be hard to find these days on either side of the Atlantic.

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I’ve been reading Alexander Cockburn’s columns and journalistic essays for, it seems, forever—first in the Village Voice, then in the Nation, and most recently on Counterpunch. More than once, I found myself disagreeing with his views (on issues as varied as global warming, Ralph Nader’s presidential campaigns, and Senator Bernie Sanders), but I have always respected his unapologetic left-wing political views and trenchant criticisms of all those (from Henry Kissinger to Christopher Hitchens) who either represented the corruptions of empire or chose to find their place within empire.

Now, Cockburn is gone, and Jeffery St. Clair has written a fitting tribute.

Paul Krugman can’t have it both ways.

He can’t, on one hand, post the photo above with some evident satisfaction and then, on the other hand, argue that he can’t be in Liberty Park (to speak with the protestors, teach a class, hold a sign, chant a slogan, or whatever) because it would mean “crossing the line between advocate and activist.”

First, that supposed line never prevented him from participating in the World Economic Forum in Davos, at which capitalist globalization is both celebrated and engineered. (In fact, in early 2011, he explained he wasn’t going to Davos not because it crossed some kind of line but because “there’s not much for me there.”)

Second, there is no line between advocacy and activism. I’ll grant him such a line between journalism and advocacy/activism or between teaching and advocacy/activism (I don’t use the classroom to advocate, because teaching is not a soapbox, but I certainly engage in both advocacy and activism on my blog, and engage in other forms of advocacy and activism in still other spaces beyond the classroom). But I don’t see the line he’s drawn between his ongoing commentary (as a regular columnist in the New York Times and on his blog) and appearing (or being identified) as an “activist” in Liberty Park.

A more honest way of bowing out would be for Krugman simply to argue that he wants to reach some groups of people and he’s afraid that, if he shows up as an activist within the Occupy Wall Street movement, those groups will stop listening to him. That’s a real choice. It’s not one I want to make but it’s a choice all the same.

My only point is, that decision is quite different from hiding behind the false choice between advocacy and activism. And it’s a decision he has to live with (as he tries desperately, with the best of intentions, to get the elite to change their minds and correct their plutocratic ways.)