Brian Stelter and the Pathology of Objectivity

MEDIA, 3 Oct 2011

Michael Tracey – TRANSCEND Media Service

Last night [24 Sep 2011], the New York Times’ Brian Stelter tweeted about the Occupy Wall Street protests, which have been ongoing for over a week now, but seemed to reach a tipping point yesterday. Stelter wrote, “2 hours ago Union Sq was the scene of an ugly battle btwn #OccupyWallSt protesters & police,” followed by a link to a YouTube video entitled “Occupy Wall Street Police Abuse.” The video depicts officers shoving and arresting protesters, as well as using some kind of makeshift orange net to corral them into a pen.

I was struck by the term Stelter used to described the altercations: “battle”. As I understand it, if a “battle” is taking place, that means at least two aggressors are “battling” one another. Which would seem to be an odd characterization of yesterday’s events. I wasn’t there, but all the first-hand reports, news stories, video, and eyewitness testimonies suggest that the NYPD was quite clearly responsible for escalating tension, at least in certain instances — such as when several female protesters were indiscriminately maced in the face.

So I had a question for Stelter — what evidence indicated to him that a “battle” had taken place yesterday, or in other words, what evidence indicated that protesters had “battled” police? Again, the term “battle” implies the participation of at least two parties, but there is no reason (as yet) to believe that protesters attacked police. Here’s what Stelter said in response: “I used the word “battle” in an attempt not to judge either side.”

Let’s think about this. “In an attempt not to judge either side,” Stelter characterized both sides as “battlers.” How is that not a judgment in and of itself? There is clear evidence that police attacked protesters, but no evidence that protesters attacked police, yet Stelter casts both in exactly the same light because he presumably feels that upholding a sacred standard of impartiality is his prime journalistic duty. Even with video evidence available, Stelter shies away from accurately conveying what transpired, because it’s of paramount importance to remain “impartial,” no matter what, always.

This is a perfect manifestation of the pathology of objectivity. Stelter evidently was not interested in accurately portraying the facts. Rather, he obscured them.

For all its faults, I generally like the NYT, and if Stelter just admitted that his tweet mischaracterized yesterday’s events, I’d consider it a forgivable offense. But this morning, Stelter denied that he was even reporting in the first place: “…please don’t misstate what happened,” he said. “I tweeted a video link; I didn’t ‘report.’  I haven’t been at the protests to report.”

Ah, so being physically present at the protests is a requirement for carrying out reporting, but not for relaying and characterizing information related to the protests. Because the latter is exactly what Stelter did last night. Maybe Stelter should have gone down to Union Square before surmising that protesters were “battling” police, because he likely would have observed otherwise.

Further, Stelter implicitly claims that relaying and characterizing information via Twitter somehow doesn’t constitute “reporting,” which is odd, because Stelter is widely known for heralding Twitter as a reporting medium. That argument holds no water whatsoever.

In fairness, this is just another symptom of the “objectivity” malady that so many mainstream journalists, including Stelter, still blissfully affirm. I don’t blame Stelter himself so much as the mindset he’s been inculcated with. But perhaps he should reexamine his reporting philosophy, because when Gawker proves able to relay factual information more accurately than the New York Times, there might be a problem.

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