Truth, not neutrality or bothsideism - Fr Joe Borg

Truth, not neutrality or bothsideism - Fr Joe Borg

Last Thursday the Committee for the Protection of Journalists released its annual report stating, among other things, that there are 251 journalists in prison around the world. Undoubtedly it is a tough time to be a journalist.

Imprisonment is not the worst fate journalists can meet. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi ordered by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed Bin Sultan is a painful current example. The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia – ordered by someone still unknown – is still a deep bleeding wound.

The government’s refusal to accept the motion of the Nationalist Party for a public inquiry throws grave doubts on the veracity of its publicly expressed shock and sorrow. It is unfortunate that the Democratic Party chose to muddy the waters and obfuscate the issue by its motion.

The assassination of Caruana Galizia and the insistence of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists that no stone should be left unturned to bring to justice those who commissioned the assassination formed part of the report.

The enemies of journalism are many and varied. The list includes Egypt’s Sisi, Turkey’s Erdoğan, Russia’s Putin, Phillipines’ Duterte, as well as America’s Trump. The first four imprison journalists after accusing them of inciting, sympathising and associating with subversives.

Trump cannot do what Sisi and Co do, but he goes out of his way to denigrate, rubbish and savage the news media. His first tweet after his election lambasted “professional protesters incited by the media.” He upped the ante recently by referring to the media as the enemy of the people.

Trump’s words, like those of Stockman, the mayor of a small Norwegian town in Henrik Ibsen’s play Enemy of the People, inflame many against the media. The difference is that Trump is real while Stockman was fictional.

Therefore, turning the people against the media in the US has real and grave consequences both to journalism and democracy. While the newspaper of the fictional Norwegian town buckled under the pressure, the US media are fortunately holding their ground.

The enemies of journalism are many and varied

Truth be told, the American media are partly responsible for the mess they are in. During the primaries the news media, which mimic the entertainment media, feasted on Trump. His eccentricities provided a tsunami of what commercial TV believes to be good television. Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi said recently that the media gave Trump billions of dollars’ worth of free coverage. They did that because they believed that Trump may not be good for America but good for the media. The assessment of the media was short-sighted and stupid indeed!

The American media’s other grave mistake is described in the industry as ‘bothsideism’. Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, in an opinion piece for The New York Times (July 18, 2016) described bothsideism as “the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programmes as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretence becomes”. The result is then “the determination to find balance where none exists.”

He gives Republican Speaker Paul Ryan as an example. The media portray him as a serious, honest fiscal expert not because he is but because of their determination to find balance where none exists.

Both Krugman and Christiane Amanpour (see her 2016 acceptance address of the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award) agreed that bothsideism contributed to an unfair representation of Hillary Clinton and an undeserved better treatment of Trump.

Commenting on what happened, Amanpour said that: “It appeared much of the media got itself into knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality and crucially, truth.”

Like many other journalists advocating journalism of attachment, Amanpour insists that this old paradigm should be abandoned: “I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalizing the truth… We must fight against the normalisation of the unacceptable.”

Aidan White of Ethical Journalism Network, writing in the same vein, notes that Trump has forced journalists to question the cardinal principles of balance and impartiality. David Mindich, writing in the Colombia Journalism Review (July 15, 2016), said that American journalism was faced by a Murrow moment. Edward R. Murrow, when faced by the excesses of Senator McCarthy, decided to shed his journalistic detachment to offer a prescription: “This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent.” Murrow’s journalism was pivotal for the fall of McCarthy.

Krugman affirms that although bothsidesism isn’t new it has always been an evasion of responsibility. For him the position of those journalists that “both sides do it” now, in the face Trump “is an act of mind-boggling irresponsibility”.

Krugman and Amanpour were addressing the situation in the US. But given that this attitude of false equivalency (which should not be confused with or curtail fair criticism) is so rampant in Malta what they wrote also applies over here.

As Malta approaches the campaign for the elections of the EU Parliament that will be definitively marked by a massive organisation of fake news while distracting people from institutionalised corruption, journalists should resist both neutrality and bothsideism.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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