Giving Up on Objectivity, Jamming, 13/03/2015

I came across a curious video on Twitter the other day, an interview on FOX Business between anchor Deirdre Bolton and Stewart Baker, a former general counsel to the NSA. It’s the typical FOX softball interview with someone saying sort of insane things about the government’s right to spy on American companies in the name of national security, except for a few points. 

Essentially what state surveillance agencies do all the
time. Just replace the toilet with a smartphone.
You can find it at the FOX News website, but I prefer you to watch it at this link, where I originally discovered it through Twitter, for reasons that will be clear by the end of the post. Here’s a brief run-down. Baker advocates that the American government’s spy agencies should have the right to monitor iPhone transmissions all over the United States and the world because ISIS members have communicated using iPhones.

Baker seems to be going on a tour lately to convince people that it’s wrong to want privacy from the American government’s secret surveillance. And that it’s wrong for large American companies to care about maintaining the privacy of their customers. I find it increasingly sad that the fears of some of the world’s more paranoid encryption nuts are coming true.

But we know all this already. The American government is spying on its citizens. This isn’t news.

What interests me is a particular, almost throwaway, comment of Baker’s to disparage the source of the information that Bolton was interviewing him about: that the CIA had been attempting to hack Apple’s iPhones for years. It came from Edward Snowden and The Intercept, which Baker said was an “ideologically motivated” media organization. 

Baker said that on the FOX Business network. The irony was obvious. The tweet where I first saw it appeared in the feed of Glenn Greenwald, who I follow on Twitter as a source of generally solid dissident journalism* and an interesting person. Like it or not, he is a historic figure in journalism already.

World-historical journalist Glenn Greenwald.
* Naturally, I don’t agree with everything he says. But he’s a perfect barometer of the modern left. In general, everything he writes, links, and tweets criticizing the American surveillance state is wonderful and illuminating. But I find that he gives something of a soft ride to Iran and anti-Israel militant groups. The left, however, should never enforce total unity of thought on all its members. It goes against the entire idea of liberation.

Bolton’s response was more illuminating than a FOX anchor had any right to be: sarcasm. “Stewart, you're talking about editorial judgment! Believe me, that’s a scandal.” Baker spoke as though being ideologically motivated would automatically discredit The Intercept, meaning that they aren’t trustworthy. 

I’ve spoken before of how the concept of objectivity as an ideal for journalism arose as a public image for papers like the New York Times. They strove for objectivity in reporting to distinguish themselves from a more nakedly ideological, sensationalist newspaper media environment in a manner that would earn public trust. General public trust in the objectivity of their reporting would secure the New York Times a reliable revenue base through subscription. 

That’s not to say that the ideal of objectivity was necessarily always a lie. The New York Times and the papers that followed the subscription model used a less sensationalistic, more objective tone of writing and approach to journalism to support their public image as objective. The most foolproof way to appear in a particular manner is actually to do it. 

But an editorial director is always a person, and so comes with presumptions about what is politically reasonable and what is more or less important news. And such people will hire similar people to work with them. Unless hiring a token figure with different moral and political attitudes, usually to appear more objective in the social context of the time. 

I find it very disheartening that even the most insanely
paranoid cryptanalysis junkie of Neal Stephenson's
body of work has turned out to be pretty much right
about the dangers of government surveillance.
Bolton understood something that’s always been true about the media environment. Editorial judgment is the process of ideologically motivating a media organization, or really any organization that produces content or does anything. Our ideologies are our frameworks for our moral and political beliefs. They’re our beliefs about what is reasonable to believe. In that sense, ideology is inescapable, and any editorial judgment is an exercise of ideology.

We know this, generally, as a culture. Though we often take a nihilistic attitude: if the total objectivity that the New York Times convinced me to believe in (so I'd buy a Times subscription) isn’t true, then I guess there can’t be any objectivity.

Maybe not literally, but there can still be what we used to use the language of objectivity to achieve: trustworthy, rationally considered, well-researched journalism. Journalism that doesn’t openly proselytize for a particular ideology, to create a shared mass ideology among its viewers such that they all see the world in a single, simple way.

Such mass ideology is called dogma. Its self-destructive effects are why societies need heretics, to keep these totalizing forces of uniformity at bay. If everyone thinks the same way and does the same thing, and such action was a mistake, there won’t be anyone left to think again. Dogma must be fought because it damages our capacity for social adaptation. 

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