Saturday, May 7, 2011

Post-Dispatch's False Notion of "Neutrality" Contributes to Demise of Journalism

The Post-Dispatch has a full-length article today about the Breitbart smear attacks on UMSL. The author Tim Barker says that academic freedom is at the heart of the dispute, and I agree that it certainly is an important consideration here and applaud Barker for emphasizing this point. Professors at American universities have advocated for all kinds of controversial positions, pro-union and anti-union, communist and libertarian, pro-life and pro-choice. Professors at American universities have also advocated for using torture against political prisoners, for the death penalty, and have argued that we should go to war to protect our political interests even when our country is under no threat from others. So yes, academic freedom is a central part of the American higher education system, and the right-wing's attempt to single out and suppress views on the liberal side of the spectrum is disgusting and stands opposed to the idea of free speech that they pretend to care about.

However, this particular case is about more than just academic freedom. This is about Andrew Breitbart and Dana Loesch continuing their pattern of blatantly distorting video to put words into people's mouths as part of a systematic attack on all of the institutions they don't like. They lied and claimed that Judy Ancel told her class that "Violence is a tactic. It's to be used when it's the appropriate tactic." In fact, as was clearly revealed in the longer videos, Ancel was quoting a character in a movie. They chopped of a quote from Don Giljim after the word "and...." and added a completely new sentence to the end to claim that he was advocating industrial sabotage. In fact, as was clearly revealed in the longer videos, he explicitly said that such tactics are "counterproductive" in the segments chopped out by Breitbart. Yet, the Post-Dispatch fundamentally fails to point out these blatant lies and distortions, and instead settles with quoting some people who said the videos were taken out-of-context and saying, "Other sites, including, have since published their own pieces attacking Breitbart's work."

The problem is that Media Matters didn't just "attack" Breitbart's work; they released video that showed it to be completely false. And it is not a matter of subjective interpretation whether the videos were edited out-of-context; if you chop off a person's sentence to say something different than what it actually said, you have thereby falsely presented their views. These are not matters of interpretation where you can settle for getting quotes.

I understand the notion of "neutrality" at work in the Post-Dispatch's article. They don't want to be accused of "bias," so instead of showing the longer videos or simply saying that Breitbart's videos were distorted, they'd rather get quotes from both sides. Such is the idea of "neutrality" that is one of the central flaws of modern journalism; they divorce themselves from an objective reality where there are these strange things called "facts," and instead settle for a world in which neutrality always means halfway between two positions, no matter how closely those positions align with the real world. Thus if Breitbart claims that Giljim is secretly a member of Al Qaeda who's been training in Yemen for the past 50 years, and Giljim releases video documenting his time in the St. Louis region for the past 50 years, the modern "neutral" reporter just gets quotes from both sides and calls it a day.

But not only is this notion of neutrality fundamentally flawed as it denies the existence of facts about the world, it also is inherently contradictory. As Barker (the author of this piece) decides to write a story, he has to commit to standards of journalism and reporting that guide his work. He knows that he can't simply chop up people's quotes and rearrange their words to make it appear that they said something that they really didn't. His commitment to standards of journalism makes him fundamentally not neutral when it comes to the practice of reporting. Barker cannot be "neutral" as to whether it's OK to distort quotes or not, because being neutral on that question would mean that he's a terrible reporter, which he's not.

So once he's staked out a position on the practices of honest journalism, he also can no longer be neutral on what it is that Breitbart's minions do. They engage in the very practices that Barker has to reject in order to be a good reporter. They violate the trust of the people who listen to them and willfully manipulate their beliefs to push a particular political agenda. Barker, as someone who cares about the practice of journalism, can not coherently apply the false notion of "neutrality" to what Breitbart does because, by doing so, he would be rejecting his own standards.

Furthermore, Breitbartism is a competitor to the kind of journalism that Barker and the Post-Dispatch practice. Breitbart makes no bones about the fact that he's trying to make his style of journalism the norm for the right. So he has declared war on legitimate reporters like those who work at the Post-Dispatch, and would be happy to destroy them. And as long as the Post-Dispatch fails to stand up for their standards of journalism by (legitimately) criticizing liars and smear-merchants, they are allowing dishonest characters to continue to erode the idea of "journalism."

Like the USDA during the Sherrod scandal, like NPR, and now like UMSL, the Post-Dispatch is trying to remain neutral with people who have ultimately declared war on them. The continue to try to avoid short-term controversy by failing to call out liars. But these minor short-term reprieves are ultimately meaningless, because the longer they continue to empower people who are fundamentally opposed to the type of honest reporting the Post practices, the more they are ensuring their own demise.


  1. "it is not a matter of subjective interpretation whether the videos were edited out-of-context"

    Amen! The SLP-D has some 'splainin' to do. Please keep after them, before con-man Breitbart further fouls the well.

  2. Wrote a long comment praising this post and Blogspot ate it.

  3. Adam,
    I'm learning more and more about Andrew Breitbart and his insatible appetite for spreading lies by following your posts. [I also follow Media Matters.] What is important to me is that the Breitbart information you gather be immediately shared so that people like me can share with our friends and family members. [Knowledge is power.] People like Andrew Breitbart can not penetrate the truth with a bunch of lies.
    So, thank you for your perserverance.

    I think people like Andrew Breitbart (those who have wealth, but are hell bent on destroying anyone elses life) are the scum of the earth.

  4. Thanks Barbara, Kevin, and all!