The Ugly Reviews the Good and the Bad

 Real life took over this week, so another post from my old class blog. This one written in January 2013. It’s another rambling mess on the Snowden leaks, focusing in particular on the bipartisan consensus on national security and foreign policy. The new post I’m working on is in the same vein. Until I get that up, I hope you find this interesting.

Journalists are often flummoxed when tasked with covering those in the political realm who hold viewpoints outside of the mainstream. On the one hand, one does not want to unjustly vilify such people, as they probably get enough of that already, however, one also does not want to give credence to any particular political belief through their coverage. At the same time, journalists are instructed to “test the accuracy of information from all.” Objectivity is not the end-goal, the reporting of facts is.

Greg Marx’s piece in the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Covering the Fringe Candidates” offers an insightful overview into how journalists in politics attempt to navigate all three of those demands. It gets points off right away for using the label “fringe,” which implies a kooky, perhaps even dangerous minority, and excludes the possibility that, as libertarian-leaning Reason editor Nick Gillespie wrote for Time, there may be policy positions that have been embraced by a majority of Americans for years that have only recently become major issues in national political discourse.

The analysis within, however, makes up for the sigh-inducing labeling. Marx quotes from Conor Friedersdorf’s piece at the Atlantic who notes that:

a protest candidate that challenges the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, the war on drugs, or civil liberties is ignored, no matter the substantive quality of their arguments on those issues. And if their fans complain, it is pointed out that they don’t have a chance of winning. The salutary effect that protest candidates can have on political discourse even if they don’t win is completely forgotten. (Occasionally, another dodge is used: that Ron Paul, for example, disqualifies himself from serious coverage due to fringe positions he takes on the Federal Reserve or the gold standard. Suffice it to say that all sorts of candidates are covered as serious contenders despite holding positions more lunatic, as Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain attest. Paul’s foreign policy critique is serious, coherent and mostly unanswered.)

He wants us to end our unsustainable wars, LOL. (GIF surprisingly not included in Marx’s article.)

Marx adds that “mainstream political reporters” are trained in strict objectivity which, “leaves them needing some outside authority to validate a losing issue position as worthy of attention—and the “bipartisan consensus” is one such authority.” Perhaps news outlets, he suggests at the end of his piece, should start using “reporters who hold a well-defined (and known-to-readers) set of political values—especially when those values are in tension with the bipartisan consensus” to cover political campaigns.

I think this idea would benefit both news/political junkies and the media illiterate. Those immersed in news and politics can read reports about what candidates are saying and doing by journalists who are familiar with the candidates’ ideas, so we might see fewer condescending and simplistic articles which sound like an explorer encountering the strange natives for the first time. Meanwhile, the lucky readers who have yet to fall down the rabbit hole might be able to identify spin and bias more easily if the journalist’s political leanings are allowed to be a part of his reportage.

There is, however, a danger if ideologues are allowed to step off the campaign trail and cover more general political stories; we may see more political hit pieces masquerading as fact-based journalism in generally reputable outlets, such as Sean Wilentz’s cover story for the New Republic.

The problems start at the title, “Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange If You Knew What They Really Thought?” Right away, it implies that 1) their arguments and revelations about government surveillance are undermined by what they really think and 2) the author knows what they really think. The article consists of a variety of disparate claims, message board and chat postings, listing events and articles without context in order to convince the presumably left-leaning readership of the New Republic that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Wikileaks founder and activist Julian Assagne subscribe to the same “paranoid libertarianism” which the aforementioned readership should be frightened of. It is all very reminiscent of ‘50s era if-you-are associated-with-X-your-ideas-about-Y-are-invalid-and-can-be-dismissed-by-default sort of reasoning.

Wilentz cites (by “cites,” I mean he drops a publication name and a claim or quote, no links or authors or titles—there are only two links in the 7500-word article), chat room messages apparently made by Snowden in which he comes off as a gun nut, against leakers of classified information, and against welfare recipients.

On the gun nut angle, gun ownership has increased in both Republican and Democratic households in the last decade, so it does not necessarily appear to be a sign of the Snowden’s “developing affinities” for libertarian extremism that Wilentz seems to think it is.

The apparent calls of violence against leakers and the mocking of beneficiaries of the welfare system are harder to defend, but I will caution against using chat logs to derive earnest and not facetious, the thoughtful and not off-the-cuff political positions of individuals. The apparent condemnation of leakers is most damning to Snowden’s credibility for obvious reasons, but here too the inconsistency and hypocrisy Wilentz sees is shoddy. There is a difference between the leaks of intelligence operations that target Iran’s nuclear weapons program that Snowden apparently decried and a policy of surveillance on American citizens that he revealed.

I could go on, but I already passed 800 words for this post. However before I go, I would like quickly to address some of the sillier claims in Wilentz’s article. The wishy-washy insinuation that Snowden could be a spy for Russia (because after all, why is Snowden in Russia, hmmm?), ignores the fact that he could not travel because the U.S. revoked his passport, which left him stranded in Moscow. Iceland, Snowden’s initial destination, turned him down.

Finally, the journalist who Snowden has been working with to leak his information, Glenn Greenwald, is made out to be some sort of libertarian hired gun who will work with those on the left or right if their causes align with his. Wilentz says Greenwald let libertarian-leaning Republican Rand Paul off the hook for his comments on the Civil Rights Act while railing against the Democrats and Republicans. I think I found the Greenwald column in question, though I am not sure since there are no links or proper citations in the Wilentz piece:

There’s no question that Ron Paul holds some views that are wrong, irrational and even odious. But that’s true for just about every single politician in both major political parties (just look at the condition of the U.S. if you doubt that; and note how Ron Paul’s anti-abortion views render him an Untouchable for progressives while Harry Reid’s anti-abortion views permit him to be a Progressive hero and even Senate Majority Leader). My point isn’t that Ron Paul is not crazy; it’s that those who self-righteously apply that label to him and to others invariably embrace positions and support politicians at least as “crazy.” Indeed, those who support countless insane policies and/or who support politicians in their own party who do — from the Iraq War to the Drug War, from warrantless eavesdropping and denial of habeas corpus to presidential assassinations and endless war in the Muslim world — love to spit the “crazy” label at anyone who falls outside of the two-party establishment.

Later in the column:

He [Conor Friedersdorf (hey, here he is again) writing in Newsweek] goes on to note that “these disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode, such as libertarians, are mocked almost reflexively in these terms, if they are covered at all.” Indeed, this is true of anyone who deviates at all — even in tone — from the two-party orthodoxy, as figures as disparate as Dennis Kucinich, Noam Chomsky, Howard Dean or even Alan Grayson will be happy to tell you.

Anti-progressive libertarian who you should ignore, indeed. If a person’s ideology cannot fit neatly into the left-right paradigm, it seems they are reacted to as if they are the most dangerous of all.