Thursday, August 16, 2012

"I don't want fair treatment—we want propaganda."

Posted By on 08.16.12 at 02:21 PM

Abbie Hoffman in rabble-rousing mode
  • Abbie Hoffman in rabble-rousing mode
While writing a preview of the Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins Theatre Festival, I stumbled across an interview taken with Hoffman himself in 1969. The Yippie rabble-rouser was sitting in jail at the time, awaiting trial for conspiracy to foment a riot at the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago. The interviewer was a 16-year-old high school student named Tom LaPorte, working for a youth radio program.

They talked mostly about revolution, the trial, and Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale. (Originally a codefendant with Hoffman and six other peace activists, known collectively as the Conspiracy Eight, Seale had resisted the court so mightily that the judge ordered him gagged and gave him a separate trial.) When LaPorte asked Hoffman what kind of government he wanted, Hoffman flipped the question back on the kid:

LAPORTE: If your revolution succeeds, what kind of government do you plan to have? Or do you plan to have any government?
HOFFMAN: (looking in an address book) Wait a second, I'll look . . . it's under "G" . . . no government.
LAPORTE: Well, let's talk a little about you. Where are you from and . . .
HOFFMAN: What's the difference as to what kind I want anyway? I mean I'm just one of the people just like you, I mean what kind do you want? Did you ever think about it?
LAPORTE: I'm a reporter, I can't have opinions.
HOFFMAN: Yeah . . . you sound like a tape recorder, you know? They don't have opinions either, you know? Why do you want to be somebody without opinions? Is that like a long spent desire of yours?
LAPORTE: Well, I have opinions and most of them are closer to yours than to the other side.
HOFFMAN: Oh, I doubt it, they're not closer to mine.
LAPORTE: I think so.
HOFFMAN: God, mine are ridiculous, why do you want them closer to mine?

The exchange made me laugh, because I could sympathize with the young reporter. When you're a teenager, you don't want to make the story all about you, because who cares about your opinion, anyway? Plus, giving an opinion would break what seems like the golden rule of journalism, which is to be objective and not let your own biases get in the way of a story.

Forty-plus years later, however, the notion of objectivity is all but quaint. Reader writers certainly don't keep their opinions to themselves. Still, I know they take the ethical standards of truth and fairness quite seriously. The question is, are fairness and objectivity the same thing? I asked Reader senior writer Steve Bogira for an answer.

"No, they're not," he said. "The alternative press led the way in the idea that there's no such thing as objectivity. What looks like objectivity is sometimes just status-quo thinking. But I don't think that precludes fairness. Being aware of our biases makes it easier for us to be fair. The reader has more of a chance if he understands the writer isn't claiming he's being objective."

Bogira reacted strongly to another quote from the interview, where Hoffman talks about propaganda:

LAPORTE: So you're not getting any fair treatment [from the media] at all?
HOFFMAN: I don't want fair treatment—we want propaganda. We want newspaper guys dedicated to the overthrow of the system. I mean the concept of fair reporting is as ridiculous as the concept of a fair trial.

"I think propaganda is a journalist's enemy," Bogira argued, defining propaganda as "trying to make a case for something rather than trying to discover something—trying to win converts to your cause."

The ideas of discovery and exploration kept coming up as we talked. Bogira even likened journalists to scientists. "One of the joys of journalism is discovery," he said, "and if your mind is made up before you start, it's foreclosed."

Bogira stressed that "being fair is really important," so of course I had to ask him what fair means. "Being open-minded," he replied. "Striving to look at something fresh when everything pushes you in another direction, because you've seen things before. . . . Seeing something in its complications and complexity."

In other words, it's the opposite of propaganda.

I really like the idea of journalism as an open-minded exploration—it frames the issue more usefully than the objectivity/subjectivity dichotomy does. Objectivity is an illusion, after all, and journalists who pretend to be objective risk deceiving their audience and themselves. Still, it's a useful illusion. Without at least some nod to objectivity, it becomes incredibly easy to leap from being a journalist to being a propagandist.

Hoffman would no doubt be delighted with the Internet, where anybody can bypass the mainstream media entirely by posting on independent blogs. In the interview with LaPorte, he characterizes neutrality as a “dehumanized attitude" that allows evils in the system to continue: "You've got to become a guerrilla fighter, you can’t keep sitting on the middle of the fence." The independence found in online news sources is a boon for society in many ways, but it's also led to a rise in propaganda. It’s easier than ever before to listen only to radio programs you agree with, watch only TV shows you agree with, read only websites you agree with, and speak only to people you agree with. Humans love feeding their confirmation bias, and pundits on both sides are handsomely rewarded for doing so.

But here's the scary part: neither objectivity nor announcing your biases guarantees good journalism. There are very few checks and balances in the system other than the journalist's decision to continue exploring and the audience's willingness to listen.

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