Brian Stelter and the Pathology of Objectivity

Posted on September 25, 2011

Last night, the New York Times’ Brian Stelter tweeted about the Occupy Wall Street protests, which have been ongoing for over a week now, but seemed to reach a tipping point yesterday. Stelter wrote, “2 hours ago Union Sq was the scene of an ugly battle btwn #OccupyWallSt protesters & police,” followed by a link to a YouTube video entitled “Occupy Wall Street Police Abuse.” The video depicts officers shoving and arresting protesters, as well as using some kind of makeshift orange net to corral them into a pen.

I was struck by the term Stelter used to described the altercations: “battle”. As I understand it, if a “battle” is taking place, that means at least two aggressors are “battling” one another. Which would seem to be an odd characterization of yesterday’s events. I wasn’t there, but all the first-hand reports, news stories, video, and eyewitness testimonies suggest that the NYPD was quite clearly responsible for escalating tension, at least in certain instances — such as when several female protesters were indiscriminately maced in the face.

So I had a question for Stelter — what evidence indicated to him that a “battle” had taken place yesterday, or in other words, what evidence indicated that protesters had “battled” police? Again, the term “battle” implies the participation of at least two parties, but there is no reason (as yet) to believe that protesters attacked police. Here’s what Stelter said in response: “I used the word “battle” in an attempt not to judge either side.”

Let’s think about this. “In an attempt not to judge either side,” Stelter characterized both sides as “battlers.” How is that not a judgment in and of itself? There is clear evidence that police attacked protesters, but no evidence that protesters attacked police, yet Stelter casts both in exactly the same light because he presumably feels that upholding a sacred standard of impartiality is his prime journalistic duty. Even with video evidence available, Stelter shies away from accurately conveying what transpired, because it’s of paramount importance to remain “impartial,” no matter what, always.

This is a perfect manifestation of the pathology of objectivity. Stelter evidently was not interested in accurately portraying the facts. Rather, he obscured them.

For all its faults, I generally like the NYT, and if Stelter just admitted that his tweet mischaracterized yesterday’s events, I’d consider it a forgivable offense. But this morning, Stelter denied that he was even reporting in the first place: “…please don’t misstate what happened,” he said. “I tweeted a video link; I didn’t ‘report.’  I haven’t been at the protests to report.”

Ah, so being physically present at the protests is a requirement for carrying out reporting, but not for relaying and characterizing information related to the protests. Because the latter is exactly what Stelter did last night. Maybe Stelter should have gone down to Union Square before surmising that protesters were “battling” police, because he likely would have observed otherwise.

Further, Stelter implicitly claims that relaying and characterizing information via Twitter somehow doesn’t constitute “reporting,” which is odd, because Stelter is widely known for heralding Twitter as a reporting medium. That argument holds no water whatsoever.

In fairness, this is just another symptom of the “objectivity” malady that so many mainstream journalists, including Stelter, still blissfully affirm. I don’t blame Stelter himself so much as the mindset he’s been inculcated with. But perhaps he should reexamine his reporting philosophy, because when Gawker proves able to relay factual information more accurately than the New York Times, there might be a problem.

What Others Are Saying

  1. Jose Quiles September 25, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Read the NY Daily News website and the reporting on this story from that
    paper is identical in describing the events which happened yesterday near Union Square. It’s like they all follow the same script.

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  3. Michael Hoexter September 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    By calling Stelter’s tweet a sign of the pathology of “objectivity” you are accepting the frame of American journalism consensus. What you are talking about is “neutrality” or “false balance”. Stelter is distorting “objectivity” to create false balance and to cultivate the appearance of neutrality.

    He can be easily criticized for NOT being objective in his characterization of the interactions of the police and the protestors. You are therefore here standing up for objectivity, which is not a bad value to have for a journalist.

    If you had the expectations that he would be more a partisan of the protestors you would then be more likely to declare objectivity a “pathology”.

  4. Rick Umbaugh September 25, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    I wasn’t in NY…I was in Chicago. What we saw in NY was not a battle, but a police riot, perhaps not as bad as Chicago in 1968, but close enough.

  5. Anarcissie September 25, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    For heaven’s sake, the New York Times is not ‘objective’. It is a vehicle of ruling-class propaganda, whether they’re talking about rounding up the homeless, nonviolent demonstrators ‘battling’ the police, or WMD in Iraq. The capitalist media are obviously not going to give an ‘objective’ account of anti-capitalist actions to their audience. Why would they?

    Besides which, I would think any intelligent person would find the haute-bourgeois fluting of its writers intolerable. I’d rather read the open thuggery of the Post. Fortunately I am mostly free of both.

  6. k dyson September 26, 2011 at 1:24 am

    Mr Stelter is using a tactic that appears to be benign…just the facts…except he is distorting the facts and hoping that no one will bring him to task….good for Michael Tracey for doing just that

  7. sallysense September 26, 2011 at 6:57 am

    so what goes through a writer’s mind to pen his current word?…
    does a fling of similar notions keep him clinging to one herd?…
    do inklings flow from a well of ‘telling’ over-drilled by others?…
    must comfy sleep insure itself under certain bedclothes covers?…
    will content fit all dog-eared pages turning mainstream’s handbook?…
    do featherly trends in his thinking cap show status quo’s fad look?…
    shall readers find his news account views groundwork quite objectively?…
    or will his next report be more to bury himself in selectively?…

    • Jeff Weinberger September 27, 2011 at 3:32 am

      that is quite incredible…yours?….beautiful as a bare bodkin

      • sallysense September 27, 2011 at 1:01 pm

        hiya jeff weinberger… and thank you for your kind comment… and yes… it’s mine…

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  9. Jeff Weinberger September 27, 2011 at 3:24 am

    I’d actually like to carry the analysis a bit further. What if there actually had been a battle; what if protesters actually had attempted to return blow for blow, and the “ugly battle” Selter mentions in his tweet actually had been objectively supported in fact? Would even such a situation as this – a real battle! – have merited a treatment from a perspective of neutrality? I’d say, without hesitation, NO!…..that’s because for me journalism means integrity, analysis, and Fourth Estate, hold Power’s feet to the fire accountability. It’s a function of democracy.

    The police have an assortment of weapons, from the debilitating to the deadly, which they wield, often with great gusto, in the service of a Government the existence of which, presently and as its historical raison d’etre, is to defend the system’s inherent inequities, both economic and political….to defend Capital! The demonstrators in these situations have their fists and their feet. They’d be fighting to oppose a systemic nightmare whose tools are incessant obfuscation and propaganda – assisted by uncritical “journalists” like Selter – and expedient brutality. When neutrality becomes the lens through which such oppressive reality is viewed – as is generally the case with a media which has lost touch with its essential democratic purpose – then you might as well add a notch to Wall Street’s and to the Government’s belt before the story is even written.

  10. Nancy Griffin September 27, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    Nothing objective about mischaracterizing an event. Accuracy and truth are supposed to be paramount in reporting. There’s no such thing as objectivity, but there is fairness. Balance is another overrated and misused concept – many journalists often give equal weight to the ravings of a lunatic in the name of ‘balance.’ Whatever happened to just getting the story right? It took seemingly forever to get accurate reporting in the ’60s on peace marches and civil rights demonstrations. I remember a huge march in NYC when only one reporter had a number anywhere near accurate in his story the next day. He was a friend from the Boston Globe and I called to thank him. He said he had to fight with the desk for hours to get them to use the number (he said 500,000 and admitted it was probably conservative, but he ran the length of the parade route, back and forth, counting the marchers) because all the other news outlets went with 50,000, including the NYT. All the other reporters took the police and park department numbers at face value. He actually reported, rather than acting as a PR flack for the police. Such legwork is increasingly rare, as is the commitment to getting the story right. Ben Bagdikian said journalists don’t have to be censored by their corporate owners because they will self-edit, knowing who signs their paychecks. A sad state of affairs.

  11. Sean Flynn September 29, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I’ll say this once, and then I am gone. I am a retired intel officer. Thirty years working my way through the maze at several agencies. Control and influence of all forms of media is a critical function of informational control which shapes all political and public opinion. The NYT was always home for two to five writers who were moles for the CIA, NSC, and now Homeland Security. There are so many ‘choke points’ that are in place, you have to personally see it, taste it and smell it to comprehend the events and any sense of the truth. Do you wonder why this isn’t even close to a democracy?

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