Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bias and Coverage of War

Can a journalist cover a violent conflict objectively if that journalist's child serves in the military for one side of the conflict? The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg thinks so. He writes

"this is a somewhat obvious point except to propagandists, reporters are capable of actually separating out their personal interests from their coverage."

and praises a writer that discovers

"it is possible to cover the Middle East fairly, despite your entanglements."

I don't really disagree with Goldberg's take on the specific issue he writes about. I think, however, he is far too dismissive of the role unconscious bias plays in our assessment of reality. Goldberg claims only propagandists would think reporters are incapable of "separating out their personal interests from their coverage." But it is not merely propagandists that would question one's capability of objectivity: many psychologists would too.

Cognitive bias "is a person's tendency to make errors in judgment based on cognitive factors." It is not that a person knowingly behaves according to his or her biases, but that his or her biases affect how he or she views reality and makes decisions. For example, Confirmation bias "is a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true." There are many other types of cognitive biases: the point is that even when we believe we are assessing the world objectively, or making decisions rationally, we may not be.

Of course, regular human experience tells us this is true. We expect judges with a conflict of interest to recuse themselves not merely to avoid the appearance of a biased decision, but to avoid actual biased decisions. Pharmaceutical representatives buy lunches for doctors and nurses, and I would think (hope?) doctors believe that has no influence on them--but the lunches keep coming. People do all sorts of things not only claiming but believing they are acting and thinking objectively, when in fact they are not.

It is beyond obvious that our assumptions and beliefs affect how we interpret reality, what reality one chooses to report, and how one reports on it. If you trust America's intentions in war, you may find 27 civilian deaths caused by U.S. military violence an unfortunate accident or collateral damage in a larger necessary cause; if you believe America's intentions in war are malevolent, or even if you believe they are empty, you will interpret those 27 deaths differently. Even if you attempt to be objective, you will still make decisions about whether and how to talk about them.

Is this to say that a reporter should not be allowed to cover a conflict when his or her child is directly involved in the conflict? Of course not. What sort of knowledge, context, background, and nuance would we miss if we insisted that our reporters be as disconnected from the realities of a situation as possible? If we expect a reporter to be knowledgeable about a situation, we must accept that the reporter's knowledge may come from his or her close geographic, cultural, political, historical, or familial connection to that situation. It would be absurd to claim that no Americans should cover American military conflicts because of the biases inherent in the venture. But so too, I think, it is silly to claim that reporters will be able to separate coverage entirely from their "entanglements," and it is disingenuous to think that only propagandists are skeptical whether reporters are "capable of separating out their personal interests from their coverage." The problem is in assuming something called "journalistic objectivity" is a sacrosanct concept that readers should believe in. One's vantage point matters. Different individuals will see the world differently due to a whole host of factors. As an observer of the world, I must always be aware that my own biases affect how I am viewing that world. And as a reader, I must always be aware that writers' biases affect how they are viewing the world. Instead of viewing this as a journalistic sin, I recognize this, keep an awareness of this, and (if I'm inclined) try to get coverage from a variety of perspectives.

It is not that I suspect journalists with personal entanglements will deliberately try to deceive. In many cases, I would expect reporters to try their best to report objectively, to rationally assess the world as it is and try to convey that knowledge. But I think they will do a better job at this not by pretending their biases don't exist, but by being aware of them (and perhaps acknowledging them to the reader). Self-consciousness about one's own likelihood to misinterpret reality can help one avoid misinterpreting reality.

I'm not sure how somebody can respond to a violent conflict objectively--from a human perspective, I'm not even sure they should. Of course, from a journalistic perspective, reporters should and must try present objective coverage. That doesn't mean, however, that we must pretend subjective responses play no part in how one describes a violent conflict. And one shouldn't assume it is only malicious propagandists that would have doubts about reporter objectivity.

PETA's Focus

I used to believe that PETA had two priorities, but in order: 1) improving the lives of animals and pushing for major changes in the way society uses animals, and 2) self-promotion. It is stories like this that convince me I've had the order wrong.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

They know the score: Robert Bolt

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons:

Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you--where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast--man's laws, not God's--and if you cut them down--and you're just the man to do it--d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

I wonder: will there come a time when the Devil turns round on John Yoo? Will he turn around on Dick Cheney? Where will they hide then?

They know the score: Philip Roth

Philip Roth, "The Conversion of the Jews:"

"Mamma, don't you see--you shouldn't hit me. He shouldn't hit me. You shouldn't hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God--"
"Ozzie, please come down now."
"Promise me, promise me you'll never hit anybody about God."
He had asked only his mother, but for some reason everyone kneeling in the street promised he would never hit anybody about God.
Once again there was silence.

It is indeed a promise we should all make. Let us never hit anybody about God.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

They already knew

Not long ago, I asked a friend what commentators of contemporary events he reads. His response: "Kafka." I begin to see his point. The only contemporary commentators worth reading today are those that point out the complete absurdity and utter insanity of it all. When a former vice president is able to boast on national television of the war crimes he's responsible for because he knows that the current administration (despite condemning torture) nor any other American body will ever, ever try to punish him for it, we probably need Kafka. When a movement develops to supplement a major political party in decrying government spending and debts, but few words from this side are spoken against the expensive wars and massive military budgets that make up a giant part of the spending and debts, we need Kafka. When an election is held which whittles all ideas down to two candidates, and the least warmongering candidate is the one that escalates one major war (and uses the Nobel Peace Prize lecture to defend the use of violent force), we need Kafka. But in all this we also need Orwell and Aristophanes, Homer and Shaw, Wilfred Owen and David Henry Hwang. They already knew the score.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

God's Creation is populated by God's Creations

on animals

At God's Politics, Tracey Bianchi writes about giving up meat for Lent. Most of her reasons for doing so, she writes, are

"rooted in my love of God’s Creation."

She goes on to write:

"And since raising beef and other meat places a heavy burden on our ecosystems, and because it is considerably kinder to the planet if I eat grain and vegetable products, I’m going to skip it altogether for this season."


"since God made this place, it seems wise to take note of that fact and make a commitment for a few weeks to help honor that Creation."

Bianchi is writing about vegetarianism and about environmentalism. However, at no point in her post does she even hint at any actual concern for animals. I find that absence glaring. She is skipping meat to help the environment, but not mentioning helping the creatures that share this environment with us. She expresses sincere love and concern for God's Creation, but in this context creation seems to include the earth itself, but not the sentient creatures that God created. She advocates skipping on eating animals to protect the earth, not to avoid causing death and suffering to those very animals.

I am aware, of course, that vegetarianism is not traditionally associated with Christian thought or practice, and that furthermore Christians can cite scripture to justify eating animals (I might only point out that Genesis strongly suggests Adam and Eve did not eat meat before the Fall--perfect creation did not involve killing animals for food). But an environmentalist concern for God's creation, I think, should not leave the concerns of animals out. They are a part of God's Creation, and are in fact thinking, feeling beings created by God. Being Christian did not teach me to be a vegetarian; however, being Christian taught me about compassion and integrity, virtues which led me to be a vegetarian.

I am glad that Bianchi is concerned for the environment, and using a medium to encourage others to reduce their meat consumption. If Christians can eliminate (or even reduce) consumption of animals during Lent, that is a good thing. And I would encourage Christians to consider Lent a beginning, and to try make a long-term change to avoid eating animals.

Torture and Christians

I am particularly disgusted when Christians advocate and defend torture. It is not primarily that Christians worship a Lord who was himself unjustly tortured, but about what that Lord taught. Jesus commands that we not return evil with evil. He commands that we love and bless our enemies. More broadly, the gospel of Christ insists that we see all human beings as children of God, all men and women as brothers and sisters in humanity. Torture denies that.

Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic, further details the wrongfulness of torture.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lit and War: "As if [...] Man had not hellish foes enow besides"

on peace

From John Milton's Paradise Lost:

O shame to men! Devil with devil damn'd
Firm concord holds, men only disagree
of creatures rational, though under hope
Of heavenly grace: and, God proclaiming peace,
Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife
Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,
Wasting the earth, each other to destroy:
As if (which might induce us to accord)
Man had not hellish foes enow besides,
That day and night, for his destruction wait. (II. 496-505)

As if man had not hellish foes enough besides. As if enough Americans don't have health insurance, America can still spend over seven hundred billion dollars to wage wars. As if there is no poverty, there is no hunger, there is no pestilence, humans work on killing each other. As if no children suffer. As if there are no earthquakes or hurricanes to wreck havoc on communities. As if we don't each face a death no matter what. As if nature itself offers no challenge, as if there would not be enough human suffering to alleviate, as if there are no other problems to occupy our resources, our energy, our souls. As if there is nothing else to do, we have (as Thomas Hardy has it in "Channel Firing"),

All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Commercial Life (2)

on animals (reposted and revised from February 1, 2009)

It usually seems to me that a high percentage of Super Bowl commercials feature animals of some sort. I have theories on the appeal of seeing happy, funny animals in the context of consumerism and consumption (in addition to the point, noted by Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, that kids love animals and a lot of advertising to children features animals). Mostly I think they provide comfort: by seeing animals as either happy and contented creatures, or as comical and silly figures, people can feel mildly comforted about consuming them. Suicide Food examines advertising featuring animals that want to be eaten, or that are eating their own food product, and suggests there is thematic comfort in such images. I think perhaps the animals don't need to be suicidal to provide that comfort--happy animals mean we don't have to feel bad for exploiting them (they're happy, after all), and funny animals suggest they're hardly worth any dignity anyway (they're just ridiculous and silly, after all).

This year Denny's screaming chickens made a rare explicit connection between consuming animal products and animals suffering. But the comedy (chickens in human contexts acting like people and looking ridiculous while screaming) still kept the necessary distance between guilt and consumption (and at any rate focused on eggs, where the animal does not need to be killed for the product and we can imagine it being happy even if that isn't so, rather than meat, which we cannot deny requires the killing of the animal).

Thursday, February 4, 2010


on animals

Eugene Cho at God's Politics writes:

"I personally don’t care what you eat, drink, hunt, or watch as long as it isn’t porn."

This line stuck out to me because I think you could argue that "what you eat" or "hunt" is at least as fraught with necessary moral consideration as watching pornography. The connection is pleasure. People watch pornography for their pleasure (and if you consider there to be immorality either in its production or its viewing, you'll consider that pleasure problematic). In the modern developed world, people eat meat (or hunt) for pleasure. There is no other compelling reason. It is not necessary for survival or health. It is tied up with tradition and socializing, but that in itself would not be justification for otherwise immoral activities. But to enjoy this pleasure, an animal is required to suffer and die. If pornography is to be worthy of moral condemnation, I think that partaking in the suffering and death of an animal for one's own pleasure is at least worth moral consideration.

On a C-Span2 Book TV discussion, Jonathan Safran Foer tried to develop this point. When Frank Bruni raised the point about eating for pleasure (seeming to defend meat-eating on the grounds of pleasure), Foer responded by asking why the pleasure of taste seemed to trump morality in ways our other senses do not. While sex is pleasurable, humans place moral limitations on its enjoyment, and we wouldn't allow people to slaughter animals if it pleasured their sense of sight or hearing (as we wouldn't allow a person to rape an animal for pleasure). Unfortunately, Bruni never responded to the issue Foer raised (he used that moment to take offense that Foer uses language for animals that we typically reserve for humans). But I think the connection is worth considering.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Should pacifists care about policy on gays in the military?

Blatant discrimination from a government institution is of course wrong and should be rectified. But as military values are antithetical to my own values, and as the military's function is to carry out policies that I find morally reprehensible, I ask myself how much I should care about the military's policy on openly gay soldiers. As a pacifist, how much should the military's internal policies really concern me?

I find, however, that it does matter. Whether the military allows openly gay soldiers to serve or not has little impact on the militarism inherent in American culture, has no impact on the United States' obscene defense budget, and has no impact on the violence of U.S. foreign policy. There may, however, be a domestic impact. When another American institution (and one revered by so many) no longer tolerates discrimination against gay people and insists on policies of equality, we move a step in a positive direction. We should strive toward full equality in our society, and eliminating barriers of inequality wherever they are is both an end and a means in that effort.

See Also:
"What's wrong with a radical gay agenda?" (Waging Nonviolence)

Blind to our own evil

on peace (reposted and revised from November 14, 2007)

In the last season of The Sopranos, Bobby Baccala talks about why his grandfather could not get into America through Ellis Island, and instead snuck in through Montreal. His grandfather had a police record in the old country. He was involved in anti-government activities.

After telling this story, Bobby and Carmela Soprano each agree that they should build a wall to protect the border now. Presumably to keep out immigrants and terrorists.

Bobby Baccala is a captain in a crime syndicate. His father was a hit man. His anti-government agitator grandfather snuck into America. But now they should build a wall? Now immigration is a threat? Immigration was good in the past when an anti-government agitator could sneak in and father a murderer who would father another criminal, but new immigrants must be kept out?

This is the sort of theme that we see repeatedly in The Sopranos: characters blind to their own evil. There are many, many examples of characters who not only justify their own evil deeds, but occasionally appear entirely blind to the very evil of their deeds.

It is a common affliction, of course. This blindness appears when we justify acts of violence from "our" side that we would never tolerate from another (would American advocates of torture advise other nation's to adopt policies of torture when they deem it necessary for security, or is America exceptional here?).

Monday, February 1, 2010

J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger's short story "For Esme--with Love and Squalor" is clever and haunting. The first part of the story is a rather charming encounter between a soldier and a girl, though we learn the girl has experienced the loss of war, and there are suggestions the soldier may have already experienced some of the trauma of war. The second part of the story shows the soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, obviously debilitated by his experience of war, but saved, perhaps, by the possibility of innocent human connection.