Partisanship & Transparency: A modern lesson


“I have always had a propensity to justify my action. Not to defend. To justify. Not to insist that I was right but simply to explain that there was no perverse intention, no secret scorn for the natural sensibilities of mankind at the bottom of my impulses.” Joseph Conrad

The NSA leak scandal is rumbling on and the critics of Edward Snowden and the revelations in general seem to have begun to land some blows. They are also rather catty – Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker sneeringly referred to Snowden as a “grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” The man is a criminal, fully aware of the illegality of his actions, unlike Obama and the NSA who have committed no crimes – that seems to be the counter-narrative to this story. It is also one that, full disclosure, I don’t buy into. In the words of John Oliver on The Daily Show, “we’re not saying anyone broke any laws, we’re just saying it’s a little bit weird that you didn’t have to.”

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who has broken most of the major stories, yesterday released a rather tetchy article responding to these critics, describing them as ‘partisan’ Democrat pundits and more or less accusing them of hypocrisy. It seems to me that Greenwald, while being a little angry at the criticism, was merely trying to clarify his positions – justifying, not defending.

While the whole scandal is interesting I want to look at the question of partisanship. Greenwald has been described as untrustworthy as a journalist because of his open political agenda. He identifies Obama-ite Democrats as the most rabidly critical of his exposure of the NSA programmes in question – they’re only attacking the leaks because they hurt the President. NYU Professor Jay Rosen’s piece on the matter addresses the issue of partisanship in the media, making a distinction between neutrality or opinion in journalism as different types of persuasive techniques:

Politics: none is what most of the editors and reporters at the Washington Post practice and preach. (But not all.) It is not the natural, inevitable or “right” way to do journalism, but rather a form of persuasion in which journalists try to get us to accept their account of the way things are by foreswearing any political commitment, avoiding overt displays of opinion, and eluding strong conclusions via quotation or summary of competing arguments.

Of course they also try to persuade us by pointing to irrefutable facts, uncovering new information, and being accurate, truthful and fair, but this does not distinguish them from…

Politics: some is what the journalists at the Guardian practice and preach. It is not the natural or inevitable way to do journalism, but a form of persuasion in which journalists try to get us to accept their account by being up front about their commitments, grounding their freely-expressed opinions in fact, and arriving at conclusions through the sound conduct of public argument.

Later he goes on to describe ‘politics: some’ journalists as ones who are compelled to embrace the principles of transparency in their work. This is an interesting implication – the media cannot call for transparency in Big Business or in government while maintaining a mask of ‘neutrality’. Everybody knows that media organisations have political identities, particularly the most influential of them. The media, to be properly transparent, need to show their inclinations up front before analysis. Obviously, such inclinations need to be flexible and reasonable (I’m looking at you, Fox News) and cannot be used to obscure any of the facts in the story. But to deny it exists obscures some of the truth in the story from the get-go. That’s a pretty interesting idea and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a quite an unusual position.

The Conrad quote at the start of this post comes from the Author’s Note from his 1907 novel The Secret Agent.
This is a seedy novel, focused on a series of secretive anarchists in Victorian London. On its release it was regarded as unpleasant, focusing as it did on terrorists, suspicious organisations and manipulators lying under the surface all around the public – such themes are now regarded as hugely prescient for the century of uprisings and revolution that followed it.

The Author’s Note was included in 1920 and seeks to justify the novel in the face of such criticism. Conrad starts by admitting that such an exercise is immodest and a little vain before outlining exactly how he came to produce the story and why he thought it necessary to publish it. Perhaps in this short passage Conrad was, again, remarkably prescient: his agenda is to justify his position in the face of detractors. To do so, he must reveal his own motives, not simply attack the motives of his critics. A modern lesson indeed.

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One thought on “Partisanship & Transparency: A modern lesson

  1. This need is not new; which should relieve us all of considerable responsibility and perhaps make us even willing to look at this phenomenon dispassionately. I have neither the wish nor the competence to embark on the exercise with the tools of the social and biological sciences but more simply in the manner of a novelist responding to one famous book of European fiction: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , which better than any other work that I know displays that Western desire and need which I have just referred to. Of course there are whole libraries of books devoted to the same purpose but most of them are so obvious and so crude that few people worry about them today. Conrad, on the other hand, is undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good storyteller into the bargain. His contribution therefore falls automatically into a different class — permanent literature — read and taught and constantly evaluated by serious academics. Heart of Darkness is indeed so secure today that a leading Conrad scholar has numbered it “among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language.” I will return to this critical opinion in due course because it may seriously modify my earlier suppositions about who may or may not be guilty in some of the matters I will now raise.

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