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Sunday, January 30, 2005


Craig Clemens

I read the entire article. You made reference to the unsigned commentary in the Times, and it seems that you feel that the bosses at the Times, who are in Los Angeles, are more informed than those writers who are right there, in Iraq. Am I missing something? The reason the Times writes the way it does (the unnamed stuff), is because it is owned by left wing idealogues.

too many steves

Who could possibly argue against a desire to have reporters identify and reveal the truth? Not me (or is it Not I?).

As you so ably put it, a single reporter cannot possibly discover and report the whole story or truth, especially in a land the size of the state of CA with something like 25 million people. So it seems they default to the "objective" approach of interviewing some even number of people who, at best, have opposing views. Blech.

But with multiple news outlets, each with multiple reporters researching and reporting, we should, in aggregate, get a fair picture of what is really going on, so long as they accurately report what they have learned. Bias is self-regulating; we consumers of news know it when we see, hear, and read it and will discount it or ignore it entirely.

For this scheme to work it requires openness and a critical mass of coverage.

And as I write this it dawns on me that this model exists (maybe only in a formative stage) already - it is most often referred to as the blogoshphere.

David Holiday

Great work, Marc. Have you noticed that Kevin Drum only gives it a "not bad" rating (while still comparing it favorably to your two predecessors, Hugh Hewitt and Mickey Kaus), because it's not LATimes-specific enough -- it applies to all of journalism. Not much of a criticism.


This is your post-Iraqi election effort?Did you watch the same election as I did,or did you watch it at all?
I am of course fascinated with your ideas on how to overcome the 'clear and present'bias of the media,but frankly I have trouble paying serious attention to anyone whose idea of profound anaylsis consists of:

--We need go no further than an otherwise compelling Times report out of Baghdad a few weeks ago. It began with the assertion that although the election process was, indeed, going ahead, its "planners" still faced what were called "the nuts and bolts of holding a credible vote." Insurgents gunning down election workers and candidates, the latter campaigning only clandestinely, the polling stations still a secret, car bombs killing dozens a week — these are mere nuts and bolts? Maybe to the U.S. Embassy — but for the rest of us? Puh-leeze.---

To some of us the election looked very credible indeed.Strange that for all the problems ,things went pretty well.Must be just an accident.

Marc Cooper

This is my pre-election election effort (otherwisde how could it get in the Times on teh day of the election). The piece has NOTHING to do with an assessment of the elections themselves but rather uses the coverage of them as an example of how American newspaper journalism can move forward to a more agile model. it has nothing to do with ideology so calm down.


Very good column, Marc. (Will drop note to persons most concerned to say so.)

I wonder if most people reading the column understand how inobvious and important a point you're making, how rare it is that the good reporters in highly charged situations---like the war in Iraq---are permitted to just write what they think, feel, and professionally assess to be going on.

(And let us be the first to admit that covering a war doesn't make you a good reporter or a wise witness of events. There are doubtless the usual number of annoying persons with reporters’ credentials working in Baghdad right now, but that’s not the issue here.)

As you mentioned, there have been a few isolated instances of varied quality where the first person accounts have surfaced---like the Times’ piece, and the WSJ reporter’s accidentally circulated e-mail.

A few months back, Terry Gross interviewed Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey. Dickey went on the show because he was flogging some spy novel he’d written. But Gross scooted past the novel in record time then got him to talk about what he was seeing in Iraq. That, of course, was riveting---not because Dickey’s take was the be all end all. But he’s an informed and experienced guy who can rub a few thoughts together pretty well. So it was like chatting with an intelligent, savvy friend who was willing to tell you what he REALLY thought about the whole Iraq mess without, as you said, filtering it all through this notion of “objectivity” that has spun entirely out of control these past decades, until too much of what is printed lacks any kind of informed point of view.

Anyway, I’m babbling. Back to my own deadline. Just wanted to say: you did good, Marc.

Green Dem

You're absolutely right Marc. The whole discourse of objectivity is an anachronism, a kind of cultural fiction not unlike the Hollywood formula(s), but much more dishonest because Hollywood, unlike journalism, makes little to no pretense of representing reality as it is.

That said, I think its worth mentioning that there are many of us on the left who do not hold a two dimensional view of this conflict (and I think you're one of them, even if you may disagree in whole or part with what I'm about to say), and have quietly been grappling with the strategic, political, but moreover moral complexities of this war, and events unfolding in the country.

I don't like war. I don't like this war, and I don't like this president, or the liars and thugs that make up his administration. But there is little question in my mind that the Sunni insurgency is not simply an old fashioned nationalist movement that seeks to expel the foreign occupiers, and then join with their countrymen in creating a free and democratic Iraq, but a totalitarian movement that seeks to restore Baathist tyranny, or establish a Sunni dominated Islamo-fascist state.

I want nothing more than to see our soldiers come home, but in the real world that seems unlikely to happen until there is security in Iraq. The Bush administration probably won't begin the withdrawal until that happens, and the new government in Iraq probably won't ask us to leave until that happens.

I wish this whole thing had never happened, but that it has I wish the Sunni rejectionists would accept the prospect of a democratic Iraq, and work towards creating a decent country for themselves and their children.

Sadly, that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, and maybe ever.

jim hitchcock

Funny that Craig Clemens should consider the Chicago Tribune a bunch of left wing ideologues.

I think what Marc is arguing for here is the journalism of yore...the kind of stuff written by hard bitten reporters with the press cards stuck in the hatbands, chasing down leads they've stumbled across rather than interpretations of the daily press briefings. I want to know what they see, what they smell. I want the kind of journalism that creates pictures in my head. In short, I want journalism with legs, not watered down pablum.

Hope it's not to much to ask for.


All well said, Green Dem.


Marc, I'll add my kudos to the others.

Jim, perhaps we could get better writing as well. I have a feeling that good writing (a la Rosedog and Marc - don't get swelled heads you two, you're still leftish) ;-) would accomplish exactly what Marc is saying. Perhaps too, if we got "the kind of stuff written by hard bitten reporters with the press cards stuck in the hatbands, chasing down leads they've stumbled across rather than interpretations of the daily press briefings" we all (left, right and center) might see the war a little differently and be a little more able to work together.

Green Dem, good points all.

Rosedog, my dear and beloved friend, you noted: "As you mentioned, there have been a few isolated instances of varied quality where the first person accounts have surfaced..." and of course I totally agree with you, but, unless I'm totally mistaken (a distinct possibility) argue that the reporters with "boots on the ground" were giving us that varied quality of persons on the scene in another thread(s?)


I had a chance to hear Jay Rosen speak at one or the other BloggerCons, and he makes a lot of sense. He seems to 'get' it. As you said in your article, people can judge for themselves. They do it all the time. They read something in the paper and judge whether it meshes with what else they've read or what they know about a situation. Pretend objectivity isn't fooling anyone. Tell it like it is, tell it like you see it, respect your reader. That's what I think anyway.


Maybe if the Times took some of your advice I'd find time to read it outside of when I'm waiting at Fatburger with nothing else to do. The "contraption" I think reduces all stories to what can be found in the headline, obviating the need to actually read any of it. Don't you think that what you're asking from the Times is something the blogosphere is already doing? When I want to find out what's going on in Iraq I check the iraqi blogs. If the MSM account conflicts with what I'm reading there, guess who gets discounted? Asking the Times to do the kind of reportage that would actually be readable is to also ask them to set aside the notion that they can convey all of the relevant information a person needs/should know within their pages. And I don't think they're up to that.

Marc Cooper

Ye.. that's what Im asking. Or u neednt go that far... just look at good magazine reporting and u'll find the same. Writing in the first person, writing with a point of view, writing in advocacy of something is NOT necessarily a contradiction with the truth... just as writing in a "balanced" fashion can often be a fiction. Some magazines, like The New Yorker (and many others) have a ferocious fact-checking department that vetts stories with much more scrutiny than any newspaper (which for the most part dont have fact checkers-- just fatuous editors who THINK they know the facts). Compare the Times' reporting on Iraq with The Atlantic's Wm Langiewische and see which one holds ur interest, and which one tells u more truth.


What if American foreign reporters were to apply a sociological process: that is asking the people the reporters are writing about if the story matches their subjects reality. In other words, have Iraqis read and help edit the reporter’s account of events to get closer to the truth. This process could be used as a check and balance system for the foreign correspondents and media, in general.

John Moore (Useful Fools)

Congrats on the column! I just read it and it is well done (am I surprised - hardly). Going beyond the LA Times to address all of journalism seems just fine, since LAT is one of the most typical MSM organs anyway.

"The contraption" has become procedures merely giving the appearance of objectivity to a left of center MSM. After the first Swift Boat vets news conference, most articles balanced the number of paragraphs on each side, but didn't come close to objectivity: they accepted the Kerry spin without even changing the wording in some cases while subtly denigrated the Swifties (except for CBS who ran a pure smear - do I get points for rhyming?). Radio Moscow would have been proud. The MSM were creating the impression of fairness by using the balance contraption.

Ironically, your column shows a lack of objectivity (a privilege of columnists, of course) because all your examples favored the anti-war view. Hence we didn't hear about the lack of reports about truly favorable events in Iraq. That is illustrative of a related problem - censorship by omission.

Several folks here are experienced journalists, while I was a participant and thus watched the journalists watching us. The result was a lot of anger on my part and a resulting effort to understand, which led me to Jay's blog (didn't know about yours then). I now understand, sadly.

The legacy media has a big problem: last year its "anybody but Bush" bias was so profound that few could miss it. The LA Times ran 160 articles on Abu Ghraib, over 90 above the fold! The contraption failed - so people went to Fox, blogs, mailing lists and rumors since the MSM was not credible. As one example, just today I heard a CNN host say that Bush had two justifications for the war (there were really many) and one was ties of Iraq to 9-11. That was an outrageous lie, knowable to any viewer who had a memory.

Roger Simon's blog has been playing real time media criticism, watching the MSM doing it's best to find things wrong with what was a very successful election (readers please see http://rogerlsimon.com/ for more on that, and to dispute my statement if you desire).

All of this leads to an the question - maybe for another column: what do you do about a press corps that lives in an echo chamber on many issues, and hence is consistently biased to a particular world view (to the right of you, way to the left of me)? The contraption has failed. Also, academia is consistently to the left of center, turning out reporters who are not even trying to be objective, instead being taught ideas about the equal value of different views (a relativist fiction), the impossibility of objectivity, and the value of non-objective advocacy journalism.

The MSM/Legacy individual reporter goal seems to have changed from truth-telling to world saving, and they are not worth a damn at the latter.

John Moore (Useful Fools)

[John, you idiot - still too darn long]

Mark Poling

Anyway, there is no single objective truth about anything.

Minor quible: The idea that there can be no "objective truth" always bugs me. Remember the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Just because no one blind man could directly perceive the whole elephant didn't mean there wasn't an elephant. But by listening to each other and thinking about their different perceptions, they were able to "see" what they hadn't been able to see individually before.

Which I think is what your whole column was about. Let the reporters report; their diverse stories will tell us whether we're talking elephant, rhino, or turkey.

Craig Clemens

To Jim Hitchcock. I never said a word about the Chicago Tribune. My comment was (and is) about the Los Angeles Times. I don't recall ever reading anything from the Chicago Tribune, except third person perhaps.



You should mention the names of L.A. times journalists you think are doing a bad job in Iraq in your pieces. Way too general. Also, name the journalist who you thought did a good job reporting.

I would resurrect the story of Gary Webb if I were you in your next La TImes column

Jim Rockford

Craig -- LAT is owned by Tribune Co. who also owns Chicago Tribune, WGN, and KTLA. So, you're actually spot on.

Marc -- Very nice article congrats. However I'd say that more than just the contraption of objectivity if I read you right this AM; the LAT suffers from a very specific and ideological worldview. The LAT is incapable of processing anything from the perspective of say a family in Irvine, or working class person in Glendale. Far too much of it is written in the perspective of the movers and shakers and trendy people in the Westside, Silverlake, and other boho colonies.

For example, the LAT is notorious for just regurgitating Defense attorney smears on victims of celebrities to poison the jury pool. Bonnie Lee Blakely, Lana Clarkson, and Michael Jackson's victims all come to mind. The mindset seems to be "this nice celebrity could NEVER do something really bad hee hee."

The Times is also just lazy and wrong in it's facts. They are notorious for plain just lying about things in their unsigned op eds. Ironically they do good work in the LAT Magazine, proving your point I guess. Unfiltered reporters generally do a better job with their bias upfront.


I've never read anything as dumb as that the LA Times is owned by leftwing ideologues. I thought it was owned by corporate executives, duh.

John Moore (Useful Fools)

I don't know about the LAT, but most big companies are not owned by their executives, who themselves are quite capable of being leftist ideologues (have you heard of George Soros?).

Most big companies are owned by what you imagine is your constituency - working people, through their pension funds, whether government or private employment. Have you heard of CALPERS? It's the biggest capitalist on the blog. Same with school teachers.


George Soros is a dye in the wool corporate speculator. He completely embraces corporate led globalism, free trade, and capitalist stock markets. By that definition of leftist ideologue George Bush is a leftist ideologue. So are you.

Michael Turner

Despite my vow to leave this forum (and not in a huff, by the way, for those of you who are new here), I do occasionally check on what's going on. And sometimes it's impossible to resist comment. (Especially when I have pressing deadlines for repulsive work. Funny how that is.)

Truth. Can you have more truth, but less objectivity? Marc added sneer quotes to "objectivity" later; using them a little earler might have been clearer.

I was educated as an engineer, and engineers tend to prize objectivity, but I was also one of those odd birds who actually LIKED his freshman English courses. I like reading fiction and poetry, and I liked writing essays.

And so it was that I found myself taking a course called Advanced Composition from one Peter Sharkey, who had earned a PhD from U.C. Berkeley's Rhetoric department. (Yes, I know the images that "Department of Rhetoric" conjures up. Look, it's an Ancient Greek thang - you wouldn' unnahstan'.)

Our first assignment was to go to the library and look up the word "truth" in the Oxford English Dictionary. What we found became the subject of the next several class sessions. While etymology is proof of nothing in particular, it was still very thought-provoking to learn that the word "truth" used to mean something far more personal. For example, we still have the phrase "ply one's troth [truth]". That is to say, part of wooing a mate is reveal one's personal truth, and to make it seem fertile and potentially nourishing to the person you've fallen in love with. And how does a journalist "ply" his or her "troth" in some similar way with the reader? Isn't that what all writers want? For their audience to fall in love with them? And to fall in love with them for all the virtues that most people commonly cite as being desirable in a mate - for being compassionate, intelligent and ... truthful?

I'm not one of those Postmodernists who think that objectivity is a hollow shibboleth, but I do think part of growing up is realizing that the world is a very ambiguous place sometimes. Sometimes, the best service you can perform in the name of truth is to admit that you simply don't know.

There is something like real objectivity, but it tends to be the result of scientific processes, processes in which the biases of scientists themselves are steadily neutralized. There is so little in human affairs that can be scientifically pursued, however. The best you can do, most of the time, is to get the best facts you can lay your hands on, and to try to test facts and hypotheses as a scientist might. In the face of deadlines (or worse; just add an "s" to the end of "deadlines"), this can be essentially impossible to do right. But that's no excuse for not trying. But (time permitting)attempts at objectivity need not preclude ALSO writing the truth simply as you see it - or as you feel it. I've always felt that the best writing combined the two "truths", with the blending itself (the style, if you will) being the true art of journalism.

John Moore (Useful Fools)

The issue of objective truth often comes up in discussion of reporting.

Some relativists will tell you there is no such thing. They take it to such absurd lengths as "feminist physics," where the electrons behave better with feminine nurturing.

There are also objective truths in the human world. JFK is still dead. That's a fact, objective truth, independent of point of view.

The difficulty appears when different points of view produce different ways of seeking information, applying weight to various facts, filtering, framing and wording.

Consider the Abu Ghraib scandal. This was either very important or not very important, depending on your point of view. If you felt it was symptomatic of a wider problem, it was important. If you felt it was important as a stand alone incident... well, you were illogical or uninformed. If you felt it was not symptomatic, then it was not important.

Likewise, if you were anti-Bush, Abu Ghraib may have seemed of much greater importance than if you were pro-Bush.

Once one has arrived at a feeling or judgement of the importance of the event, that will influence the coverage - does one cover it a lot or a little? Does one look for similar cases? Does one try to find a chain of responsibility all they way to the top, or does one investigate the practices and training of the military unit from which the villains came?

These kinds of influences are why objectivity is so hard to reach in contentious and complex areas. Human nature cannot be trained out, and "the contraption" isn't sufficient to compensate for it.

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