Sunday, December 27, 2009

“Journalistic Objectivity” or The New York Times’ moral confusion


     On December 23, the front page of the New York Times reported on Sami Al-Hajj, a journalist for Al-Jazeera imprisoned secretly and without charges for 7 years at Bagram and Guantanamo and tortured by the United States government.  The editor and the reporter Brian Stelter named the article “From Guantanomo Cell to a Desk at Al Jazeera.”   In the fourth paragraph, Stelter speaks of al-Hajj’s job at Al-Jazeera as a matter of passion or perhaps propaganda instead of “journalistic objectivity”:

       “Among Al-Jazeera’s viewers in the Arab World, perhaps nothing has damaged perceptions of America since the 9/11 attacks more than Guantanamo Bay.  For that reason, Mr. Hajj who did a six-part series on the prison after his release, is a potent weapon for the network, which does not always strive for journalistic objectivity on the subject of his treatment.  In an interview, Ahmed Sheik, the editor in chief of Al Jazeera, called Mr. Hajj ‘one of the victims of the human rights atrocities committed by the ex-US administration.”

          But in the first and second paragraphs, Stelter notes that Al-Hajj was the sole journalist among the 779 prisoners in the secret prison at Guantanamo, and that he was imprisoned for 7 years without charges being brought against him. 

           “Of the 779  known detainees who have been held in Guantanamo, Cuba – terrorist suspects, sympathizers of Al Qaeda, people deemed enemy combatants by the United States military – only one was a journalist.”

             “The journalist Sami Al-Hajj was working for Al-Jazeera as a cameraman when he was picked up by Pakistani forces on the border with Afghanistan in late 2001.  The United States military accused Mr. Hajj of among other things, falsifying information and delivering money to Chechen rebels, although he was never formally charged with a crime during his years in custody.”

Al-Hajj was thus permitted no day in court, no habeas corpus.  But since the Magna Carta in 1215, that is the basic principle of Anglo-American law.  It is the basic human right, the one that distinguishes a system of law from tyranny (see Jeremy Waldron, "Torture and Positive Law" here).  So Stelter has already named a human rights atrocity committed by the US government a few lines before he suggests that the editor of Al-Jazeera mistakenly refers to Al-Hajj “as one of the victims of the human rights atrocities committed by the ex-US administration.”  Stelter contradicts the truth he has just written.  How does this contradiction escape the attention both of Stelter and the editor (presumably Bill Keller)?

       On the one hand, Stelter, as any decent person would, sympathizes with Al-Hajj, a fellow journalist, who was locked up for 7 years and tortured.  On the other hand, Stelter and the editor believe foolishly in a misguided doctrine of “journalistic objectivity” which maintains that if the powerful say anything on an issue – even something that is complete nonsense or is plainly immoral on the basis of widely known facts - it must be reported with the same seriousnessness as views for which there is evidence.  If in the first 7 years of the Bush administration, President Bush asserted that global warming is not a problem, that is to be taken as seriously as, in fact more seriously than  (reported at great length on the front page first column on the right)  the views of a consensus of scientists (usually reported at the end of the article on a back page).  If a person has been held in a secret prison by the United States for 7 years on a series of changing charges none of which have any basis, and has been finally released because he was picked up on a confusion with another Al-Jazeera photographer who had taken a photo of Osama Bin Laden (that, too, is not a crime; the New York Times has run photographs of bin Laden – perhaps I should say being picked up on the basis of being brown, since Al-Hajj’s moral and political sympathies are with the Bill of Rights), these facts must all be ignored, his story cast in doubt by a merely possible Pentagon denial.  In the ninth paragraph, Stelter mentions that this story is widely known to Arabs and unknown in America (in 2006, Nicholas Kristof did do a column on the Al-Hajj story, its lone coverage previously in the Times – see here and Glenn Greenwald here).  During the Inquisition, how many Italian Catholics knew about the burning of a Jewish teenage girl in Portugal?…

       “Mr. Hajj’s story is well-known to Al-Jazeera viewers but not to most Americans (As with the experiences of many detainees at Guantanamo Bay, his version is uncorroborated by American officials or any documents).”

      But Stelter’s article makes it clear that this last claim is false.  He says, once again, that Mr. Al-Hajj was imprisoned for 7 years and then abruptly released without any changes being preferred against him.  At least these damning facts are corroborated by the U.S. government (which imprisoned and released him).

       Yet Stelter also reports Al-Hajj's lawyers’ description of the changing charges.  That description is prima facie believable since the government which imprisoned Al-Hajj held no legal or even sham-legal – military tribunal – proceeding against him:

       “According to Zachary Katznelson, the legal director for Reprieve, a human rights group that represented Mr. Hajj, the allegations against him changed over the years; ‘First, he was alleged to have filmed an interview of Osama bin Laden.  It was another cameraman.  So, that allegation disappeared.  Then the US said that Sami ran a jihadist Web site.  Turns out there was no such site.  So that allegation disappeared.  Then the U.S. said Sami was in Afghanistan to arrange missile sales to Chechen rebels.  There was no evidence to back that up at all.  So that allegation disappeared.’”

     Even if the reporter could not verify these allegations with the Pentagon, the authority over the secret prison which is ashamed to release the report of the tortures which it ordered, Stelter did know that Al-Hajj was released, in bad physical shape, after 7 years arbitrary confinement.  The fact that the Pentagon would not give any of the charges [or that the charges it told Stelter it never pursued even in a military “court”] itself is already, as Stelter does not say and perhaps does not recognize, an acknowledgment of wrong:

      “M. Hajj’s release, back to Sudan [he is Sudanese] on a stretcher, came in May 2008 after lobbying by human rights groups and the government of Sudan.” 

         Now the Pentagon may have told something about the case to Stelter, for he  (and the editor) work hard to give the Pentagon some credibility.  Recall that the second paragraph  says: “The United States military accused Mr. Hajj of falsifying documents  and delivering money to Chechen rebels, although he was never formally charged with a crime during his years of custody.”

         A serious reporter might have looked at these charges and and asked: what documents?  Falsifying a driver’s license or passport in Afghanistan or Pakistan (Al-Hajj was arrested at the border) does not constitute an offense over which the American government has any jurisdiction, let alone should detain someone in secret prisons for 7 years.  In a Rawlsian vein, imagine if some Arab power were to do this to an American in Australia how we might feel.

        The second charge is fighting Russian rule in Chechnya.  Before 9/11, the American administration and the New York Times used to side with the Chechens, oppressed by Russia.  After 9/11, this shifted.  But is being a courier for money to rebels in Chechnya a crime against the United States?  This “reporter” repeats government lies without the slightest attempt at asking questions or noting any implausibility.

        Now the United States claims not to be waging a war on Islam (a billion people).  But locking up people protesting against Russian murderousness in Chechnya (the Russians barbarically repress Chechen dissidents) or Uighurs from China (over a hundred prisoners of the minority of the 779 prisoners left in Guantanamo are Uighurs – a majority have been released without charge -  who cannot, for their own safety be returned to China, but are no danger to the United States, unless the US has created that danger by false imprisonment and torture at Guantanamo) or Moazzem Begg (see his book Enemy Combatant and here), who wanted to fight the Indian occupation of Kashmir, all place the U.S. government on the wrong side of conflicts about occupations of Moslem populations by large oppressive powers.  The U.S. chooses to regard opposition to those oppressors as opposition to itself.  It thus identifies itself with those oppressors. 

       This is not a brilliant tactic in foreign policy where being against the oppression of ordinary Muslims somewhere - say, Obama's initial policy on Palestine - would actually make America more attractive to Muslims and others.  Along with arming Israel in Palestine and occupying two other Muslim countries, such policies create the impression, in any objective observer, that the US is making war indiscriminately against Muslims; they make it easy for Al-Qaida and other extremists to recruit.   A serious reporter might have raised some questions.

          But Mr. Stelter is not, in this respect, a serious reporter, the New York Times, when it comes to the American government’s crimes, a serious journalistic organization.  Instead, prating ideologicially about “journalistic objectivity,”* Stelter and his editor do not exhibit minimal journalistic competence.

           Stelter more or less, however, allows the truth of this case to come out.  Al-Hajj had worked as a cameraman for Al-Jazeera.  Reporting his beatings and interrogations at Bagram and Guantanamo, Al-Hajj says, they all concerned Al-Jazeera:

          “Mr. Hajj claims that in lengthy interrogations he was asked for details of the network’s staffing, practices and processes and that some guards started calling him ‘Al Jazeera’ as a nickname.”

          For the Times, “journalistic objectivity” means overstressing the views of the government – stitching in words the emperor’s new clothes – and refusing to look at facts or ask questions about contradictions in the supposed case.  In perhaps many stories, this would not be an obvious moral problem (except that reporting which lacks integrity is of course a moral problem).   But in the case of major crimes like the government's undermining of habeas corpus or torture, vapid reporting is a great problem.  Consider another Rawlsian example.  Would the Times cover advocates of slavery (“slaves are  happy, singing on the old plantation”) or those of  genocide against indigenous people (well. perhaps the latter – consider Columbus Day) or a holocaust denier with the same deference that it exhibits toward these torturers who obeyed order from the highest American officials?  At least not the holocaust deniers or the advocates of slave-owning.   But in the Bush administration except perhaps for Colin Powell, the torturers just were the U.S, government and are today's war criminals.  The Times caters to the crimes.

        In the third to last paragraph, the reporter cites one intelligent observation by Al-Hajj as if it were controversial:

         “When a visitor mentioned ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, an American term that characterizes harsh treatment of detainees, Mr. Hajj interrupted the translator and said in Arabic ‘instead of torture.’”

         Contrary to Stelter, “enhanced interrogation techniques” is not an “American” term.  The United States government, notably under Ronald Reagan in 1988, ratified by the Congress in 1994, approved the United Nations' Convention against Torture. Under Article 6, section 2 of the Constitution, the Supremacy Clause, treaties signed and ratified by the United States are the highest law of the land.  For the wording of these laws, see here.  So the United States of America is legally and morally bound not to torture. That is the American usage.   The term “enhanced interrogation” is the Bush-Cheney and Nazi – they called it “verschaerfte Vernehmung” - evasion of responsibility for torture. The wording adopted by Brian Stelter is an apology for torture.

        Al-Hajj makes another true point about journalism, though again Stelter tries to report it merely as his opinion:

         “’We are giving the wrong impression’ with that term, he said. ‘We as journalists are violating human rights  because we are changing the perception of reality.’”

          Habeas corpus and the right not to be tortured are basic human rights, fundamental to the rule of law.  Whether indefinite detention without charge and torture occured are factual matters.  The facts about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram, including homicides against 100 prisoners in Pentagon custody (these are Pentagon statistics) are clear.    Despite some decent sympathies and confusion, Stelter and his editor abet torture.

          Al-Hajj talks about the depth of torture, how it must be reported to the next generation.  In this, he especially reveals his allegiance to decency and the rule of law:

          “’I felt that I needed to document this for history,’ he said, ‘so that the next generation knows the depth of the crime that was committed.’  He audibly emphasized the Arab word for depth as he spoke.”

           In fact, Al-Hajj, Stelter reports, has always believed in the rule of law and the American people, and in the last paragraph, Stelter says oddly, “oddly,” continues to:

           “Oddly while in a prison sanctioned [sic: run] by United States authorities, Mr. Hajj put his faith in the American political system.  He gathered bits of news from the guards and , leading up to the 2004 election, was sure that American voters would reject Mr. Bush, which would lead to his freedom.  When the guards informed him that the president had been re-elected,** he was stunned, ‘I was sure I would outlive Bush,’ he said.”

             And as Stelter underlines early in the article:

             “Nor has his experience radicalized him: he said that despite his upbringing in a violent and often repressive country and his experience in detention, he maintained a sustaining belief in democracy and the rule of law.”

              Perhaps Stelter has forgotten that the United States is the country of 5,000 unsolved lynchings and the assassination of Martin Luther King (leaving aside the Vietnam War, etc.). We, too, face many troubling examples of anti-legal  and antidemocratic conduct. 

               Al-Hajj has drawn from his experience a resolve to publicize other cases of injustice and violations of the rule of law.  Silenced for 7 years, he has found a voice for human rights:

             “But Mr. Hajj has not restricted himself to Guantanamo and his own incarceration.  He has expanded the network’s coverage of other rights issues, including press freedom in Iraq, Palestinians in Israeli prisons [there are some thousands in those prisons, Gilad Shalit in Palestinian custody] and the implications of the Patriot Act.  On a Wednesday morning in mid-August,  Mr. Hajj pushed Al Jazeera’s news desk to cover a hunger strike by political prisoners in Jordan, and he happily pointed to a nearby television when the Jordan news scrolled on the bottom of the screen.”

                Note that Stelter appropriately uses the term political prisoner with regard to Jordan.  Only in the case of those politically imprisoned by the United States like Al-Hajj does Mr. Stelter lose an accurate vocabulary.  See Greenwald on the accuracy of the Times’ use of the term torture except for the United States here.

                 Let us ask, who -  the Bush administration, the New York Times’ reporitng pages and Brian Stelter or Sami Al-Hajj - side with Thomas Jefferson and the Bill of Rights,  The answer is, sadly: only Sami Al-Hajj.  With the rule of law? Al-Hajj.  

                 The so-called “War on Terror,” fortunately eliminated as a term of fear and incitement by  the Obama administration, a great improvement despite Obama’s misguided belligerence in Afghanistan,  had no fixed target and permitted the Bush administration – and any subsequent administration which chooses to - to wage an indefinitely long attack on the rule of law.  It also falsely perfumed a  universal war against Muslims, the picking up, indefinite detention and torture of Al-Hajj or Moazzem Begg or the Uighurs.  Under such a definition, the British empire could have tortured George Washington the “terrorist” or any other prisoner picked up during the American Revolution.  Al-Qaida, that handful of terrorists slinking in the dark, could not destroy those aspects of the U.S. constitution. But the Bush administration, the Obama administration in letting its crimes go and changing the names of things (protesting “state secrets” when those tortured by the US government attempt to sue in a court of law), and the New York Times’ slippery reporting day by day have subverted the rule of law.  See Tortured reportings here and Quaint here

         In contrast, the editorial page of the Times has spoken out against torture and for upholding international law***.  But the powerful drip drip drip of the bipartisan policy of the US administrations, sadly confirmed by Times' reporting – to let official war criminals walk away without hearings, to “look to the future,” to provide euphemisms for torture – has sabotaged the rule of law here and striven to corrupt law internationally..  Such “reporting” and so-called journalistic objectivity erase even the name of law.  Kafka could perhaps not have described this.  Unintentionally, Stelter’s words reveal an American tragedy.

* The problems with this kind of journalistic objectivity parallel some of those of alleged value-neutrality in social science.  The latter of course attempts to focus on purported facts; this differs from uncritically retailing any opinion, no matter how silly, when it is espoused by the powerful.  Both ignore the moral objectivity, for humans, of basic rights; both attempt to redescribe atrocities in neutral language; both thus abet governments who commit atrocities.  See here and Democratic Individuality, ch. 1. 

**Exit polling which is the only accurate instrument produced by political science (it got Kerry’s and Bush’s votes right to three-tenths of a point in 41 states), differed dramatically from the counted votes in three crucial states, including Ohio.  It was off between 4.9 and 6.6 percentage points.  40 million people voted on computerized voting machines which leave no paper trail and are pretty easy to manipulate.  There were many errors in counting, all in favor of Bush.    The claim that George W. Bush was elected President is less plausible in 2004 than in 2000 (where it is implausible).  See my "Corrupt before a Vote was Cast" here.

***Over the last 50 years, the Times has, however, never mentioned the crime of aggression - violations of Article 2, section 4 of the UN Charter, when committed by the United States.  See Richard Falk and Howard Friel, The Record of the Paper.  It also refuses to publish even op-ed pieces which do mention it.  See my "Condoleeza Rice and the President have lost their way" - Condi was my student - initially submitted as an op-ed to the Times here.


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