Today an Amsterdam newspaper published an interview with one of the many correspondents of Dutch news media in the US, who was quoted as saying that he is always wary of a situation where a correspondent ‘idolizes’ the country where he (or she) is stationed. Idolizing – which is synonymous with worshipping – a country is hard to imagine, but for practical purposes let’s translate it into a combination of ‘admiring’ and ‘being very fond of.’ The journalist who gave the interview makes clear that he neither admires nor is very fond of America, although he calls New York City ‘fabulous’ and US politics ‘fascinating.’ His problem with correspondents who idolize America is that they cannot be ‘critical’ anymore, because after a couple of years they start identifying with the people of the country where they are stationed. The interview raises some interesting questions, which I assume are discussed in freshman classes in journalism schools every year, for instance if there is such a thing as ‘neutral’ or ‘value-free’ journalism, where the reporter is strictly an observer without a specific interest in his or her topic.
The argument reminds me of a settled debate in the social sciences, in which some people a long time ago argued that researchers should never study something they are really interested in, for fear of not being ‘objective.’ That was not a very productive opinion, but it helped clarify a host of methodological issues, and maybe this opinion can be made productive too. I would argue that correspondents who have a love for the US practice better, and in fact more objective, journalism than those who don’t and try to be strictly neutral. Let’s make the current election cycle a case in point: Journalists with the latter attitude might consider Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz ‘equal,’ in a sense that they are all candidates running for their party’s nomination, and therefore treat their ideas and proposed policies as equal too. That would put protecting women’s reproductive rights and fighting excesses on Wall Street on the same level as keeping all foreign Muslims out of the US or giving citizens of all backgrounds unlimited access to guns, and it is hard to see how that is a critical approach.
Correspondents who are fond of America are more likely to analyze the various policy proposals on their social consequences and form an opinion. They would want the most qualified candidate to become president, and although they are still obliged to report on what every candidate proposes, the results of their analyses will shine through in the tone of their reporting, the questions they ask candidates when they have a chance to interview them, and opinion articles they may write.
The result will be better informed, more complete, and yes, more critical and objective journalism. In his book ‘Dialectics of the Concrete’ the philosopher Karel Kosik distinguishes between ‘pseudo-concrete’ concepts that hide the truth, and concrete concepts that have the opposite function. The difference between neutral and ‘engaged’ journalism perfectly mirrors that distinction.
Of course one could argue that the journalists who work for Fox News love America as much as reporters who work for MSNBC. It’s an excellent starting point for a discussion, so let’s analyze their mutual values and the interests they represent, and then draw our critical conclusions.