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Is the holy grail of objectivity hollow?

A New York-based British journalist covering the Occupy Wall Street protests criticises the mainstream US media for what it considers and does not consider a ‘fact’.

mumbai Updated: Nov 27, 2011 02:17 IST

A New York-based British journalist covering the Occupy Wall Street protests criticises the mainstream US media for what it considers and does not consider a ‘fact’.

Just as a section of the Indian media was nudged into soul-searching after Justice M Katju, the Press Council of India’s new chairman, accused it about a month ago of being shallow, a part of the US media was pushed to introspect after Natasha Lennard, a New York-based British freelance journalist, criticised it last week for practising a form of self-censorship.

Katju’s remarks sparked off a lively debate, which I wrote about in my previous column. The subject of today’s column is Lennard’s critique, which she presented in an article titled ‘Why I quit the mainstream media’, which appeared last week on salon.com, a liberal online magazine, and then elaborated on in an interview with Democracy Now, an independent, progressive, multi-media news organisation.

Lennard is neither a public figure of Katju’s standing nor did she air her views in powerful mainstream media outlets the way the retired Supreme Court judge did. But her remarks did cause minor ripples.

Before I say what those were, I need to provide some background. Lennard wrote the article after parting ways with The New York Times, for whom she was covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. From what Lennard says in the interview with Democracy Now, the parting seems to have been by mutual consent, but came after two incidents during which Lennard did not hide her sympathies for the protestors.

The first was her arrest when she was covering a huge demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge last month. Despite showing the police her press credentials, they arrested her along with 700 others. The second was her support for the protest movement during a panel discussion at a radical bookstore in New York. These led to Conservative talk-show hosts and websites calling her a “non-objective” journalist.

“I am not an objective journalist,” Lennard told Democracy Now, emphasising the negative. “I, like, hundreds, thousands, millions of others, am quite appalled by the current state of inequality that the system we’re living under has created and would only want to speak in that capacity.”

Yet she denied she was an activist. “[The Conservatives] are correct in saying I’m more than just a journalist,” she wrote on salon.com. “They are wrong in saying I’m an activist – that means something specific, in my mind. But if by ‘more’ they mean I am a journalist in agreement with those across the country [protesting against] a system upholding inequality and alienation for all but a few, then they are right.”

In other words, she sees nothing wrong with journalists having and airing opinions on events they cover, but does not consider this activism, which would mean crossing the line and becoming a part of the events.

“…If the mainstream media prides itself on reporting the facts, I have found too many problems with what does or does not get to be a fact — or what rises to the level of a fact they believe to be worth reporting — to be part of such a machine,” Lennard wrote.

Although I don’t have the information to agree or disagree with Lennard about the mainstream media as a whole, I do think that the goal of objectivity is a complicated one.

Too often, being an “objective” journalist means viewing events from the stance of those in power, a viewpoint that is usually in favour of the status quo.

What do readers think?