Patterico's Pontifications


Journalistic Objectivity — And Calling Evil “Evil”

Filed under: Dog Trainer,Media Bias,Terrorism — Patterico @ 11:07 pm

Earlier tonight, I had a post about the fascinating exchange between Hugh Hewitt and Barbara Demick this morning. I concentrated primarily on Demick’s admission that the person whom she had interviewed was a North Korean government agent.

But another portion of that exchange bears discussing as well, as it reveals the dangers of an excessive devotion to objectivity.

Hewitt: Do you think Kim Jong Il is an evil man?

Demick: We reported last summer that Kim Jong Il spent millions importing gourmet foods, cookbooks and chefs for himself while his countrymen were starving. One can judge from there.

In further answers, Demick agrees that Kim Jong Il and his government are responsible for a famine that killed up to 2 million people, and obstructed international relief efforts during that famine. Yet she refuses to call Kim Jong Il “evil.”

Clearly, there is something odd taking place here. Demick’s refusal to use the word “evil” in this context is not a normal, common-sense response. It sounds strained, doesn’t it?

So what’s going on here?

Captain Ed attributes this to “moral relativism,” and/or to Demick’s being “too afraid or too benighted” to call out evil when she sees it.

I see it differently. Read between the lines. Demick obviously believes that Kim Jong Il is evil. But she also clearly believes that it would be inappropriate for her to say so — probably because she believes it would compromise some vague sense of journalistic objectivity.

As a result, Demick’s answer comes off sounding hollow and not entirely honest — kind of like the answer of a politician. But journalists are supposed to be in the business of telling us the truth. When their objectivity makes them sound less than honest, that’s when you know that their objectivity is exacting too great a price.

How far does objectivity go? I have a question for Demick, and I don’t mean this frivolously: would you have called Hitler “evil” if you had been assigned to cover him before and during World War II?

Demick’s answer echoes the refusal of certain news organizations to call terrorists “terrorists” — a topic recently taken up by Dan Okrent in the pages of the New York Times.

I understand the arguments for being careful about tossing around words like “evil” or “terrorist.” I might ask Captain Ed: do we really want liberal journalists to feel free to term “evil” any set of policies that they happen to personally consider evil? Because you might not like the result. The term might end up getting applied to all sorts of policies that you agree with — like capital punishment or welfare reform.

But there has to be some middle ground. As Okrent observed about the word “terrorism”:

Given the word’s history as a virtual battle flag over the past several years, it would be tendentious for The Times to require constant use of it, as some of the paper’s critics are insisting. But there’s something uncomfortably fearful, and inevitably self-defeating, about struggling so hard to avoid it.

I think the same could be said of Demick’s struggle to avoid using the word “evil.” It is not a word that should be thrown around willy-nilly, especially by journalists seeking to meet some level of fairness. But if you can’t use the word even in the most obvious cases — such as that of the North Korean government — your readers are not going to trust you. Nor should they.

This is the price of an excessive obeisance to “objectivity.”

10 Responses to “Journalistic Objectivity — And Calling Evil “Evil””

  1. […] media. One of Will’s commenters, Patterico reader Jeff Harrell, saw a connection to this post of mine. I think he’s right. It’s good for reporters to jump i […]

    Patterico's Pontifications » More on Transparency (0c6a63)

  2. I think what you’re saying here, Patterico, is that there is a distinction between a principle — objectivity, honesty, consistency, peacefulness, patience — and a fetish.


    Dafydd (df2f54)

  3. You know, that question and answer struck me, too. (Actually, that was the only part of the interview that struck me. I read that part, though, “Oh, okay, I know all I want to know about her now,” and moved on to other things.)

    What gets me about it is the way she just completely misunderstood the question. He wasn’t asking her if Kim is evil. He was asking her if she thinks he’s evil. He was asking for her opinion, and she didn’t give it.

    I’m willing to accept that this is because she misunderstood the question. But I think the fact that she could misunderstand such a straightforward question speaks volumes.

    (Of course, your theory that she doesn’t want to appear to have an opinion is valid, too. I just wanted to throw another theory out there, not to contradict yours.)

    Jeff Harrell (a5b150)

  4. I think I’d actually prefer it if journalists who think capital punishment and welfare reform are evil said so. Better they should state their biases openly like the rest of us rather than insult our intellect with the faux objectivity nobody really believes anyway.

    Xrlq (c51d0d)

  5. X,

    I think there is a good argument there, and I almost made it in the post.

    Patterico (756436)

  6. The ethics of journalism needs more exposure. I am particularly struck by Ms. Demick’s avoidance of directly answering whether Kim Jong Il is evil. I suspect I know what is behind it.

    In today’s NY Times is a piece on Dan Rather’s imminent departure from the anchor desk (An Anchor Leaves…) and his new role as a reporter going after the big story. The quote that struck me was “And he is also in pursuit of what he describes as ‘the hunt for big game’ which includes his bid for an exclusive interview with Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader.”

    Seems there is a little competition going on for this “prize”. I remember some of the concessions Barbara Walters reportedly gave to gain exclusive interviews, such as certain subjects being off limits, the subject’s right to review and edit out comments. But the most important criteria for granting “exclusive” interviews is a sympathetic reputation for the interviewee. I suspect Ms. Demick is trying to exhibit this.

    It should be policy for all media that they should disclose any and all concessions and groundrules to obtain an interview.

    Corky Boyd
    Sanibel FL

    Corky Boyd (4215fa)

  7. The ethics of journalism needs more exposure.

    That sentence needs some cleaning up and re-arranging to make sense:

    Journalism needs ethics.

    There. That makes sense and gets at the heart of the matter.

    Robert Crawford (9eef80)

  8. A study in contrasts in the use of the word ‘evil’
    (Author’s note: This article ends with a link to a fantastic blog post that you should read as soon as

    The Shape of Days (af7df9)

  9. Bush called KJI evil, and a member of the axis thereof. The libs then tut-tutted incessantly at the presidential bumpkin’s naivete and inability to see the complexities of the real world.

    Fast-forward to reality, and….

    For a liberal journalist to use that same word now would be tantamount to admitting that Bush was right and they were wrong. They’re not ready for that, yet; too prideful and/or in denial, still. I think that’s the real hindrance on Demick.

    ras (482403)

  10. You are all making excellent points. I think the word “evil” is out of fashion in the world of journalism because it has a religious connotation. Just my $.02.

    MaxedOutMama (c8eca6)

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