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.”