By David Warren - July 26, 2010

The word "detachment" has several meanings. It may refer, for instance, to the state of being free of prejudice or bias, to being "disinterested" -- a word that in turn means almost the opposite of "uninterested." But it can also refer to a military fighting unit, given a particular mission or purpose -- in which its behaviour will be quite the opposite of "detached," in the "disinterested" sense.

The English language is lovely in this way: so many terms that could mean radically different things, depending upon context. I especially adore the word "sanction." It seems designed to make the student of English pull out his hair in despair. But that is not where we're going today, I hope. My attention will instead be directed to a defunct "listserv," that was called "JournoList," and whose members exhibited "detachment" qualities of several kinds, most of them ironic.

Do journalists collude with one another on how to "spin" stories? On developing "talking points," just like politicians? On which red herrings can be purposely thrown in, to mislead and distract readers from the truth? On how to hide hard but inconvenient facts? On how to help their friends, hurt their enemies, and generally, stage-manage the presentation of the news to advance a common political agenda?

I would say, no, they don't have to. These are all things they (er, "we") can do instinctively, without any need of formal co-ordination. All that is required is a profession whose practitioners form a self-recognizing class; who share a settled (and rather conformist) view of the world; and who spend most of their lives in each other's company, hardly ever meeting, let alone mixing socially with, people of other classes with other points of view.

No, I have instead always cited a little ditty on this subject, ascribed to Humbert Wolfe, and various others who flourished in the 1920s: "You cannot hope to bribe or twist / The honest English journalist; / But seeing what the man will do, / Unbribed, there is no reason to."

I still hold by this position, and will, no matter how much is leaked from the e-mail exchanges of the 400-or-so prominent liberal journalists and "experts" who linked themselves together by e-mail on JournoList -- which was supposed to be private, and thus, secret. Already one of them (Dave Weigel) has had to quit his day job (on the Washington Post) for things he wrote to colleagues, which really weren't meant to be read by his "print" readers.

The controversy is much like that surrounding the environmental movement, since the e-mail archive of the Climate Research Unit in England was hacked, and electronic swathes spewed gratuitously around the Internet. Those who never suspected the world's leading "global warming" researchers of honesty or candour could hardly have been shocked by what they read. But those who believed them to be "detached" and "disinterested" scientists were in for a few surprises.

The juicy bits from the JournoList archive, exhumed and disseminated through the (conservative) Daily Caller website, show leading mainstream U.S. journalists discussing things like how to trash and smear Sarah Palin most effectively, in the moments after John McCain selected her as his running mate. Or, how to distract America from the scandal of Barack Obama's long and intimate affiliation with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, when that story hit the fan.

It is interesting that the major themes of mainstream journalistic reporting exactly repeated those thrashed out on JournoList, beforehand -- where it was taken for granted that the journalists' purpose was to get Obama elected, by performing services as an informal "detachment" of the Obama campaign. It looks for all the world like a carefully-organized conspiracy.

And yet it isn't. As Joe Klein, of Time magazine -- prominent both as journalist and on JournoList -- hath protested, he didn't need any strategy sessions in e-mail to decide how to attack Palin; he could "easily" have selected all the angles, by himself. And I do not doubt for a moment that he is telling the truth.

It was his word "easily" that I found most significant. I could myself, in advance, "easily" have guessed from which angles Joe Klein would attack Sarah Palin, and will, as he promises, continue to attack her. The dogs in Pavlov's experiment did not "conspire" to salivate.

No journalist can be perfectly "detached" from what he is covering; so that the pose of perfect detachment is a fraud. It is too much to ask of any human being, whether liberal or conservative. The best we can ask is for honesty and candour -- for some elementary sense of fair play -- and it is a shame we must search through private e-mails to find those qualities.

© Ottawa Citizen

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