About the author — interpretation, intention, and the "historical" agency
An interesting juxtaposition on “journalistic disclosure” from today’s Rocky Mountain News, which excerpts competing views from the National Journal’s William Powers and CBSNews’ Brian Montopoli. First, here’s Powers, who, it’s fair to say, believes journalistic outlets should provide their readerships with biographical information on their reporters:
Every news outlet of any consequence now has endless space online to offer supplementary information about the people who report, edit, and produce the news. Who are they? Where did they grow up? What did they study in school? Why did they become journalists? Did they ever work in politics or volunteer for a cause? If so, when and where?
And here’s Montopoli, raising a litany of instructive counters:
I’m just troubled by then notion that journalists should be forced to reveal information like this about themselves.
For one, you have to wonder where it stops: Should someone writing on pork production have to disclose if they were ever a vegetarian? Should someone writing about gay marriage have to reveal their sexuality to all interested parties? One could argue that those issues are more relevant, when it comes to those stories, than where someone grew up, after all.
This is, for a number of reasons, a debate that should be of interest to any “news” consumer — and, in fact, pertains to the relationship between author and reader in any purportedly fact-based narrative exchange.
Because at its essence, what the debate over “disclosure” boils down to is a debate over the longstanding set of questions surrounding the notion of “objectivity” as 1) an ideal, or 2) its dubious functional semantic possibility, in a world governed by the linguistic turn.
First, let’s get questions of convention and expectation out of the way. Fact-based narratives purport to proceed from a particular intent: to provide their audiences with “facts” and, to a lesser extent, to provide a dispassionate framing of those facts so that what we’re left with is a narrative (rather than, say, a genealogy). And the conventional intent — what we as a society have come to expect the journalist’s intentions to be — plays an important role in how we subsequently interpret the speech act, rendered for us in narrative form.
One of the key observations of the linguistic turn, as I’ve noted on several occasions, is the recognition that “truths” are, by necessity, man-made; which is to say, because we use language to “create” the way we envision the world, we must necessarily use language to create and describe the truths that ground our understanding of that world.
In short, there are “things as they are” — what we might normally think of as truths (and which exist regardless of the desire of some agency to frame them); and “truths,” which are linguistic constructs meant to index things as they are from the perspective of human agency.
This is a rather innocuous observation, on its face — but one that has, nevertheless, been used by the unscrupulous, the uninformed, and the downright dull to “problematize” the notion of truth itself — the upshot of which is that, when marshaled incorrectly, observations about the linguistic nature of proscribing “truths” lead to a pernicious philosophical relativism, the idea being that if “truth” is man-made and “determined” by “contingency” (eg., situatedness) and “solidarity” (consensus), and tempered by “irony” (a pre-emptive awareness that those truths, as currently formulated, might be wrong), it can never be transcendent or fixed.
But this formulation confuses “things as they are” — which, of necessity, are not changeable (they can only become other “things as they are”) — with our desire to fix those things in language as (man-made) “truths.” Truth is fixed; “truth” — our attempts to describe things as they are in a way that is universally agreeable — is not, and is dependent, for its rhetorical effect, on the degree to which it is accepted.
From there, it is easy to see how the act of turning truth into “truth” can be manipulated — with a false or cynical consensus from a motivated interpretive community coming to stand in for “things as they are.” Similarly, things as they are can be summarily rejected — there is, after all, nothing beyond linguistic constructs to which we can appeal for a ruling, no metaphysical referee to settle disputes over competing “truths” — in favor of the kind of consensus view of truth that wills its own “truth” into being.
Coupled with all this is commonsense reminder that, even when we are writing narratives that purport to be “fact-based,” we are relying on the same kinds of “literary” (rhetorical) devices that are used for writing fictional narratives — making the appeal to intent, and the locus of the intent to which we appeal (the author’s? our own?) when interpreting, that much more important.
Which observations bring us back to the original question raised in the debate over journalistic disclosure: how does / should “objectivity” work with respect to fact-based narratives.
For Powers, the underlying assumption is that, if we have ample information about the author, we are likely to make more informed interpretations; for Montopoli, what we know about an author can actually distract from the information we’re receiving, given that we’d be likely to allow the historical author’s biography to (often unfairly) color the way we gauge his or her intent.
But what both Powers and Montopoli miss is that these competing viewpoints are not truly at odds from the perspective of interpretation.
Supplementary information of the kind Powers finds useful and Montopoli finds potentially prejudicial can be either helpful or distracting; which is to say, knowing things about the agency that is putting together a narrative can either aid in or detract from the successful completion of the speech act — the goal of which is to recover the author’s meaning.
Knowing that an author is gay, for instance, might shed light on why s/he reports a certain way on same-sex marriage initiatives: but the fact of the reporter’s sexuality only matters if it is tied back to what we believe to be his or her intent. A gay author whose rhetorical formulations seem to favor the arguments for same sex marriage over those against it will often be seen as “biased” because s/he is gay; while a gay author whose rhetorical formulations seem to favor arguments against same sex marriage — or even appears dispassionate on the topic — is often conceived of as a self-hating gay, or “inauthentic.” But this is only because we, as interpreters, have chosen to privilege biographical information over other considerations (cultural / institutional pressures to maintain or profess certain views, eg.) in determining what we believe to be the author’s intent.
But just as there is no essential policy view that determines gayness (or, say, blackness), as people like Professor Ric would have us believe, there is likewise no point of biography that proves determinative in shaping bias — though it is certainly useful to factor in biographical information when trying to determine an author’s meaning.
Which brings us back to convention and expectations: we, as the receivers and decoders of intentional narratives, are told that, in enterprises that use fact-based narrative (journalism; history; technical writing; etc.), because the journalist (or historian, or writer of the manual for your new microwave) is proceeding from a particular rhetorical convention — an appeal to objectivity or description (over, say, persuasion) — we need not concern ourselves much with certain ancillary considerations that redound to agency. That is, we are taught to take it on faith that journalists or historians or tech writers will follow the same conventions we expect them to follow, making it unnecessary for us to worry over their biography, or their historical situatedness, or the cultural dialogic in which they are producing their text, when trying to reconstruct their “meaning.”
This is what Montopoli is getting at when he worries that biography could be overdetermined in the process of interpretation — to the point where it biases interpreters against a good-faith conventional bit of journalism, one that strives for the objectivity that represents the form’s purported ideal.
Conversely, Powers worries that, without biography, we as interpreters are forced to rely on nothing but the journalist’s unstated fidelity to the institutionalized conventions of his profession — essentially, to trust in the good faith of the reporter.
But given that “objectivity” itself is linguistically impossible — or better, given that “objectivity” is, like “truth,” a man-made construct, and so not metaphysically attainable in pure form, always and necessarily muddied by the limitations of rhetoric and the vagaries of agency in capturing it — many journalists and historians (and maybe even a few technical writers) have abandoned the pretense altogether, and have become advocates rather than reporters.
Which would not be a problem, as I’ve noted before, if they weren’t still using the cover of the convention — an appeal to objectivity — to protect them from charges of bias.
In the end, biography won’t save us from bad interpretations; but neither will non-disclosure ensure that we are getting nothing but an objective rendering of the situation through some disinterested entity appealing to an institutional convention.
Which is why, ultimately, I’d come down on the side of disclosure, with the caveat that biography is only one of a number of factors we should take into account when trying to tease out a journalist’s or historian’s meaning (by appealing to his or her intent), and with the recognition that one can fudge a biography as easy as one can fudge a resume or mislead us about his or her intent. The fact that objectivity can never be perfectly rendered is not a compelling reason to surrender to cynicism or self-interest, and so to turn straight “reporting” into advocacy reporting that continues to rely on the trappings of journalistic convention (it pretends to appeal to objectivity, and it continues to use the familiar tropes of such a convention: third person descriptive pov, apparent independent verification of facts, etc) even as its intent has changed.
How we judge journalism comes down to whether or not we believe the journalist is acting (or is even able to act, given that certain philosophical and linguistic assumptions preclude one from doing so) in good faith.
Or — predictably — how we judge journalism comes down to the intent of the agency we see behind it.
Knowing an author’s biography can help us determine an author’s intent, just as it can distract us from that intent, and convince us to graft our own intent to see the point of biography as dispositive with respect to meaning onto the author’s signifiers.
Knowing nothing of the author’s biography leaves us to accept on faith the author’s intent to follow journalistic convention. Which, with respect to determining good faith, is the same place we’re left even with access to biography.
Meaning that biography simply gives us more to work with in determining intent; whether or not any of it is actually useful is another question entirely.
update: Michelle M. sent me this link earlier today, which, in the course of a review, touches on some interesting aspects of agency with respect to both encoding and decoding narratives.