This post was inspired by a recent comment from Jim Dandy, one of our defenders of the indefensible. He said that he wanted opinion in his journalism. I expressed my disappointment that he wanted “opinionated” journalism, and he objected to what he thought was my deliberate twisting of his words.
You do know what opinionated means don’t you? It does not mean the condition of having an opinion. Or perhaps you are deliberately twisting my words.
Impartiality allows for opinion to be expressed.
I was confused by this, and asked for an explanation, which I got:
Opinionated is a perjorative term suggesting the person unduly, aggressively and dogmatically holds by their opinions.
It might be different in the US.
Still confused, I tried a different tack, and asked Jim if he felt that the BBC’s North America editor, Mark Mardell was the embodiment of his definition, to which he said, simply, “No.”
This led me to compile this collection of Mardell’s journalism to provide evidence that he does, in fact, unduly, aggressively and dogmatically hold by his opinion. Specifically his opinion that the Tea Party movement and, essentially, all opposition to the President is based on racism.
Read the following, and decide for yourselves whether or not Mardell allows his personal opinion to inform his reporting, and whether or not he has dogmatically stuck to his guns in spite of the evidence before him.
September 15, 2009, when Mardell was barely a month into his new job:
So I am describing and inviting debate, not passing comment. The relationship between black and white has been such an important driving factor in American political history that it would be strange if it now mattered not a jot. The allegation is that many of those who are calling their president “un-American” mean he is not white.
Democratic propaganda, over-sensitivity or truth? Tell me…
He says he’s not passing comment, then gives his opinion anyway. This is after he gives you a link to only one point of view from the vaunted NY Times: yes, opposition to the President is based on racism. Mardell came to the US knowing for a fact that this is a racist country. Let’s see if he learns anything in the coming years.
Just a couple of weeks later, Mardell eagerly reported that Jimmy Carter said that opposition to the President was due to racism. He then went out to try and find people to support that, but came away with only the suggestion that the African-American community thinks it’s all down to racism. To Mardell, this is proof enough. The President Himself said that He doesn’t think that’s the case, but Mardell believes He’s lying.
Just outside his restaurant, I chat to some African-American women and mention what we are doing.
“Woah woah for Carter,” one says, raising her hands above her head. “He tells it like it is.”
She cannot peer into the soul of the protesters, any more than President Carter can.
But many African-Americans may feel as though a subterranean stream has burst above ground, even if the president would rather not get caught in the spray.
This woman may not be able to peer into people’s souls, but obviously Mardell can. And he does, over and over.
January 26, 2010:
Mardell and the sub editor who wrote the title are actually referring to what they see as ideological purity regarding taxation and small government, but nobody with any intellectual honesty can claim that they don’t realize the not-so-subtle reference to the idea of racial purity espoused by actual white supremacists. Mardell chose the word very carefully. After talking about policy stuff, he said this near the end of the post:
There is no display of the visceral hatred that dripped from the cable networks last summer, and little of the sense that Obama’s government is some how illegitimate, rather than just plain wrong. There is a feeling that the president promised to govern from the centre and he hasn’t. But I have to ask, is this movement really of the people, or of largely white, largely well-off people?
They’re white, so there must be an underlying reason behind their objection to expanding government and raising taxes and increasing our debt and leading us to government-provided health care. Never mind what they say out loud: Mardell is looking into their souls. This is journalism?
Curiously, when reports came out about Sen. Harry Reid’s unfortunate statements about The Obamessiah back in 2008, Mardell defended him against charges of racism.
Indeed is what he said racist, or in any other way reprehensible? Liz Cheney thinks it is racist. The Kansas Star calls the remarks “stinking racist comments”. A left wing blogger Field Negro says it is “ignorant stereotyping”. Mr Reid himself refers to the comments as “improper”.
But what has irritated me about the flood of articles is that there has been a lot of nudging and winking but few have come out and said what they find offensive.
Imagine that. The man who has no trouble declaring racism without pointing to specifics which he finds offensive is irritated by what he sees as vague hints by other people.
So let’s have a look at what he actually said. The comments come from a book out this week, Game Changes .The authors say Reid “was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama – a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’ as he later put it privately.”
Mardell then actually defends Reid by saying he’s just “old-fashioned”. Nothing to see here, move along. Why is this not racist, but someone who objects to wealth re-distribution, full stop, without a word about anyone’s dialect or skin color, is racist? Of course, Harry Reid is a Democrat. He holds approved thoughts, so cannot be racist. However, if one holds an unapproved thought about an economic or political issue, there must be something inherently wrong with one’s character, an underlying reason for disapproving of, say, the NHS. Reid gets a pass, but as we all saw recently with Mardell’s and the BBC’s coverage of Mitt Romney, a Republican is by definition flawed for making a much less dangerous gaffe (e.g. “binders of women”).
In closing, Mardell’s defense of Reid reached new heights of hilarity:
But the guts of what Reid was saying was that many American voters were still pretty racist but some wouldn’t see Obama as “really” black. He thought Obama was acceptable to the electorate because he was light-skinned and didn’t have a voice that identified him as black. That seems to be Reid’s attempt to describe a state of affairs that may be unpleasant, but may be true. He was explaining the lie of the land as he saw it, not endorsing the views he outlined. If you can’t do that you are no good as a strategist.
You read that right: Reid was making a racist statement to highlight the racism of other people. How clever of him. Mardell really does have a magical gift for peering into people’s souls, doesn’t he? Naturally, this supports his opinion that opposition to the President is based on racism.
Later that year, October 9, 2010:
So here there is a great paradox: a movement that boasts its theoretical love of America and democracy but which hates its real life institutions. It’s not their fairly mainstream economic theories I strain to understand, but the passion; a passion which means that political discourse has become increasingly uncivil, filled with vitriol and abuse.
It’s nice that Mardell admits his condescension, but this is where we depart the realm of journalism and enter the land of opinion. That’s the whole point of BBC editors, of course, which causes endless problems. Notice how remarkably different his reaction to the Tea Party movement was to his opinion of the Occupiers. He loved their passion. I wonder what the key difference is?
So why is the Tea Party boiling?
Some say it’s racism. Those I’ve met are not racist but I do wonder if for some there’s a sense of lost superiority. For all their lives there’s been a white man in the White House. It’s not just that Obama isn’t in this image, he does not fit any stereotype of a black person that they know. Cool, cosmopolitan, calm and aloof. There is a sense of disconnect for what ought to be their view of the natural order.
“Some say…” He says straight out he hasn’t met any racists yet, but refuses to let go of his suspicions. He’d been in the US for over a year by that point, gone to several Tea Party gatherings, spoken with lots of politicians. Yet it hadn’t changed his opinion one iota. Is he lying that he didn’t meet any racists? Or does he just think he hasn’t worked hard enough to find them under the bed? You can almost feel Mardell straining to justify his opinion in spite of what he sees in front of him.
A woman who told me that Obama was a socialist and her country was sliding into Marxism said when he was elected president she drew the curtains for three weeks and couldn’t answer the telephone. Only the Tea Party saved her.
America is changing fast and some in the Tea Party people don’t like the loss of the assumption that white, European, 1950s America is the norm, the benchmark.
He hasn’t met any racists, but is still confident enough to tell you that some in the Tea Party are concerned about race. Not only is no evidence provided to back this up, but he even says he’s never met any actual racists. How can he get away with this?
Just a couple weeks later, October 30, 2010:
The main speaker said: “Our name is being dragged through the mud, that we’re violent racists.” The all-white crowd cheer or just nod. I have never seen any overt racism at a Tea Party rally and don’t today.
No “overt racism”, eh? Then why bother pointing out the “all-white crowd”? A rhetorical question, I know. When people don’t hold approved thoughts, there must be something wrong with them. Having given up the struggle to justify his opinion that it’s based on racism in the face of no evidence, he’s moved on to qualifying his statements that he hasn’t found any evidence. He doesn’t have to provide any now.
Over the past year I have spoken to many supporters of the Tea Party and been to lots of rallies. I have spoken to people whose characterisation of Mr Obama and his aims seems to me way off beam, a cartoon enemy conjured from some 1950s nightmare. Some believe the constitution tightly constrains the sort of economy America must have, and that only they can define what is properly American.
Now he’s giving his opinion on Constitutional law and economics. This isn’t journalism at all. This is an op-ed piece. Like I said, this the inherent problem in the very concept of BBC (titled) editors.
There is a wide-eyed enthusiasm that is easy to mock.
Yes, very easy to mock. In fact, it’s so easy, that Mardell happily mocked one of them during an appearance at the BBC College of Journalism. First, of course, he has to give the disclaimer that he’s never seen any overt racism. The relevant bit begins at around 54:45 in, where a young Beeboid asks Mardell about the “visceral hatred” of the President.
We’re not racist, he says, “At least not in a straight-forward sense”. Oh, really? He says that underlying the concern about government spending our money, it’s really about not wanting the government to “spend money on people not like them”. No real evidence, but he remains as convinced of it as he was the day he arrived. Even if we don’t come out and wear the pointy white hoods and carry our lynchin’ ropes around, we’re still racist under the skin. And he happily mocks a woman with a Southern accent. “You knew exactly what it was.” Oh, how they all laughed, eh? To Mardell, the Tea Party is driven by crypto-racism. This is what they really think of us, and it informs all BBC reporting on US issues.
(Full analysis of the BBC’s CoJ audience with Mardell can be read here.)
Right before the election last November, Mardell laid it all out:
A lot of time in my first two years was spent trying to understand what lay behind the anger that I had seen on TV.
As we’ve seen, he had a pre-conceived notion of what lay behind that anger: racism. So what has he learned in the intervening years?
Beyond a fairly conventional conservative concern about taxation and debt, there is an inchoate angst that their country is going in the wrong direction, that they need to “take it back”.
Some think this is code for “take it back from the black man in the White House”.
After all the evidence of his reporting on the subject, it’s quite clear that Mardell is using the standard hack trick of “Some say…” to present his own opinion. We know he’s being disingenuous here. He’s said quite openly a number of times that he thinks it’s all about race. Using this dodge is a big phony act.
It is not that simple. Nearly all of the people I met were white and most middle-aged or older. But few were racist in the conventional sense.
The only time I have seen that in the raw, I was off duty, at a dinner party. A woman growing increasingly passionate as the wine flowed called Obama a “monkey” and said “he’s trying to give OUR money to THEM”.
Not the poor, not the shiftless, “them”.
Since the woman Mardell mocked earlier was a crypto-racist and didn’t openly make any racist statements, we have to assume that this is now two clear incidents – to him – of racism, out of the hundreds of thousands or people Mardell’s seen at Tea Party rallies and whatever political gatherings he visits. Yet on the strength of this he still demonizes the entire movement, still convinced that tens of millions of people are driven by racism and not legitimate policy concerns.
“They” are part of a different America, with a different history who want a different path for their country.
A millionaire in a designer chair in his plush Chicago home, surrounded by modern art, makes the same point as the broken-toothed men perched on smashed-up office furniture outside a beat-up shotgun house in Texas.
Next to me in the pew of a Florida church, the man with a trim grey beard and a “veterans for Obama badge” tells me the same thing.
These very different people all had one thing in common. They’re black. And that means they share a history and often they also share a perception of the present.
Black Americans up and down this huge country tell me Mr Obama didn’t create this mess, and he needs time to clear it up.
They know all about patience. They know all about clearing up other people’s mess. They know about being shut out of this country’s narrative.
There’s a black history month. It rather implies that for the other 11 months, it is white history that will have its way. With Mr Obama they feel that has changed, just a little.
And with that, Mardell moves from demonizing the opposition for caring only about the color of a man’s skin to declaring that we must re-elect a President simply because of the color of the man’s skin. It means a lot to black people to see one of their own as President, so we must dismiss all other concerns. He was only recently pushing that Narrative, in September 2012. (Even then he was still declaring that opposition to the President’s policies is really only objecting to redistributing wealth “to people not like us.”) This is racialist thinking at its finest. Anyone who watched the full video of Mardell’s appearance at the BBC CoJ will also have seen him admit that the President actually isn’t quite up to the job. In other words, we must keep a poor performer on simply because of the color of his skin. He’s not that competent, but it’s okay cos He is black. The soft racism of lowered expectations lives on at the BBC.
In the end, Mardell has learned nothing. He came here with a pre-conceived opinion, and steadfastly refused to let the evidence before him change his mind. His personal opinion remains unchanged, and informs all of his reporting. Since he’s the “North America editor”, his opinion also informs other aspects of BBC reporting on US issues.
Next, we can have a debate about what it means to have opinion in journalism, and how impartiality allows for it.