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Joshua Cypess
+ Your AuthorsArchive @JoshuaCypess PhD social scientist & Orthodox Rabbi. We're all in this together. He/him. #BlackLivesMatter #Steelers #Mets #Resist May. 21, 2021 5 min read

1/ Thread on journalistic bias.

The linked thread by an MIT undergrad makes a data-rich claim that the NYT is biased in favor of Israel and against the Palestinians.

This intrigued me because it's axiomatic in Jewish circles to believe the opposite.

2/ I'm not going to comment on her work - her preferred framing for Israel is from <https://decolonizepalestine-com> which is both non-academic & reads like an opposite-day Arutz7 - because it's beside the point. Bottom line: her fellow partisans feel the NYT is against them.

3/ While I would decry any respectable journalist to sound like a universalized Arutz7/FoxNews, I would claim that journalism should be held to a similar standard I apply to social science: it should be seen as accurate to the subjects of the story.

4/ I have a Princeton AB in anthropology. My undergrad workload & expectations, which included comprehensive exams & a dissertation (called a "senior thesis") were much closer to my later graduate work (2 MAs & PhD). I'm a qualitative sociologist & my primary tool is ethnography.

5/ Setting up my credentials: I studied journalism with Paul Starr ( ), John McPhee and Roger Mudd.

My thesis was an ethnography of journalistic culture & the ideology of objectivity. 

6/ Ethnography is a very close to journalism: both involve interviewing & interacting with subjects in order to learn about them, discover details of the variety of human experience that insiders instinctively know, and then contextualize the specific culture to a 'home' audience

7/ Good anthro recognizes that the details matter, that meaning is infinite and our job as scholars is to understand the deep system of symbols used by the subjects. My department chair was Dr. Hildred Geertz (who doesn't have a wiki page! typical). See: 

8/ Academic work takes years while journalists only have hours. But good reporters should know their subjects well, even live among them & have local contacts. Sadly, the demise of local news & the devastation of the whole industry has destroyed the possibility of this capability

9/ Both fields have the same basic task of translating a local event and/or community for the benefit of a different community of readers. The key word is 'translation.'

(Here you can see the influence of my advisor Dr. James Boon) 

10/ Both an ethnography and a news story translate experience of one group to another. And a translation must be comprehensible to both sides, the new reader and the old source.

When this doesn't happen you get this trope: 

11/ If an ethnography favors the paying audience - the patron of the press or university - and yet, if the subject of study says it's wrong, then I believe it's an invalid (or incomplete) work. In the presence of power imbalance, bad ethnography serves as a colonizing cudgel.

12/ Anthro has a sordid legacy of colonization. It's why, even back in 1994, an ethnography of Americans was sociology but of a foreign country would be anthropology.

Ideologically I refused to play along and purposely chose a 'punching up' object for my work: US journalism.

13/ I'm trained in both disciplines (SOC & ANT) and elsewhere I'll describe their current differences, but historically SOC was studying one's own people while ANT was for studying the colonies.

Ethically, IMO anthro needs to work hard to shed off the colonialist legacy.

14/ This is why I describe an ethnography that's comprehensible to the home-office but is disputed & rejected by the objects of study as a "colonialist cudgel"

How else to describe when the White Master swoops in and tells the natives, over their protests, what they *really* are

15/ Ethnography that favors its patrons and describes the object culture purely in the symbols of the audience is not a translation. It's not faithful to the symbols under investigation. It's reductive - even dehumanizing - and most importantly IMO it's fundamentally inaccurate.

16/ When I argued this position 25 yrs ago I was dismissed by others as not having the necessary scientific remove.

No. IMO to hold otherwise is dehumanizing arrogance.

The subjects are a scientific error check. 99% of the time, their disagreement is substantive.

17/ My ethnography skills were essential in my job as a pulpit rabbi, especially when delivering life-cycle speeches. When I described a person at their wedding - or even more so at a eulogy - I needed the audience to nod along with understanding.

18/ My eulogies were effective when the family would say, with relief, that I described their loved-one well while also teaching the others why they were so loved and missed.

Then and only then was I able to do my job as a rabbi: put this individual life into a Torah context.

19/ A eulogy is about the person but also about their ideals, what they lived for, worked for. Why they will be remembered. Why their loss hurts so much for that particular family and community.

And also, what the Torah teaches about that person's ideals and actions.

20/ A eulogy is an ethnography. A news story is an ethnography. The job is to describe the subject - a person, an event, a culture - in a way that's comprehensible to those close to it and take that close knowledge & translate it to the wider audience.

21/ That's a proper translation: both sides learn about the other and even learn more because now both are enriched with the commonality of their experiences while appreciating the important, and revealing, differences.

22/ Back to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the NYT. As the OP claims, the Palestinian perspective is missing. But in my observation, the Israeli perspective is highly inaccurate as well. I base this on reading multiple local news sources and my own life experience.

23/ I suggest that the NYT - and nearly all US/UK/European press - doesn't present the conflict in a way that understands what's happening to the locals. Rather it's colonialist-style ethnography: it's reductive & obtuse in order to benefit the agenda of the patrons.

24/ Both PAL & Israelis see the NYT as biased. I've seen reporters hail this result as a sign of objectivity: "everyone is angry at me! I must be right."

No? Unless your job is to make people hate you. Which it may be, if you're working for powerful, dehumanizing ignoramuses.

[the thread has reached the temporary limit, I'll continue it in a moment]

You can follow @JoshuaCypess.


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