Film-Philosophy

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Carl Plantinga

A Naive Reply to MacLennan and Raskin

 


 

 

I'm happy to see that my book, _Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film_, has generated some discussion in the reviews by Jay Raskin and Gary MacLennan at _Film-Philosophy_. Although I'd like to respond to these reviews in tandem, they are very different. Both take issue with parts of my book and raise issues I wish I had the time to discuss. Raskin's review is measured and fair, but MacLennan's at points degenerates into a political diatribe. In the interest of brevity, I'm going to limit my response to the issue of objectivity in the nonfiction film and to MacLennan's claims about my supposed political naivete.

 

To begin with the latter point, I do not appreciate MacLennan's linking my statement that McCarthyism was 'irresponsible red-baiting' with an *ostensibly* analogous understatement he proposes about the holocaust in Germany: 'the country was depopulated'. My position against McCarthyism is clear in my book, despite my not showing the appropriate sense of outrage for MacLennan's taste. Second, MacLennan's rhetorical link between my statement and that of a Nazi apologist is offensive. If his point is merely a logical one, then why compare my statement with that of a Nazi apologist? Is it to imply that my views are comparable and my politics similarly loathsome? Such rhetorical flatulence is not worthy of someone with the impeccable political credentials which MacLennan implies for himself, his irritability notwithstanding.

 

On a related issue, it is hardly politically-naive (as MacLennan says), although it is certainly debatable, to suppose that putting on Murrow's _Report on Senator McCarthy_ was a courageous act and that Murrow took a personal risk in airing it. I raised the issue to claim that institutional theories have to account for personal acts such as Murrow's that go against many of the institutional constraints in place at the time. Most of Murrow's contemporaries think that he took many risks (not just one), if you read contemporary accounts. Murrow was going against the wishes of the CBS management (risk 1), self-consciously (but temporarily) rejecting the conventions of journalistic objectivity (risk 2), and attempting to destroy the reputation and power of Joseph McCarthy, who at this time was a famous and still-powerful senator (risk 3) with a strong public following (risk 4). Murrow received harsh criticism for the show from McCarthy supporters, from McCarthy himself (who called Murrow 'the cleverest of the jackal pack' on national television), and from fellow journalists who thought Murrow had stepped beyond the bounds of journalistic objectivity.

 

How can MacLennan deny that it is risky to make a personal attack against a US Senator on national television in a violent and politically-polarized country? Granted, it would be riskier to attempt the summit of Everest without oxygen, but not much. Or is that also a liberal myth?

 

Contrary to MacLennan's assertion in his review, Murrow and _See it Now_ had no salient ties with the US military, at least as far as we know. MacLennan confuses Murrow's show _See it Now_ with _The Twentieth Century_ (which did have ties to the military, but with which Murrow had no professional affiliation). Thus MacLennan's implication that Murrow may have been involved in some kind of media/military conspiracy is unfounded speculation. MacLennan also denies Murrow's courageousness because both Murrow and elements of the US military were alarmed by McCarthy's fascistic and mind-numbingly horrific activities (there, is that sufficiently outraged?) at the same time. This is considered by MacLennan to be a revealing discovery, but it is hardly surprising and only of interest if we assume some kind of media/military conspiracy for which there is, to repeat, no evidence. Moreover, the military could not protect Murrow from the kinds of pressures and personal attacks, both actual and conceivable, he faced after the broadcast, even if it had take the slightest interest in doing so.

 

On the issue of objectivity in nonfiction film, the reviewers understand my project only partially. The fault could lie in part with the presentation of my views, since I discuss objectivity in several separate parts of the book, some of which they have apparently ignored. Both Raskin and MacLennan like my analysis of the CBS documentary program, _The Twentieth Century_, in which I demonstrate Stuart Hall's contention that journalistic practices having to do with objectivity, fairness, balance, professionalism, and so on, can serve to mask biases in favor of the status quo.

 

Both dislike what I do with this analysis, however. Raskin claims that I go on to defend _The Twentieth Century_. In my book I am critical of the series and its politics, but I do defend the concept of journalistic objectivity, despite its flaws. To make such a defense I introduced the concept of 'relative objectivity', a concept both Raskin and MacLennan find to be philosophically and politically problematic. But here is my thinking. First, we should not completely dispense with objectivity, fairness, balance, etc. in journalism and nonfiction because although 'objectivity' can mask biases in favor of the status quo, it also creates a standard for journalists that can encourage the representation of diverse views. To dispense with objectivity altogether would be to invite a journalism without constraints, and one even more rigidly-tied to the interests of those in power than was _The Twentieth Century_.

 

On the other hand, to call for absolute objectivity as an attainable standard, as both Raskin and MacLennan do, is to ask for pie in the sky. Raskin writes that 'a demand for the absolute instantiations of these principles [objectivity, fairness, balance] would be the radical demand'. MacLennan agrees with Raskin in his review, and argues that the 'correct' response to my analysis of objectivity in _The Twentieth Century_ 'is to demand proper objectivity, balance, etc. from the media'. By this I take MacLennan to mean an absolute objectivity, as Raskin does.

 

This leaves me to wonder whether either Raskin or MacLennan read my analysis of the concept of objectivity (29-32), where I discuss various ways of thinking about the concept. Objectivity is not the equivalent of truth, but is a characteristic of accounts or representations of the truth; thus it is possible to believe in truth while denying that there can be 'absolutely' objective accounts of it. If absolute objectivity means that a representation should be free from a perspective or point of view, then it is clearly unattainable. If, on the other hand, absolute objectivity means a representation which takes into account every diverse perspective on a subject, it is equally impossible. That is why I endorse what I call 'relative objectivity'. No representation will ever be absolutely objective on either of these definitions, but we can nonetheless measure our representations against other representations (88) and demand closer approximations to absolute objectivity.

 

Moreover, the fact that all of our representations are necessarily from *our* perspective does not require that we abandon all notions of evidence. MacLennan writes as though I do not give a description of what I mean by relative objectivity, so I would refer him to pages 212-213 of my book, in which I invoke Allan Casebier's contention that objectivity is a matter of degree rather than an absolute condition, and Steven Lukes's point that an objective representation can be perspective-relative, yet constrained by ''evidence that is as systematic and reliable as possible, and relatable to other perspective-relative accounts'' (212). We can judge the relative objectivity of nonfiction films in relation to other films and to what we imagine the filmmaker might have done to make the film more objective.

 

MacLennan's ire is not directed merely at me, but at an entire approach to the media that MacLennan thinks is insufficiently radical and also politically naive. He misleadingly dubs this approach an 'American formalism-cognitivism'. (The approach to which he refers is not just American but counts among its adherents scholars from many countries. Moreover, it might be characterized better as a cognitive/analytic approach, since many are not formalists (although we are interested in form) and since we are often influenced not only by cognitive psychology but also by analytic philosophy. It is also a mistake to assume that those who find this approach useful share a common politics.)

 

Whatever our political persuasion, however, we could all use a political education. So for the moment let us be content with interpreting the world. Both Raskin and MacLennan put a lot of stock in 'absolute objectivity' as a radical media practice. By this I'm not sure if they mean that the mainstream media should become truly objective and therefore radical, or that radical media makers should employ absolute objectivity as a radical, that is, non-mainstream practice. If they propose the latter, that is certainly a controversial prescription, since most radical filmmakers prefer polemics to the measured sobriety of 'objectivity'. Either prescription raises problematic issues.

 

Leaving that aside, however, let me pose of Raskin and MacLennan (or of anyone wishing to reply) four questions. First, what is absolute objectivity of the kind you claim would constitute radical media practice? Second, how would absolute objectivity be instantiated in a nonfiction film or a television news report? (That is, would it take into account all possible interpretations of a subject or all possible answers to a question, or only those actually made and asked by living persons, or those made and asked at any time by persons living or dead?) Third, do you know of an actual film or television program which instantiates absolute objectivity? (Please let me know because I am dying to see one). Fourth, if there *is* no such extant film, may we expect one in the near future? If anyone can satisfactorily answer these questions, then I will have been enlightened and perhaps, after a few more lessons, can leave the ranks of the politically naive.

 

Hollins College, USA

 

 

References

 

Gary MacLennan, 'Beyond Rhetoric (and Scepticism): A Critical Realist Perspective on Carl R. Plantinga',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 5, March 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n5maclennan>.

 

Carl Plantinga, _Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

 

Jay Raskin, 'The Friction Over the Fiction of Nonfiction Movies', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 7, September 1997 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol1-1997/n7raskin>.

 

****

 

Carl Plantinga, 'A Naive Reply to MacLennan and Raskin',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 6, March 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n6plantinga>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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