Journalistic balance at the expense of truth

The right and left must always be equally criticized, even when reality doesn't permit it

Published June 11, 2010 3:12PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

In a new post about the just-declassified decision of a federal judge ordering the release of a Yemeni detainee from Guantanamo, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder writes:

If you're interested at all in the future of detention policy, you might to make time to read a scathing and now declassified opinion of Judge Kennedy on the case of the Yemeni detainee (Odaini), available on line. If the re-engagement rate cracks the myth of the left that all detainees are innocents, habeas corpus losses such as Odaini's demolish the myth of the right that all detainees are cutthroat super terrorists.

Is there a single person anywhere who has ever argued or believes "that all detainees are innocents," let alone this belief being so pervasive as to be a "myth of the left"?  No, of course not.  Such a proposition is absurd and, in five years of writing about detention issues, I have never, ever heard anyone say or even suggest "that all detainees are innocents."  The argument is and has always been that due process must be granted to detainees so that a fair determination can be made as to their guilt or innocence, and that it's tyrannical to indefinitely detain people without charges (particularly because, once the Supreme Court mandated minimal due process in 2008, the vast majority of detainees who sought habeas review [though not all] have been found to be wrongfully detained).  Obviously, to call for due process for detainees is not to assert that they are all "innocents," any more than an insistence on the right to a jury trial is reflective of a belief that all criminal defendants are innocent.  That's so obvious it shouldn't need to be stated.

So why did Ambinder invent this non-existent belief and then attribute it to "the left"?  Because that's what journalists do who are eager to show how "balanced" and centrist they are.  Ambinder is correct that the series of habeas defeats for the Government "demolish the myth of the right that all detainees are cutthroat super terrorists" (a view reflected by the constant conflation between "Guantanamo detainee" and "Terrorist," i.e., the refusal to recognize the distinction between accused Terrorist and Terrorist, as though all detainees are, by definition, Terrorists).  But he can't simply point out that reality negates this belief of the Right, because that would mean he's being imbalanced, biased and (the greatest sin of all) a non-centrist.  So he then has to concoct a totally ludicrous view and attribute it the "left" -- and then proceed to mock and criticize it -- to prove that he's in the center, with equal distaste for both extremes,  and thus reasonable and pragmatic.  That's what most journalists believe "objectivity" requires, and it's to be achieved at all costs, including a complete departure from reality.


UPDATE:  One other point about Ambinder's claim about "the myth of the left":  the fact that someone takes up arms against the U.S. after being detained for years without charges in a cage, on an island thousands of miles away from their home, while subjected to severe mistreatment including torture, does not prove that they were guilty of being a Terrorist prior to their detention.  It's not surprising if an innocent person subjected to that type of treatment ends up harboring severe hostility against the responsible government; wouldn't you?  So the evidence Ambinder cites to disprove the "myth of the left" does no such thing, quite aside from the fact that nobody "on the left" (at least that I know of) subscribes to that view.


UPDATE II:  Ambinder -- after a protracted and contentious exchange on Twitter (which ended pleasantly enough) -- has now corrected what he wrote as follows:

If the re-engagement rate would seem to crack the myth of the left that all on on parts of the left that most of the remaining detainees are innocents, habeas corpus losses such as Odaini's demolish the myth of the right that (nearly) all detainees are cutthroat super terrorists.

Speaking for myself, my position isn't that "most of the remaining detainees are innocents," but rather that none of them should be assumed guilty without first being given full due process; the people on the left I know of argue that, not that "most of the remaining detainees are innocents." Also, how does Ambinder know it's a "myth" that "most of the remaining detainees are innocents"?  Given the record of habeas wins for detainees, what possible basis exists to label that belief a "myth"; isn't it quite possible that most of the remaining detainees are innocent? Additionally, his corrected version doesn't address the point that post-release hostilities on the part of a detainee does not prove they were guilty when first detained.  But at least he changed the most egregious part of what he wrote in response to criticism, so that's something.


UPDATE III:  Speaking of The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has published an interview with me regarding a variety of topics, including civil liberties, partisan tribalism, media critiques, and other matters.  It can be read here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------