Archive for November 24th, 2007

One of the hardest things about writing on free software is the expectations placed on me. Because the cause is good, many people expect me to write as a loyal partisan. And in one sense, I am: If I didn’t feel the topic was important, I wouldn’t write about it. However, I am not so partisan as to praise where I see problems in either software or people. Nor do I always feel an obligation to take sides when I explain a multi-side issue, or when the general reaction from typical readers is so obvious that to do would be to belabor the obvious. To me, these practices are part of my efforts to approach journalism with professionalism. However, judging from the comments I sometimes receive, they often enrage readers, especially those expecting a confirmation of their views.

Understand, I’m not naive. I know that complete objectivity is as impossible as a centaur. But I’m idealistic enough to think that, except when I’m writing an obvious commentary, the articles I write as a journalist are more useful to people when I’m not writing as an advocate. Rather, I try to write in an effort to express the truth as I see it. I’m sure that I fail many times, either because I don’t have all the facts or because I feel too strongly on a subject.

However, as George Orwell said about himself, I believe that, unlike the vast majority of people, I have the ability to face unpleasant truths – facts that I might dislike personally, but have to acknowledge simply because they are there (I lie very poorly to myself). And, since my first or second year at university, I’ve been aware that I have the unusual knack of empathizing with a viewpoint even while I disagree with it. With these tendencies, I believe that, if I make the effort, I can provide a broader perspective than most people – and that a broader perspective, if not the truth, is generally more truthful than a limited one.

Moreover, I believe that these are precisely the tendencies that a journalist needs to be useful to readers. Nobody can write uncritically about any cause without, sooner or later, lying for the sake of the cause and losing their integrity. For all I admire the ethics and hard work of many people in the free software community, even those I admire most sometimes express an ill-considered or an ignorant opinion. Some act short-sightedly. Very occasionally, a few act immorally, or at least for personal gain rather than the good of the community. And, whenever someone does any of these things, it’s my job to report the fact. To do otherwise would be against my principles, and a mediocre carrying out of my job.

This honesty is especially important in the computer industry. Many mainstream computer publications are notorious for avoiding criticism of the companies who buy advertising from them. Such publications are worthless to their readers, and a betrayal of the trust placed in them. I’m lucky enough to work for publications that don’t work that way, so I can report the bad along with the good.

However, to some of the audience, that’s not enough, especially on a controversial subject. They read to have their views enforced, and, if I don’t happen to serve their need, they accuse me of bias. Often, they need to cherry-pick their evidence to build the case against me, and usually they seize on the fact that I reported a viewpoint contrary to theirs without denouncing it. Often anonymous, they attack me in the strongest worded terms, sometimes explaining in exhaustive detail the error of my way in what usually amounts to a clumsy belaboring of the obvious.

Occasionally, one will demand the right to a rebuttal from the editors.
So far, I have yet to see any of them actually write the rebuttal, but I suspect that, if they did, it would probably be unpublishable without considerable revision. Polemic is a difficult art, and has a tendency to descend into trite comments and over-used expressions in the hands of novices.

(Which is another reason that I don’t write opinion pieces too often. They’re difficult to write well, and I don’t think I’m particularly skilled at them. And, anyway, a successful polemic is more about rhetorical tricks and memorable turns of phrases than about facts and explanation. It’s a play more on emotion than logic, and for that reason always seems a bit of a cheap trick. I’m not nearly as interested in manipulating readers as informing them.)

But what always tickles me about such accusations is that they frequently come in pairs. Many times, after writing on a controversial subject, I’ve been denounced as biased from both sides – sometimes on the basis of the same paragraph or sentence.

I suppose these twinned accusations could be a sign of sloppy writing on my part. However, I prefer to view them as a sign that the problem lies more in the readers than in me. If both sides find something to disparage in one of my articles, then I can’t help thinking that I’ve had some success with covering the topic comprehensively.

Of course, all these thoughts could be nothing more than an explication of my personal myths – the stories I tell myself to keep me going. The image of the investigative reporter who risks everything to get the truth out is still a very powerful myth, and one that I not only buy but apparently have a lifelong subscription to.

But, contrary to popular usage, a myth is not the same as a lie. And, in this case, I like to think that, even if I am partly deceiving myself, my work is still better for my acceptance of the myth.

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