Journalism, facts and the fires of hell (revisited)

Without a theory the facts are silent, the economist F. A. Hayek has written. That may be true of the cold facts of economics, but the facts of war are not cold. They burn with the heat of the fires of hell.

– John Keegan, A History of Warfare (1994)

The late Sir John Keegan, the renowned military historian known for The Face of Battle and many other superb studies of combat in the Western world, opposed philosophical abstraction. Theories of history that sought to explain the causes of conflict by reference to materialist, idealist, gender, (what have you) theory failed to appreciate the role human agency and culture — tradition, religion, tribal identity — played in explaining human action, Keegan believed.

In his particular field of study, military history, Keegan believed the theories of Carl von Clausewitz that war is about politics, was a wholly inadequate explanation. (War is simply [an expression] of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. Clausewitz, On War, p.605) The adoption of theoretical constructs to explain war, Keegan argued, lay upon totalizing or universalist assumptions that failed to see farther than their cultural presuppositions.

Journalism suffers from these problems. What I see as the displacement of the classical Anglo-American school of journalism by European-style advocacy journalism mirrors the failings Keegan identified in the historical profession. Reporters who come to a story through advocacy journalism have a preconceived notions about the nature of truth into which they seek to place the available facts. If the facts are inconvenient or do not fit the theories, they can be left out of the story.

These musings on the nature of truth and journalism were prompted by a question posed to me by Todd Wilken, during an appearance I made last week on Issues Etc., for Lutheran Public Radio.

In discussing my earlier GetReligion article “TASS on Russia’s talking dogs,” Wilken asked me how I could explain the failure of the Western press to report a speech by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that laid out the philosophical underpinnings of Russia’s policies towards the West.

I observed that the battle between the Christian West and  godless Communist Russia had now become a battle between  godless Western governments and Christian Russia. Moscow was the Third Rome and it was its destiny to preserve and protect Christianity from the depredations of its cultured despisers (Barack Obama included).

Wilken asked me to explain why Lavrov’s comments were not being reported in the Western press. As I described the themes of Lavrov’s speech, it seemed to Wilken that this might be one of the major developments of the year, if not the decade.

I responded that I could not explain the silence. And given a few days to think over his question, I can only respond that the answer likely arises from sloth, or ideology. Perhaps the Moscow-based Western press corps never got round to reading the text of Lavrov’s speech — and they may know nothing about it.

Or, could it be that an such an avowedly religious explanation of the origins of state policy was so foreign to the comprehension of the Moscow correspondents corps that it was best left unreported? The facts of Lavrov’s words do not fit into the preconceived notion of history held by most reporters (and Western elites).

Writing in the New Statesman, Margaret Heffernan noted:

F A Hayek wrote that “without a theory, the facts are silent” – but with a theory or ideology, inconvenient facts can become invisible.

Is that what is happening here? Listen to the program and tell me what you think. Sloth or ideology? Or something more?

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