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Objectivity Under the Microscope

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My recent Mig on Chess (the "Back-scratch Fever" part) caused a flare-up of that old bugbear, accusations of not being objective. Apart from the obvious "no one is, not even in calculus," I've always said opinion is what I'm giving. Facts can be found scattered all over the ground; I try to make some sense of them.

Someone professing to be objective is far more dangerous. Fox News is probably the best example of this, but obviously anything other than someone's birthday is subjective. It's not just how you report something, it's what you choose to report.

Anyway, I recently read the excellent Michael Lewis book "Losers" about the 1996 American presidential campaign. Its afterword is all about writers and journalists who get "too close" to a subject and much of it rang familiar to my situation with Kasparov. I have posted below a lengthy excerpt from it with intro notes on how it relates to my situation with Kasparov. Food for thought.

The book "Losers" by Michael Lewis is about the 1996 American presidential campaign. Lewis is the well-known author of non-fiction books like Moneyball and Liar's Poker. More on "Losers" here at Amazon.com. I highly recommend it and all of his books to people who enjoy sharp humor with their information.

When I read the afterword (see below) I was struck by how many ways it described the situation of Garry Kasparov. I have written favorably and unfavorably about just about every chess player. Kasparov, like the President, gets far more chess media attention than other players, probably more than the rest combined. It is natural that I have devoted so much of my writing to him.

I became close to Kasparov in 1999 and in the middle of that year he hired me to help build and run his website, KasparovChess.com (RIP). That changed the nature of our relationship de facto, although as an editorial policy we tried hard to give a complete picture of the news when it involved Garry, as it so often did. Of course the site was also his platform, but we all agreed that his articles should appear under his byline like those by me and other editors. There was to be no royal we, no unsigned editorials.

When KasparovChess Online shut down I continued writing my columns, this time at ChessBase.com. I still talk with Garry regularly and work with him on various side projects, some chess related some not. Having his trust enables me to share information with the public that would otherwise be unavailable, but it also paints me as "unobjective," or stronger words depending on who's talking.

I have my own opinions and never hesitate to make them known. I don't agree with Kasparov on everything and have said so in print on more than a few occasions. But one of the reasons we are friends is that we agree on many things in the chess world, not the other way around. I found many similarities in this situation to Lewis's description of his relationship with American senator John McCain and that of Sidney Blumenthal with Bill Clinton as described below.

For me it often comes down to access versus objectivity. If you rip everyone to shreds soon you won't have any information to share with your readers. After years of chess writing I can say one thing for certain, people will talk to you if they feel you are sympathetic, not if they feel you are "objective." Of course they always say the sympathetic ones are objective and the critical ones are biased! VP Cheney praises the fairness of Fox News, Fox News praises Cheney, rinse and repeat. It's stilted, but at least you have something. Never having Cheney speak his mind at all would be worse. I think.

If you are powerful enough everyone has to talk to you, but that doesn't exist in the chess world. In the internet age it's easy for all the players and politicians to cut out the middleman, the journalist, the columnist. We've seen dozens of open letters and press releases, most of the poorly thought out and many of them hurting the cause they were intended to promote. The job of the middleman is to provide context and coherency, and entertainment value doesn't hurt either.

From the afterword of the Michael Lewis Book "Losers"

... But most of what was written about Clinton, like most that was written about other big-time politicians, was written from a strange distance. I say strange because the reporters appeared content with their bleacher seats.

Of course, the bleachers were a good place to sit if you set out to write a certain kind of journalism. From the bleachers you could pour boiling oil and doubt onto the players below, without much concern for retribution. And a scalding skepticism was, obviously, extremely useful to have inside the political arena. But political journalists as a class seemed to have given up the hope that they might write another sort of journalism-that they might come to know the players intimately, and convey their point of view to a reader. The first unwritten rule of political journalism was: keep your distance. "It's okay to talk to them," a Washington Post reporter put it to me. "You're just not supposed to like them." But if you weren't supposed to like them you were unlikely to get very close to them, and if you never come close to them you never would be able to draw them well.

What was missing from political journalism was a type of writer who thrived in business journalism: a writer like Carol J. Loomis. Loomis was the journalist at Fortune magazine whose biggest job was to inform businessmen how the world appeared to Warren Buffett. She wrote endless flattering pieces about her friend, who granted her special access to do so. Many of these were very good; they gave you a real sense of the man. Business journalism supported hundreds of versions of Carol Loomis; actually, every species of journalism other than political journalism had its practitioners who traded sympathy for access into the lives of prominent people. Actors, athletes, rock stars, etc., routinely were approached by ambitious journalists with a simple, unstated proposition: Let me into your life and I won't set out to destroy you. Political journalism didn't allow for this sort of arrangement. It was fine for a journalist to approach a politician in a different spirit once he left office. Politicians who had been depicted as loathsome, power-grabbing machines just a few months before find themselves, upon their retirement, redrawn as recognizably human. It was also acceptable for a reporter to cut deals with the professional manipulators who surrounded the politician. All sorts of articles and books offered readers a great sense of what it felt like to be George Stephanopolous. Indeed, if George Stephanopolous became a celebrity, it was at least partly because journalists did not mind dramatizing his plight, i.e., entering his skin. What was not fine was entering the skin of the man George Stephanopolous worked for.

To read stories about American politicians that resemble other kinds of ambitious journalism-that is, in which the journalist attempted to worm his way into his subject's life and unspool a narrative-you had to go back a very long way. There was John Hersey's five-part profile of Harry Truman for The New Yorker, which included a delightful account of the author interviewing the president as he sat naked in the White House steam cabinet. And pick up a yellowing copy of Newsweek from the early 1960s and you will discover the young Ben Bradlee conveying the point of view of his friend, President Kennedy. But pick up any magazine in 1992 and you found politicians written about through a dehumanizing prism.

There were exceptions, of course. The most flagrant was Sidney Blumenthal, who occupied the office next door to mine at The New Republic. On the strength of the Clintons' fondness for him, which he had earned by pummeling the first couple with favorable reviews (and, it was rumored, speeches for Hillary) Blumenthal landed the plum job in Washington, as The New Yorker's political correspondent. There he set about doing what I assumed everyone expected him to do: documenting the world as it appeared to Bill Clinton. The stuff he wrote, because it came from the inside, was often riveting. I recall in particular an early piece in which Clinton, discussing his first year in his new digs, complained that a staff member had barged into his bedroom unannounced. He felt watched. "Don't let it fool you," Clinton said of the White House, "it's the crown jewel of the federal prison system."

Blumenthal's access and ability meant that The New Yorker, for a brief, shining moment, gave you some sense of just how weirdly uncomfortable was our new first couple. It was true that the articles he wrote were wildly partial to his subjects. They didn't dish the dirt. But they had real value: they gave you some idea of what life was like inside the skin of our new president. And then something happened. Once he had established that he would be a good friend to the Clintons, Blumenthal's career unraveled. You heard the same complaint over and again: Blumenthal was not "objective." Well, of course he wasn't! That's why they let him inside in the first place! And anyway, who in Washington, D.C. was "objective"? Everywhere you turned journalists were building careers on a visceral loathing of the new president; the one journalist who attempted to build a career built on visceral affection was roundly condemned as corrupt. A pocket account. A shill. A suck-up. Before long the name "Sidney Blumenthal" was an Inside the Beltway joke. At The New Yorker, Blumenthal found himself forbidden from writing about the various controversies swirling around the first couple. He might just as well have been forbidden from writing about them altogether.

The Blumenthal episode said a lot about journalistic bravery. All over Washington journalists congratulated each other for their nerve in attacking, doubting, or questioning some important politician. Never in history have there been so many brave people in one place as there were during the early Clinton years. And yet no one ever seemed to pay a price for his courage. Meanwhile, the one journalist who had given himself over to a politician stood accused of professional cowardice, and was shunned by his colleagues.

Once Blumenthal was put out of business, the lights went out for good in the Clinton White House. After that, in all that has been written about Bill Clinton, there has been nothing that attempts to convey the man's point of view. The only thing of which we can be certain is that Bill Clinton has a point of view, and that it justifies, at least to himself, pretty much everything he has done while in office. But what is it? I have no idea. The Leader of the Free World is maybe the only prominent human being on the planet who can't find a writer to explain him as he sees himself.

This is just a huge void. Whatever you think about Clinton, there should have been someone with a sharp pen, an eye for detail, and a high sensibility able to convey his point of view. A journalist whom the president could trust. Yet that person does not exist. And the problem is not confined to the Clintons. It is general to politics. There is precious little written or said that would explain to someone who is not a politician why a person would become one. Or what it feels like to be one. Which of course, only encourages the disdain we naturally feel for those who become one.... Freaks! ... Power seekers!

When I set out to cover the 1996 presidential campaign for The New Republic I knew the rules of the game. I'd been assigned to write character studies. In practice, this meant hunting for the character flaws of the politicians. I had a knack for this. Ridiculing politicians in print, however, was not nearly as satisfying as ridiculing businessmen-which, I had found, was rewarding in every sense. It was demoralizing to go hunting for other people's flaws when that was all anyone was ever looking for. The exercise felt less like sport than cruel ritual, more like a fox hunt than a bear hunt. A month into the campaign I saw that if I was going to keep myself awake I had to ignore all those candidates who stood even the slightest chance of becoming President of the United States. The more peripheral the candidate the more acceptable it was to treat him as you might treat any other journalistic subject, as a "character" rather than a "power seeker." Besides, no one with a chance of winning would exhibit any normal, interesting human behavior to a journalist. Even fairly minor politicians-first-term congressmen hitching a free ride on a campaign plane-knew enough to shield themselves from view. Giving a journalist an idea of who he was, for a politician, is unprofessional.

In the end I resigned myself to the fringe candidates, chiefly the Republican Morry Taylor, the CEO of a Midwestern tire and wheel company, who preferred to be known as "the Grizz." A day with the Grizz was worth a month with Bill Clinton. Then something happened, and I wasn't prepared for it. I stumbled upon John McCain. If the Grizz became the heart of this book, McCain became its soul. The Republican senator from Arizona wasn't running for anything, just traveling with Bob Dole. But unlike everyone else who traveled with Dole, McCain said things that were true, and, because they were true, interesting. He was aware that I wrote for a publication that would endorse the enemy, and that 1, personally, had written things actively hostile to Dole. And yet he refused to behave as if I were out to get him -even though, at that point, I'm pretty sure I was. The fool!

For no better reason than McCain was an important politician, and he seemed willing to speak to me in much the way one ordinary human being speaks to another, I began to spend time with him. Whenever I was in Washington I called his office and asked to spend the day trailing around behind him. The request was greeted by none of the hernia-like popping sounds that I'd grown accustomed to from political aides. More often than not his staff just said, "Come along." "Come along" meant arriving at seven in the morning and leaving after dinner. Fund-raisers, committee meetings, staff meetings, visits from businessmen with business before the Commerce Committee, conversations with senators, nothing was off-limits. This struck me as an enormous journalistic opportunity: a politician who was willing to let me into his life.

To exploit his naiveté meant allowing the senator to exploit mine, and becoming involved with him in a more intimate than usual way. A day or even a week of his time wasn't enough: I had to enter his life. I visited him at his home in Phoenix, and at his cabin in the Arizona desert. I came to know his wife and children. But and here was the amazing thing: simply by being weirdly insistent on hanging around I came across all sorts of little habits he had that said something about who the man was. McCain was clearly as ambitious as they come; even then you could see he was talking himself into running for president. Yet he had developed a trick to ward off the ill-effects of ambition on his soul: he did many things that were of no possible benefit to his political career. For instance, he made a habit, once a week, at the crack of dawn, of visiting the hospital bed of the retired Arizona congressman Mo Udall. Udall, who was dying of Parkinson's disease, was unaware he had a visitor. When he'd been in power everyone wanted to see him; now no one but McCain came to visit. There was no one to witness McCain's gesture. The visit was McCain's way of paying tribute to a man he had admired, and who had guided him early in his career. Since Udall no longer responded to visitors, the visits were of no possible benefit to him. McCain did it for himself: the trips were a tool for reminding himself of the transience of political success. With each new revelation of character I became more pleased with myself. The two pieces I wound up writing about McCain, one for The New Republic, which became the eleventh chapter of this book, the other a profile for The New York Times Magazine-were, I felt, among the best things I had ever done. I felt sure that it was a measure of my own resourcefulness that I had snuck into the life of an important politician. After the first piece appeared, the owner of The New Republic, who is not prone to being moved by the behavior of Republican politicians, called to say that the story had brought tears to his eyes. He asked if McCain might be available to come over for lunch. He had no plans to support McCain for anything, you understand. But he was interested.. . .

Sadly, my success had nothing to do with reportorial skill. It didn't even have much to do with me. It turned out that any reporter who called McCain's office and asked was granted as much access as he wanted. A few asked for a lot of access, and were given the same insider's tour of a political life as I had been given. A lot of these people had the same reaction to McCain that I had had: what a treat! Most of them were more suspicious of his motives than I was. Some of them even took it as a kind of insult that he was willing to let them actually get to know him. I received many phone calls from reporters who hoped to be reassured they were not being taken in by a sophisticated con artist. Often they were vaguely embarrassed by their subject's willingness to let them in on his thoughts, and the feelings of approval this engendered in them. For instance, a writer for one of the conservative political weeklies called to say that he had admired McCain, and was inclined to let that admiration seep into his copy, but that other journalists were already telling him he'd been duped. Could I back him up?

I became a connoisseur of McCainiana. Typically, the reporters who wrote about him couldn't deny their favorable impression; at the same time they could not credit that impression in the way that they would have if it had been unfavorable. An entire sub-genre of McCain profiles were puff pieces masquerading as hatchet jobs. They said, in so many words, "all these other cynical journalists have turned themselves into mere shills for this politician. They are hopelessly naive. I alone am sophisticated enough to see how foolish they are to have bought into his act." Having established a position aloof from the pack for themselves then they'd more or less buy into the act. With serious reservations, of course.

But why? If a man is honest why should he not be praised for his honesty? If he is brave why should he not be applauded for his bravery? If honesty and bravery are going to be greeted with the same mistrust as dishonesty and cowardice why would anyone ever be honest or brave? And if the people who are assigned to describe and interpret politicians insist that they are little more than craven freaks incapable of evoking any kind of deep sympathy, won't they end up being just that?

It was about then that I realized that I'd gone over to the other side. The reporting I had done about McCain was so personal-I knew this man!-it was inevitable that it evolved into something else. I liked him. I didn't agree with all of his politics and flat out disapproved even with the spirit of some of it (he wanted to vote pro-life without being thought "pro-life"). But he had his nerve. And his nerve was far more interesting than bravery in combat. It was the nerve of a man engaged in an experiment of behaving like a human being when everyone around him was playing this strange, artificial game. That's what I admired. McCain seemed to me to be carving out an original space for himself in politics. His attitude toward journalists was a natural extension of the exercise. He simply refused to behave as if he were a suspect in a crime, and I and other journalists stopped looking at him that way.

Was this "objective"? I didn't know. I didn't care. The reason the pieces I'd written were any good was that I'd more or less given in to what I regarded as legitimate feelings of admiration. Those feelings in turn had come from the politician's offer to let me enter into his point of view. In accepting the offer I had become his friend. Which is to say, I was finished writing about him.

A few months before McCain declared himself as a candidate in the 2000 presidential race I spent a weekend with him at his cabin in the desert. He asked me to accompany him on his campaign.

"What do you mean?"
"Come along. It'll be fun."
"For how much of it?"
"All of it."
"Why would I do that?"
"You can go where I go, see what I see. See what it's like on the inside of a campaign. You could write about it now, or later, or never. Whatever you chose."
"How close could I get?"
"You need a place to stay in Washington, you can bunk at my apartment."

Well, there it was: what more could a journalist ask for? I had spent much of 1996 being forbidden by handlers from getting too close to the people I wrote about. As a result, I could only guess what life was like at the center of a serious presidential campaign. Now, at last, I'd found a serious candidate who was prepared to let me sleep with him.

And – here was, to me, the truly amazing thing – he was of no use! You see, I had already tipped my hand. I'd written flattering pieces about him. I was a pocket account. A shill. A suck-up. A sell-out. I was already inclined to see the world through his eyes, and any further exposure to him would only exacerbate the problem. His point of view was bound to come across, one way or another, in anything I wrote about him. He knew this, of course. That's why he invited me in!

I went along anyway for the first few days of his campaign, just to watch the show. After all, it's not every day that someone you know and admire runs for president. I sat in the back of the campaign plane. The journalist seated in front of me had somehow gotten ahold of the passenger list, and had found something that made his eyebrows rise. He showed me. Under PRESS there was a long column of journalists. Under VIPs was another long column of prominent McCain supporters. What the journalist wanted to point out to me was where he'd found my name, in the least likely place, at the end of a short column marked FRIENDS AND FAMILY.

Losing McCain as a subject is a small price to pay for that distinction. Still, it seems a shame to have to pay for it at all. How nice it would have been to have a shot at writing a political book called Winners. It could have been a bestseller.

The book "Losers" by Michael Lewis is about the 1996 American presidential campaign. Lewis is the well-known author of non-fiction books like Moneyball and Liar's Poker. More on "Losers" here at Amazon.com. I highly recommend all of his books to people who enjoy sharp humor with their information.

1 Comment

Funny thing: the very first chess column of any kind I read was the first Mig on Chess. Imagine my subsequent horror when I found that the rest of chess journalism was bereft of the humor, insight, and personality that I found in your columns. Even if your columns weren't entertaining, they'd still be valuable for the behind the scenes happenings that are rarely reported. The Anna Hahn fiasco is the most recent example. Until you'd mentioned it here, where exactly had it been reported? Right, nowhere! If you hadn't reported it here, where would it have been reported? Right, nowhere!

As you've often mentioned, one of the major problems with chess organizations is the lack of transparency in their actions. So, we have a climate where those in power understand the importance of keeping others in the dark. And even those that aren't in power have at least come to expect obscurity to be the modus operandi. Suddenly you throw some light on a dark corner and there's an uproar. Good! Those involved can either defend their actions or not, but they can't at least cloak them any more. Keep up the good work, Mig! And send the check! :P

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on April 30, 2004 6:29 PM.

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