Discover more from Silent Lunch, The David Zweig Newsletter
Conflating Credentials With Moral Authority
News outlets' response to the debacle over their use of photos from freelancers with potential ties to Hamas highlights a pervasive problem.
A Deep Dive on Ethics and Expertise.
Last week, HonestReporting, a media watchdog group that seeks to “combat ideological prejudice in journalism as it impacts Israel,” published an explosive report. The Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, and the New York Times, had worked with Gaza-based freelance photojournalists who sold photos they had taken during the Hamas invasion of Israel—including shots of Hamas terrorists inside a kibbutz in Israel, a house in a kibbutz on fire, and kidnapped Israeli hostages being taken back to Gaza. The report asked how the photographers arrived on the scene so quickly, and if this suggested coordination with Hamas ahead of time. It also questioned the ethics of prestigious news services paying for photos that were taken by people who breached Israel’s border and shadowed terrorists.
The report included tweets by photographer Hassan Eslaiah that showed him on October 7 in front of a burning Israeli tank while not wearing a PRESS vest or helmet, which reporters and photojournalists typically wear in conflict zones. The report also included a selfie Eslaiah took while being kissed by Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar.
Additional footage surfaced of what appeared to be Eslaiah on the back of a motorbike speeding toward kibbutzim with someone on the bike holding a grenade. Lastly, in footage that I discovered on his Facebook page, Eslaiah is seen illegally entering Israel at 8:27am on October 7.
The AP and CNN have since severed ties with Eslaiah. And in response to HonestReporting’s article each of the news outlets released statements immediately asserting that they had no prior knowledge of the October 7 attack, even though HonestReporting never specifically made that allegation.
Much of the talk about this controversy was framed around whether the photographers knew about the attacks ahead of time. While this is an important point, it’s the way that it was addressed by the AP that I want to focus on.
In its write up on the controversy, the AP devoted much of its article toward suggesting that the photographers did not know about the attacks in advance. But then, near the bottom of the piece, it included a passage that said, essentially, even if the photojournalists did know that would be fine anyway:
For journalists to have known about the Hamas plans in advance presents a complicated ethical question. Journalists have often been embedded with military forces in the past, and keep potential plans secret, said Nina Berman, a professor and expert in photojournalism ethics at Columbia University.
As I will explain below, this is a disturbing passage from the AP, and it is emblematic of a problem in how the media, and much of society, tends to default to “experts,” rather than to evidence or acknowledging uncertainty, when adjudicating complex issues—including those that involve ethics.
The Ethics of Documenting Horrors
First, Nina Berman’s attempt at providing historical context should give pause. She said it is common for reporters to be embedded with military units and to have knowledge of confidential plans. So Berman and the AP—at the least, implicitly—are suggesting that a reporter embedded with a military unit is morally analogous to a photojournalist being told in advance about a terrorist attack specifically targeted at civilians. Are these really comparable circumstances?
Let’s consider two hypotheticals: would it be ethical for a reporter or photographer to tag along with Ted Bundy if he told them he was going to rape and murder a young woman? Is that substantively different from Hamas raping women, lighting people on fire, and massacring attendees of a music festival? What if a reporter was told of the plans for 9/11 in advance, and took photos of the hijackers boarding their planes? (I am not saying the photographers knew of Hamas’s plans ahead of time. I am addressing the point made in the AP article.)
More broadly, Berman’s—and by extension the AP’s—insinuation that there is a moral foundation that supports reporters taking a neutral posture while documenting horrors is not as certain as they suggest. A gray area pervades the ethics of documenting crimes and ghastly events. There is a tension between when the reporter or photographer’s own humanity should supersede their obligation—or in the case of regular citizens recording atrocities on their phones, the mere inclination—to observe and record.
In 1993, the New York Times published a photo often referred to as “The Vulture and the Little Girl,” by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. It featured an emaciated child with a vulture perched ominously nearby.
Carter’s image was a sensation. Its raw horror galvanized awareness for millions of people of a Sudanese famine in a way that prior news coverage had failed to achieve. It also brought Carter condemnation from many quarters. “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene,” wrote one critic. Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph and then, shortly after, committed suicide.
The dilemma over intervention versus documentation was debated in a fascinating exchange during an episode of an exceptional TV series called “Ethics in America,” that aired in 1988 and 1989. In the exchange, Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor, was asked a hypothetical: if he was embedded with an enemy military unit and gained knowledge that they were going to ambush American soldiers would he continue on with his camera crew and film American soldiers getting killed, or would he intervene.
After a very long pause (the kind of silence that is virtually nonexistent on TV today), Jennings says, “I am going to tell you now what I am feeling… If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.” Even if it meant not getting the shot?, the moderator asked. Jennings said yes, even though it would likely mean losing his life.
Mike Wallace, the famous “60 Minutes” correspondent, jumped in. “I’m astonished to hear Peter say that. You’re a reporter,” Wallace said. Some reporters would simply regard it as another story to cover, he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Why would a reporter say, ‘I am not going to cover that because I am unhappy about what’s happening?’” Wallace then was pressed by the surprised moderator, who asked him if he had a higher duty as an American citizen to do what he could to save the lives of American soldiers, rather than an ethic of reporting. “No, you don’t have the higher duty,” Wallace replied. “Your job is to cover what is happening in the war.”
Colonel George Connell of the Marines, who was among the participants in the discussion, said, “I feel utter contempt. Two days later they’re both walking off my hilltop, and they get ambushed and they are lying there wounded and they are going to expect that I’m going to send marines to go get them. They’re just journalists, they’re not Americans. Is that a fair reaction? You can’t have it both ways.”
Two of the most famous TV journalists in America arrived not only at diametric conclusions about the ethical thing to do, but, watching the clip, the difference in their demeanors was also remarkable. Jennings appeared uneasy and hesitant about his human impulse. Wallace was frank and even indignant about his priority of getting the story.
Yet in the AP article, the inclusion of Berman’s reference to reporters being embedded with military units in the past, without any other perspective offered, hand waved away the ethical ambiguity of the issue. And by including Berman’s statement on its own, the AP writer implied an exoneration of the photojournalists if they had known about the impending massacre.
Are Domain Experts Also Experts On Morality, or Even Worthy of Reverence at All?
Berman was presented as an expert to validate a certain position favored by the AP. This same tactic was employed throughout the pandemic, by the media, officials, and regular people. Frequently, when a person who was deemed to lack expertise on a Covid-related issue—including myself as a journalist, after I had spent tremendous time researching the evidence—got into a debate with a doctor or epidemiologist, we were told by them, essentially, I am an expert, I know more than you. In social media arguments, “Sorry, but I’m going listen to a doctor, not to you,” was often trotted out against me or anyone who disagreed with the accepted narrative. This line of reasoning was argued regardless of what the evidence showed, and regardless of whether the debate was over personal values, as opposed to facts (for example, who annointed “experts” to decide that an old lady needed to prioritize being alone on a holiday in order to lower her exposure risk over prioritizing seeing her family?).
Throughout the pandemic the American public was told by the media and health officials that “The Science” said that if you didn’t wear a mask and, later, get vaccinated you were selfish. Nevermind that countries throughout Europe didn’t require masks on children, and that systematic reviews found no evidence of benefit of community masking. Nevermind that a number of those countries acknowledged that prior infection conferred sufficient (or superior) protection in lieu of vaccination, and that many of those countries, based on a cost benefit analysis, did not recommend the vaccine for healthy kids.
In America, if you didn’t follow the experts’ orders—some of which had nothing to do with expertise, but were instead based on their personal morals and priorities—you were not only wrong, but a bad person. Nevertheless, countless news stories in the Times and other legacy media continued to quote random physicians in support of masking toddlers, for example, or used the phrase “experts say” to defend various policies like closed schools.
The utter foolishness of this approach was evident last week at the November 2023 gathering of Physicians for a National Health Program. Here, a group of doctors—the “experts” we were told to listen to—can be seen at a buffet, nearly all of them in masks.
Do these doctors actually believe that wearing a mask while scooping food out of a tin, and wearing it while walking to their table, only to remove it moments later while eating with colleagues confers any benefit whatsoever?
And beyond the dubious benefit, is their preference for masking—in 2023—a value judgement that most Americans would share? Why were we told repeatedly to listen to experts who not only have been ignorant of the evidence, but who felt comfortable positioning themselves as authorities on values, which is different from being an authority on science?
But Are Experts Smarter?
Still, on many issues a lot of people default toward siding with those who have the most impressive credentials. Surely, advanced degrees signify that they are smarter than the rest of us.
A post on Twitter last week “Smug woman with a PhD gets put in her place by IQ test results,” went massively viral. The clip was edited from a longer YouTube video that first was posted in 2021, and has 7.6 million views.
It’s easy to see why the clip, and longer video, were so popular.
In the video a diverse group of young adults rank each other on their perceived intelligence, based on their education level, jobs, and how they carried themselves. A self-assured woman with a PhD confidently placed Tyler, a young man in the military, who only had a high school diploma, dead last, and herself second to the top, just after a Harvard graduate. Explaining her number two slot she said, “Me? PhD cancer biology, scientist,” while she did a little dance. She then received a few oohs and ahhs when she announced that she worked for a biotech company that makes Covid tests. All the other participants, except for one, also ranked the military guy last.
Without advance notice, everyone was then asked to take an IQ test. Lo and behold, the PhD scientist got the lowest score. Tyler was third from the top, just above a Yale graduate, who had told him that she didn’t “place a lot of value on the military,” drawing snickers from the others.
The video went viral for obvious reasons. It’s immensely satisfying, of course, to see someone with fancy degrees and employment titles, who is very impressed with themself, get shown up by an everyman. And it’s suggestive of something larger that many people have felt—the experts often don’t know what they are talking about, they’re not necessarily smarter than the rest of us, and they certainly don’t have an authority on ethics.
In 2009, Matthew Crawford, a scholar with a PhD in philosophy, published Shop Class as Soulcraft, a book extolling the virtues of working with one’s hands, where he explained that really good mechanics and other tradespeople—who, every day, were forced to solve problems in the physical world—were generally smarter, and often wiser than his think tank colleagues and other desk jockeys.
This isn’t to say that as a society, and as individuals, we shouldn’t rely on the expertise of others. We want a surgeon with years of training, we want a veteran engineer with great experience to design a bridge. But blind reverence for experts is too often utilized as a convenient defense for a certain position—be it the CDC’s promotion of masks or the AP’s blithe absolution of working with photojournalists who trail terrorists—instead of acknowledging uncertainty and ambiguity. Complex issues demand evidence, and ethical dilemmas demand debate. Neither are settled by the opinion of an “expert.”
Silent Lunch, The David Zweig Newsletter, is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and enable this work to continue, please consider becoming a free—or, better yet—paid subscriber.