When I began working on my documentary American Circumcision, there were a lot of people who wanted me to create a neutral film, with an emphasis on showing both sides. I did just that – interviewing people from all perspectives for the film, and giving each a fair hearing.
However, since the release of the film, some critics have been upset the documentary included opinions beyond their own. Some wanted a pro-circumcision film, and felt the movie was anti-circumcision propaganda. Others wanted a strongly anti-circumcision film, and were mad I even show a circumcision. A few were upset that I showed both sides at all. What changed?
What Is Neutral Journalism?
I crowdfunded money for the film during the 2016 Presidential election. By then, there had been a significant change in what “neutral” journalism was. Much of the “neutral” press stated that the Republican Presidential candidate was so bad, so evil, and so Hitler-like that they had to let go of the norms of neutral-reporting and typical press behavior in order to stop him.
Now, “neutral” journalists from CNN frequently debate the President mid-question. Many of the journalists at Vox are former Media Matters activists. The press that covers activist groups like antifa is often from those activist groups. The Buzzfeed ethics guide says that in “activism” issues “there are not two sides.”
The press covering circumcision does not even compare to what “neutral” journalists do on mainstream political issues. Can you imagine if the press covering circumcision frequently debated doctors during press conferences, was staffed by former NOCIRC activists, and had written into their ethics code that there are “not two sides” to this issue? Would you call that neutral press?
The circumcision industry has never experienced real press, not the kind that other major American industries like fast food, oil, coal, tobacco, etc. regularly deal with. Most news stories on circumcision uncritically repeat press releases from major industry lobbies without ever reading the data or scrutinizing results that favor their practice.
For an industry that has never faced scrutiny, real press might feel like bias. After decades of news articles that only show the industry perspective, a film that shows both sides might seem biased, because it looks different than previous press. However, this doesn’t indicate bias – only that the industry has never had objective or critical reporting in the past.
Most news articles on circumcision feel the need to shoe-horn in the American Academy of Pediatrics policy on circumcision (which is now out-dated). How many articles on circumcision studies insert something about the large activist movement against the practice, the fact multiple European countries are considering banning the practice, or the fact the rest of the world does not practice circumcision? Wouldn’t a neutral press include these as well?
If an article were to do this, I suspect those in the circumcision industry would accuse them of bias, because neutral reporting on circumcision has never actually been tried by the legacy media.
Both Sides Were Upset By Showing Both Sides
With American Circumcision, I had both sides get mad at me for my neutrality.
Some activists were upset that I filmed and showed a circumcision, saying that I should have thrown myself on the baby to stop the procedure. Others were upset I even included the pro-circumcision perspective, or didn’t demonize the pro-circumcision subjects I interviewed. There were also some who felt the film should have been more shocking – more gore, more anger, more rage.
However, I wanted a neutral film. This meant showing both sides. I took neutrality to the point of showing both sides of even the female circumcision debate.
The female circumcision debate is one most Americans do not believe there are “two-sides” to. The mainstream American frame of female circumcision is that it is always bad and done only to oppress women. However, an objective perspective would include the view of those who practice it, and the anthropological research, both of which contradict this view.
One activist was upset that I even included a pro-female circumcision perspective, because it might be used to roll back gains that movement had made. However, those same activists were not mad I included a pro-male circumcision perspective. True neutrality means showing both sides, even on the issues you feel are reprehensible.
What Is Bias?
Since releasing the film, I’ve had a few critics accuse the film of being “biased.” This accusation is usually used to dismiss the film entirely so they don’t have to address anything said in the film. It’s also usually made with assumption that I whole-heartedly agree with certain interview subjects, and disagree with others.
I’d love to go through the film with a critic and see which parts they feel are biased, because it would require them to say that one side shown in the film is “biased” and the other is objective truth. Dismissing one side without acknowledging their arguments is of course the definition of bias.
I also have to wonder what these critics feel isn’t biased. For example, Andrew Freedman, one of the authors of the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics Policy statement on circumcision appears in my film. Intactivist critics point out that Freedman is Jewish and circumcised his own son on his kitchen table. Freedman feels that he is neutral on this issue because he only thinks that circumcision is a parental choice. Is he actually neutral?
Much of the legacy press cites the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as a neutral medical authority. The AAP presents themselves that way. At the same time, they make money on circumcision. The circumcision industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. If I made over a billion dollars on something, would you say I was neutral on it?
When there is a bias for something, and a financial incentive to protect it, there is also an incentive to brand those who are actually neutral as “fake news.” The idea that an independent documentary with no financial ties to the industry it covers is “biased” while that industry itself is “objective” is absurd. Performing a circumcision or making money on circumcisions are not neutral actions and indicate clear bias.
Medical organizations that perform circumcisions presenting themselves as neutral or unbiased on the circumcision debate is as absurd as if Planned Parenthood presented themselves as neutral on the abortion debate. The whole reason for an independent press is so that someone can examine an industry without their paycheck depending on that industry, because it’s understood those industries are incapable of self-objectivity.
There are those who will say that doctors and medical organizations are capable of objectively examining the evidence despite their financial incentives and regular practice of circumcision. However, if you’re doing to argue that those in the circumcision industry can be objective and without bias, then you can’t turn around and argue that independent press, activists, or critics are incapable of doing the same thing.
Do People Want Objectivity?
In the mainstream press, activism is often masked as neutral press. At the same time, the industries covered by the press often attack actual neutral press as activism. Is there a place for neutral journalism anymore?
With American Circumcision, I’m not worried. The film has done well, and reached a massive audience. Everyday I see new people discovering it. It remains the best objective overview of the circumcision debate. However, as I move towards next projects, I wonder if there would be any point to doing a similar venture – or should I move towards something more opinion-driven?
Interestingly, if this happens, it will be because of those in the circumcision industry who accuse me of bias. While I have critics who are against circumcision, they still talk to me. Those in the circumcision industry often won’t. I want to talk to both sides, but if one side stops talking to me, what I create can only reflect the people who are speaking.
Many documentaries now are film as op-ed. The filmmakers have a clear activist intention. Their goal is not news but an opinion piece. There is a well established genre to work in here. Up until now, I’ve been careful not to venture into this genre. However, in the future, that is going to change.
Over the past few months, I’ve begun shifting my social media content to reflect this change – making statements that are more opinion than neutral reporting on this issue. What I’ve noticed is that activists share them more, and critics say “see! We always knew he was biased.” (The fact they haven’t been able to detect the shift worries me – because it means people’s ideological blinders are so strong, they can’t see the difference between opinion and objectivity.)
However, there are things I could contribute on this issue from an opinion or activist perspective. I’ve deliberately avoided doing this during my work on the film. However, that work is complete. Now, it’s time for something new.