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November 21, 2004 - One more round on whether the press can be objective...

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Below is Eric Alterman this week condensing what he writes in his book "When Presidents Lie."


The topic is one Rick Brown and I have bandied about – "How the cult of journalistic objectivity has plundered the guts out of American politics."  This also is the subtext for most of every edition of Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show."  What is the press supposed to do for a living?   The last time we discussed this, at least in relation to "The Daily Show," was here: August 29, 2004 - The Coming Bush Victory. 


But this isn’t funny; in fact, it’s a bit dry.  You might want to skim it and scroll down to Phillip Raines’ comment – and Rick Brown’s quick course in Journalism 101.


The Alterman text


The belief in "objectivity," explains the sociologist Michael Schudson, implies that "a person's statements about the world can be trusted if they are submitted to established rules deemed legitimate by a professional community.  Facts here are not aspects of the world, but consensually validated statements about it."  But as Schudson points out, this is an extremely anachronistic notion for a profession that, unlike medicine or law, requires no special training, licensing, esoteric techniques, or language.  What is defined as "objective" in journalism is determined in large measure by market forces.  It is hardly the same thing as such humanly achievable goals as "fairness" or "balance," but it has come to be interpreted as such.  Instead, objective journalism promotes a thoroughly depersonalized version of events based on what Schudson calls "the ideology of the distrust of the self."  Since the "self" in this case, is the composite of the journalist's experiences, knowledge, prejudices, and understanding of the contextual environment of a given event, it is difficult to argue that by attempting to rid himself of either relevant context or commonsense judgments, a journalist has some how served the informational interests of his reader.  Unconscious biases remain, of course, but they become shrouded in the guise of objectivity and invested with a kind of farcical authority.


Objectivity, moreover, is an ideology that, in its most pristine form, has no clear preference for fact over fiction.  It is notoriously easy to manipulate by unscrupulous sources who place a higher value on their own personal advancement than on the value of the public knowledge.  Because politicians tend to fall into this category, the rules of journalistic objectivity are regularly drafted into service on behalf of the most shameless kinds of demagoguery, lies, and outright thievery.  Against the concerted efforts of a high public official to mislead the public, the rules of objectivity render the journalist virtually helpless.  Joe McCarthy understood this better than anyone.  As Russell Baker complained in his memoirs: “Objective journalism forbade a reporter to go beyond what the great man said.  No matter how dull, stupid, unfair, vicious, or mendacious they might be, the utterances of the great were reported deadpan, with nary a hint that the speaker might be a bore, a dunce, a brute, or a habitual liar.”


The cult of objectivity is therefore something of a hoax.  It is an unachievable intellectual state for our subjective species even when it is not thoroughly compromised by network pressures, advertising revenues, political influence, and individual ambition.  Its pretense nevertheless narrows the spectrum of allowable interpretations and restricts the possibilities of thoughtful contextual analyses in journalistic reportage.  The net result is the intellectual impoverishment of our political dialogue.


Why, moreover, should only multi-media conglomerates be invested with the power to determine the content of our public dialogue?  Back in the twenties, Lippmann proposed the creation of a daily paper by labor and "militant liberalism."  Conflicting special interests, including those that make up the Democratic and Republican parties, should also be encouraged to participate in this endeavor--not only to inspire increased voter interest but also to try to recreate some of the lost communal bonds within American life.  One can imagine any number of short-sighted objections to this scheme, but there is really no inherent reason why this kind of journalism should be impracticable in the United States.  Europe is filled with politically interested newspapers, and many practice a higher quality journalism than do their objective American counterparts.  The conservative London Economist observes none of the rules of objective journalism, yet by providing its readership with a thorough context for its reporting and respecting their intelligence sufficiently to indulge its many biases, it manages to provide the sharpest and most engaging reporting in the English-speaking world.   In our own political culture, public television journalist Bill Moyers manages the almost superhuman feat of delving into intricate social and intellectual questions while managing to avoid virtually all of the theatricality and reductiveness that characterizes the rest of television's public discourse.  In a small, but significant fashion--if only for demonstrative purposes--Moyers' success  demonstrates that the medium does have the capacity to stimulate debate without paying heed to the twin shibboleths of objectivity or infotainment.


By destroying the prestige of pure opinion unsupported by factual investigation, a more honest journalism could deal a mighty blow to the power of pseudo-language, pseudo-events and pseudo-environments in American politics.  None of these are completely eradicable.  The dilemmas diagnosed by Lippmann predated the birth of the pundit business and they would undoubtedly outlast its demise.  The inanity of television culture, as well as the cozy and corrupt political relationships that help sustain the punditocracy, may still thwart the emergence of a more sensible national debate.  But once we withdraw the prestige associated with the utterance of wholly ignorant pronouncements in the media, the burden of proof in a political argument would come to rest on a writer's ability to marshal his facts into a coherent context.


A second justification for the elimination of the pretense of objectivity is the currently lamentable state of journalistic prose.  This is not a trivial issue.  Many of the country's most prestigious newspapers are also its most boring, resembling what A.J. Liebling once called "Adolph Ochs' colorless, odorless, and especially tasteless [New York] Times."  Newspapers are losing readers in America in large measure because young people do not recognize their relevance to their lives.  This is not only unfortunate for their stockholders, but it has an insidious effects on the quality of our political culture and the nature of the country's "culture of communication."


By attempting to produce an almost scientific representation of political behavior, the cult of journalistic objectivity has plundered the guts out of American politics.  Stripped of an comprehensible intellectual and emotional context for the news, Americans lose their personal engagement with politics.  Requiring some sort of connection to a larger community, they grasp instead for the vicarious emotional fulfillment of the worship of celebrity.  The resulting abdication from politics, coupled with the increasing identification with the culture of celebrity, represents, as much as any single development, the foundation of the punditocracy's opportunity to hijack our national political dialogue and direct it towards goals and ambitions that have precious little relevance to most Americans' lives.  Were contemporary journalists able once again to recapture the hearts and minds of its readership, the reconstruction of our community conversation might follow.


It is possible to imagine, in such a scenario, the rejuvenation of the American political process as national issues once again re-enter emotional and intellectual psyches of ordinary Americans.  The return of a journalism of engagement would not by itself cure American politics of its many ailments.  It certainly will not by itself reverse the nation's long-term economic and environmental decline.  But by undermining the prestige of ignorant opinion, by reducing the element of pure theatrics from our politics, and by expanding the parameters of permissible political thought, a new American journalism could help to break down the barriers that currently frustrate our ability to address the tasks that lay before us.  We cannot begin to solve our problems until we first learn how to talk about them.


Phillip Raines weighs in -


Objectivity in journalism is merely a way of building fences to contain opinion.  It has perspective.  It is plenty boring if it is only stenography.  The skill with which it is described goes back to the way certain hunters told about the hunt around the fire.  Journalism wonks, trying to try something new will put some zippy twist to their delivery, but it doesn't woo me all that much. 


What the text here shows is a love of the written word more than the way broadcast news is altering the way we get the story, and that is why newspapers are in decline, especially with the young, not because newspapers are "loosing relevance to our lives.” 


And the newspaper is as Ted Turner called it -"yesterday's news."  I can't say that Eric Alterman has shown that his writing is fun to read with this piece. 

Maybe that isn't the kind of reader he's looking for, or respects.  I think his vanity about his wordiness has run away with himself, like the dish ran away with the spoon. 


What the press doesn't do enough is talk about what political policy will do to people.  No health insurance for you?  Your kid gets a high fever and is never quite right in the head and it's all because you couldn't afford the 200 bucks to find out that you needed to spend 10,000 for a week in the hospital so he can't learn several languages and can only look forward to working hard and getting high but high is so much better that he never earns much and can't see the sense in going on?  A calamity of errors all because a not-my-problem policy maker didn't get called out by someone who reported the story in a way that the policy maker had to rethink his approach based on a new perspective laid out by a decent journalist with a wise boss and righteous ad sponsor. 


Some of the public doesn't care about the details unless they are about what Brittney Spears is thinking or Paris Hilton is wearing.  It may be a problem with journalism, but it's not my problem with journalism.  Finally I think Alterman never heard "speak simply to be understood" which makes me wonder if he studied journalism or is just a critic of journalism.


Rick Brown, the News Guy in Atlanta -


At least to some extent, I agree with Phillip - Alterman seems to have written this thing as if he's being paid by the word.


Also, how can you possibly come up with a counter-argument to whatever his point is, when he can always say he handled your objection somewhere in the middle of paragraph twenty-eight, which apparently came right after you dozed off in paragraph twenty-seven?


Here's my take on "journalistic objectivity". (Please try to stay awake.)


Remembering that, classically, there are two categories of "journalist" - the "reporter" (whose job it is to just report  without giving his opinion) and the "commentator" (who has the option of reporting but is mostly required, by definition, to give his opinion.)


Quite simply, "journalistic objectivity" is neither an "ideology" nor a "cult" - it's just a principle that many good reporters try to adhere to.


The main task of being objective involves (1) trying to know all there is about such-and-such controversy, and then (2) reporting each new development of the story in a way that doesn't take sides.


Example 1:


A space alien, knowing nothing about this country that could not be specifically inferred from watching early 1950s transmissions of "I Love Lucy," lands his saucer near a "pro-life" demonstration outside an abortion clinic, and, in flawless English (albeit with a very slight Cuban accent), asks a nearby news reporter what this is all about.


Which is the right answer?

(a) "It's all about the murder of unborn babies," or

(b) "It's all about the right of women to control their own bodies," or

(c) "All of the above."


(Since there's no way of flipping this text upside down, I'll just go ahead and give you the answer: (c) comes closest to being objective.)


Example 2:


Hardly any of the coverage supplied by broadcast and cable networks during the invasion of Iraq was objective. Generally, it didn't try very hard to get the whole story, and it tended to take sides. Not surprisingly, the American-based networks took the coalition's side, just as the Arab networks often seemed to be supporting their home team. (It must be stated here that true "objectivity" often will come bundled with "courage".)


Yeah, but doesn't just getting a boring objective viewpoint leave news consumers with little to go on when it comes to making judgments?


Not necessarily, since you've given them "facts" - which are, of course, nothing to be sneezed at. But if they want to hear more discussion, they can always go to the commentators to get their fix of "opinions" - which, in their own right, are also not chopped liver.


Now, whether you, a news organization, choose to follow these "rules" is, I'm afraid, a marketing decision. The rules are not laws, nor are they enforceable otherwise.


You can take the high road by keeping reportage and comment separate, in which case you come off looking good because people trust that the facts they're getting can be relied upon, but this also brings with it the downside that lots of people find you dull, and young people find you "not relevant to their lives." (And this is supposed to be new? I don't remember many "young people" reading the New York Times when I was a "young" person.)


Or some news outlet can strike out in a "bold new direction" by mixing opinion in with its reporting. Obviously, Fox News comes to mind here -- although, I must admit, when I do watch them, I don't find as much of this sort of thing going on as I've been led to believe happens. In any event, the upside is the MTV generation may find you thrilling, but the downside is lots of intelligent people will find your information suspect.


But what about all those Europeans, with their newspaper for every opinionated constituency?


We used to do that here, too. Back in the days before all the papers in almost every city merged into one, some cities had five to ten dailies, including maybe one for that Whig who favored immigration but didn't like national banks, competing with another for those Conservative Democrats who were opposed to both immigration and the gold standard. For whatever reason, and for good or ill, we have fewer daily print outlets today, and I think it would serve little good purpose to have the only newspaper in town consistently disagreeing with my opinions. Also, as mentioned above, it would probably not be a very good business decision on their part.


Anyway - and I'm not sure of Eric Alterman's political leanings, but I suspect he doesn't fit this profile - why is it that most of those in this country who periodically come up with this "journalistic objectivity isn't all it's cracked up to be, assuming it's even possible" argument tend to be conservatives?


I suspect it's because objectivity tends to rest heavily on facts, and facts so rarely seem to fall in the conservative direction. So who cares about what really happened, especially if that reality detracts from what we all know we should be believing anyway?


(See recent pre-election discussions here of "faith-based" people vs "reality-based" people.)  [Editor’s Note: see October 24, 2004 - Say what? Who are you going to believe? Me, or your own eyes? and the follow on articles.]


This one won’t be settled soon.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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Paris readers add nine hours....