Against “Objective” Journalism

The conventional model of “objectivity” in professional journalism (otherwise known as “he said, she said” and “stenography”), as it’s practiced today in the dead tree media, goes back to Walter Lippmann.

As Christopher Lasch described it, in The Revolt of the Elites, Lippmann’s view of society and government in general was that

[s]ubstantive questions could be safely left to experts, whose access to scientific knowledge immunized them against the emotional “symbols” and “stereotypes” that dominated public debate.

His influence on twentieth century journalism, in particular, was to destroy the earlier function of newspapers in the nineteenth century as the center of democratic debate.

Newspapers might have served as extensions of the town meeting. Instead they embraced a misguided ideal of objectivity and defined their goal as the circulation of reliable information….

Lasch believed that ideal of objectivity was wrong-headed because it ignored the dialectical nature of truth:

What democracy requires is vigorous public debate, not information. Of course, it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can be generated only by debate. We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy. Information, usually seen as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its byproduct. When we get into arguments that focus and fully engage our attention, we become avid seekers of relevant information. Otherwise we take in information passively–if we take it in at all.

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Lippmann had forgotten what he learned (or should have learned) from William James and John Dewey: that our search for reliable information is itself guided by the questions that arise during arguments about a given course of action. It is only by subjecting our preferences and projects to the test of debate that we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn…. It is the act of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of “opinions”…. In short, we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others.

The partisan press of the nineteenth century is the classic example of the emergence of truth through dialectic, or the adversarial process. “Their papers [Greeley’s, Godkin’s, etc., nineteenth century party newspapers] were journals of opinion in which the reader expected to find a definite point of view, together with unrelenting criticism of opposing points of view.” Lippmann’s view of the world, on the other hand, amounted to a “spectator theory of knowledge.”

There are serious problems with the “both sides” model of “objective reporting.” As Justin Lewis described it in Project Censored Yearbook 2000,

The norms of “objective reporting” thus involve presenting “both sides” of an issue with very little in the way of independent forms of verification… [A] journalist who systematically attempts to verify facts–to say which set of facts is more accurate–runs the risk of being accused of abandoning their objectivity by favoring one side over another….

….[J]ournalists who try to be faithful to an objective model of reporting are simultaneously distancing themselves from the notion of independently verifiable truth….

The “two sides” model of journalistic objectivity makes news reporting a great deal easier since it requires no recourse to a factual realm. There are no facts to check, no archives of unspoken information to sort through…. If Tweedledum fails to challenge a point made by Tweedledee, the point remains unchallenged.

Regarding this last point, the New York Times‘ Steven R. Weisman explicitly defended as right and proper the fact that mainstream journalists wouldn’t independently raise a fact that wasn’t raised by the opposition party. From Brent Cunningham again:

The Republicans were saying only what was convenient, thus the “he said.” The Democratic leadership was saying little, so there was no “she said.” “Journalists are never going to fill the vacuum left by a weak political opposition,” says The New York Times’s Steven R. Weisman.

So also said former Washington Post assistant managing editor Karen DeYoung:

“We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power. … If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said.”

Got that? So if an elected official stands up and says the moon is made out of green cheese, a newspaper is not obliged to challenge this assertion.

That means that when the “opposition” is as gutless and contemptible as the Democrats have been over Iraq these past six years or so, the public is essentially screwed when it comes to information that might challenge the administration’s version of reality.

My favorite exposition of this model of “journalism” was made by The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry:

STEWART: Here’s what puzzles me most, Rob. John Kerry’s record in Vietnam is pretty much right there in the official records of the US military, and haven’t [sic] been disputed for 35 years?

CORDDRY: That’s right, Jon, and that’s certainly the spin you’ll be hearing coming from the Kerry campaign over the next few days.

STEWART: Th-that’s not a spin thing, that’s a fact. That’s established.

CORDDRY: Exactly, Jon, and that established, incontravertible fact is one side of the story.

STEWART: But that should be — isn’t that the end of the story? I mean, you’ve seen the records, haven’t you? What’s your opinion?

CORDDRY: I’m sorry, my opinion? No, I don’t have “o-pin-i-ons”. I’m a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called ‘objectivity’ — might wanna look it up some day.

STEWART: Doesn’t objectivity mean objectively weighing the evidence, and calling out what’s credible and what isn’t?

CORDDRY: Whoa-ho! Well, well, well — sounds like someone wants the media to act as a filter! [high-pitched, effeminate] “Ooh, this allegation is spurious! Upon investigation this claim lacks any basis in reality! Mmm, mmm, mmm.” Listen buddy: not my job to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me.

Mainstream journalism, in a futile attempt to seem “less opinionated,” avoids reporting a great deal of information that is newsworthy in the sense of shedding light on the official version of things.

I say the attempt is “futile” because in practice it amounts to mainstream journalism uncritically promoting an unexamined opinion of its own.

Mainstream journalism is unconsciously biased toward the official version of reality. The “both sides” model, Brent Cunningham wrote,

exacerbates our tendency to rely on official sources, which is the easiest, quickest way to get both the “he said” and the “she said,” and, thus, “balance.” According to numbers from the media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the 414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from last September to February, all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. So we end up with too much of the “official” truth.

More important, objectivity makes us wary of seeming to argue with the president — or the governor, or the CEO — and risk losing our access….

Finally, objectivity makes reporters hesitant to inject issues into the news that aren’t already out there. “News is driven by the zeitgeist,” says Jonathan Weisman, “and if an issue isn’t part of the current zeitgeist then it will be a tough sell to editors.” But who drives the zeitgeist, in Washington at least? The administration.

Some 40% of newspaper column inches, the last I read, are taken up by material generated by public spokesmen, press releases, and PR departments.

Another version of the same phenomenon is wire service reporters writing stories on foreign events from their hotel rooms, using handouts from the U.S. Embassy. A good example is AP coverage of the anti-Chavez coup in Venezuela in the spring of 2002. After the removal of Chavez, the White House stuck to the talking point that he “resigned,” and their doggies at the Associated Press stuck to it faithfully. Indymedia and Narco News Bulletin, meanwhile, reported that Chavez had not resigned, and was being held incommunicado.

When the people of Venezuela, for once, managed to thwart the will of the Killer Klowns and blood money men in Washington and restore Chavez, guess what? It turned out the White House and its AP stooges had been lying, and Indymedia and NarcoNews were telling the truth.

Cunningham’s remarks above on loss of access are far from hypothetical. Consider, for example, the Pentagon’s reaction to Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks:

In his more than two decades covering the military, Ricks has developed many sources, from brass to grunts. This, according to the current Pentagon, is a problem.

The Pentagon’s letter of complaint to Post executive editor Leonard Downie had language charging that Ricks casts his net as widely as possible and e-mails many people.

Details of the complaints were hard to come by. One Pentagon official said in private that Ricks did not give enough credence to official, on-the-record comments that ran counter to the angle of his stories.

But the outrage isn’t limited to official circles. It extends to establishment journalism itself. The New Republic, the Holy See of the kind of Crolyite managerialism I despise, went so far as to contrast “objectivity” with “truth” (to the prejudice of the latter, of course). It accused bloggers of

chasing Truth without the shackles of objectivity…. The MSM makes an earnest (albeit occasionally flawed) effort to achieve a neutral understanding of events, and that’s the source of an authority and prestige that even its harshest critics… must respect….

Some apologists for the old gatekeeper media like to accuse bloggers of pyramiding on the investigative work of traditional journalists. They argue that bloggers are mostly just reproducing material from the old-line news media, or using material generated by professional reporters.

And there’s probably something to it: Internet journalism has far fewer direct shoe-leather reporters doing the grunt work of journalism, painstakingly building lists of contacts, etc., and probably always will.  It’s quite true that blogs, to a considerable extent, reproduce or rewrite traditional news; I’ve seen many examples of it.

Nevertheless I don’t think it’s a fair criticism, because it fails to grasp the importance of what blogs do with information obtained elsewhere. Blogs don’t just reproduce it or rewrite it.

The Web seems to be, increasingly, separating the functional task of reporting from the old aggregating roles of newspapers and their editorial staff. The reporting done by the people on the ground can now be aggregated in a thousand different venues.

Bloggers and online journals, in most cases, probably aren’t nearly as good as traditional newspapers when it comes to matching the human capital directly engaged in reporting. But they’re much better than newspapers at selecting from all the reporting available out there, putting the raw material together, and talking about what it means. If traditional journalists are better at collecting the information, in other words, bloggers are better at doing something with it.

Networked, peer produced journalism can use the product of established reporters, with their contacts, as a building block; they can put the raw material generated by “professional” journalists to better use.

A blogger will often link to the official statement of a public spokesman, and quote extensively from it. That much a traditional journalist would also do. But the blogger will then put the statement in context by linking to a wide range of reported news from numerous traditional media sources, including current news that directly contradicts the official version of reality, or to past official statements that directly contradict what the government is saying now. A blogger isn’t afraid to flat-out state the fact, for example, that the President is lying.

In other words, bloggers are the new newspapers. For the most part they don’t do the leg work of reporting themselves, or generate the raw material. But they aggregate and interpret it in ways that traditional newspapers should be doing–but aren’t. The human infrastructure of traditional reporting is a magnificent army. But as Lincoln said to McClellan, “if you’re not planning to do anything with that army, may I borrow it?”

Far better than the twentieth century model of fake neutrality, with its pose of credulity toward official claims, is the nineteenth century party press. That model of journalism was based, as Lasch said above of Godkin and Greeley, on the understanding that truth emerges from dialectic—from the adversarial process. The way to arrive at truth is to apply logic to the facts and make the best case for reality, as you see it, that you can. Any bias in your case will be ruthlessly cross-examined by others using logic and evidence to make their own case.

When a blogger presents a one-sided version of reality, guess what happens? They’re hyperlinked by an opposing blogger, who then puts their one-sided account into perspective by linking to the information they left out.

It’s only through such an adversarial process, with all the entry barriers removed from the marketplace of ideas, that the whole truth can emerge. This way is certainly better than a deliberate pose of obtuseness, pretending not to see what’s staring you right in the face, for fear the facts might show that reality itself is biased.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008.

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