Media: Objectivity and Its Discontents

MEDIA, 20 Feb 2023

Patrick Lawrence | ScheerPost - TRANSCEND Media Service

NPR Newsroom 2010, via Flickr

14 Feb 2023 – Look, it is one thing for reporters and line editors to abandon the fundamental principle of objectivity as they hurl their hatchets at those who provoke their prejudices—Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, this, that or the other governor or senator, this, that, or the other dissident. It is greatly, entirely another for the retired coots now posing as the profession’s wise men to elevate these derelictions to the principle of there-are-no-principles.

My word. How far down the crater of corruption are those running US media’s newsrooms going to cascade? Land sakes alive, as my great aunt Louise used to exclaim.

In a recent column I mentioned The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman for her farcically unbalanced coverage of Trump during his 2017–2021 presidency. This is a reporter who saw fit to ridicule Trump’s preference for hamburgers and ice cream while covering a foreign visit during which a state dinner featured haute cuisine. It is over-the-top juvenile, but I cite Haberman as merely exemplary of the prevalent aesthetic in mainstream US media, an aesthetic of self-indulgent childishness and irresponsibility.

Now Len Downie, a former executive editor at The Washington Post, and Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News, have tucked into this matter. A couple of weeks ago they released their co-authored “Beyond Objectivity,” a lengthy report published by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. This 54–page document, subtitled “Producing trustworthy news in today’s newsrooms,” seems already to have set off a minor riot of shallow, uninformed comment. It is nominally intended to address professionals, a “playbook,” but, text and subtext, it comes over as a we’re-on-the-job reassurance to the reading and viewing public—which, of course, is reading and viewing ever less of what mainstream media inflict upon us.

Downie has concurrently published an opinion piece in The Post, “Newsrooms that move beyond ‘objectivity’ can build trust.”

Ditch objectivity as a professional norm and we will be better trusted. Let me get this straight.

The Gallup polling organization, in its latest “Confidence in Institutions” report, published last summer, found that 16 percent of those surveyed believe what they read in US newspapers. If you are sitting down, 11 percent of North Americans take broadcasters of television news seriously. Bear with me a sec, as I have to turn these concussing numbers upside down to absorb them: 84 of every 100 US citizens do not think newspapers report events truthfully; 89 of every 100 US citizens consider what they see and hear in nightly newscasts unreliable.

By any serious interpretation of these kinds of polls, readers and viewers are not getting anything like what they seek when they pick up the newspaper or turn on the nightly news. What they want seems to me beyond debate: They look for sound, disinterested accounts of human events, reported by practitioners trained to convey information such that their audiences are—key word—informed. To be informed is to know what happened. US media do not inform us and we cannot tell what happened: This is what people say when they respond to polling questions.

By definition, I would say, keeping people informed and telling them what happened can have nothing to do with what a reporter wishes happened, or what a reporter and his or her editors want you to think happened, or what reporters, editors, and publishers at this point insist happened as a matter of ideological imperative. It is a question of the journalist’s special, maybe unique duties in a democratic society. These duties require a maximum degree of detachment, otherwise known as objectivity, to be fulfilled successfully.

“Objectivity enforces ‘the view from nowhere’ as the norm.” “Objectivity is not even possible.” “The journalist’s job is truth, not objectivity.” These are quotations from journalists Downie and Heyward cite with approval. Do you detect what a morass those purporting to lead debate on this question guide us into? I do not for the life of me know what the first of these remarks means. The second is obvious, and I will shortly address it. The third is pernicious: This is the kind of journalist one must watch out for.

“Both-sidesism” is among the cardinal sins in this universe. So is being white and male and a trained professional. While acknowledging the question of newsroom diversity as valid—pressing, indeed—I do not see that addressing it is at all served by discarding objectivity as a professional norm. I would say the opposite in the case. Let us consider race, gender, and all things to do with diversity with careful detachment, understand them as they are, and get them right: This would be my line, and I will otherwise leave this matter alone for now as my concerns lie in another direction.

Here is Downie reflecting back on his own professional years at The Post: “I never understood what ‘objectivity’ meant. My goals for our journalism were instead accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability, and the pursuit of truth.”

Say whaaa? Is objectivity so out of fashion one must repudiate it while favoring the very things objectivity is intended to achieve? Are we so befuddled we descend into pointless word games? Parenthetically, I wonder whether someone who confesses he never understood the principle of objectivity ought to have served as managing editor and then executive editor of what was during his time a major North American daily. A little unnerving to think about it.

Well, objectivity as a professional principle has collapsed in “today’s newsrooms.” Let us make a virtue of this collapse. This is the Downie–Heyward thesis, fair to say. “Beyond Belief” is the better name for it.

We had better begin at the beginning, as what Downie and Heyward wish to perpetrate by way of awarding some kind of seal of approval is a very, very big deal not only for journalists and its practitioners but for the health or otherwise of our polity.

Objectivity has been a contentious question for journalists since it was elevated to a professional orthodoxy a century ago. We can define it as the notion of truth untouched by opinion, sentiment, bias, belief, or ideology. Or: principled, disinterested fidelity to available evidence, all of it, even when it may conflict with one’s perspectives and leanings.

Walter Lippmann was among objectivity’s influential advocates in the 1920s, but there began the complications. Objectivity was soon put to other uses: Newspapers and radio broadcasters that were other than objective cited their objectivity to claim elevated authority over their audiences. Publishers and editors used the imperative of objectivity to straitjacket reporters and neuter their faculties of discernment and judgment. The intent was to naturalize prevalent ideologies and orthodoxies—North American exceptionalism, pre–Cold War anti–Communism, what we now call free-market fundamentalism. These were advanced as objective realities in no need of critical inspection.

Along about the 1970s, when critical monthlies such as [MORE] were on newsstands, journalists who considered their craft seriously began to hold the encrusted dogma of objectivity up to the light. They did so in the name of the uncorrupted ideal. This is the ideal of objective reason, which dates to the ancient Greeks. It requires that thought be conducted without reference to the desirability of its conclusions. To make any such reference is to succumb to subjective reason. Socrates taught us that reason should determine belief: To allow belief to determine reason is the corruption of subjective reason. The late Robert Parry, a journalist of impeccable integrity, put the case for objective reason this way: “I don’t care what the truth is. I just care what the truth is.”

Ideals are never fully realized: This is so by definition, and certainly it holds for journalists. But ideals are to be striven for nonetheless. From the moment an editor or reporter decides which story to cover and which to leave alone, personal judgments and all that inform them are at work. There is nothing to be done about this and only one sound way for journalists to think about it. This requires an understanding of one’s responsibilities, quite special responsibilities, and the discipline to honor them. This was the point back in the [MORE] days, when conscientious journalists challenged the misuse of the principle of objectivity. It is among the lessons I learned in my earliest days as a professional.

Now objectivity is up for consideration once again. And the project is not to restore the ideal: It is to discard the ideal altogether. The New York Times was the first to advocate this, in that Jim Rutenberg piece I mentioned in this space a short while ago, published at the time of Trump’s political ascendancy and headlined, “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.” This piece effectively announced the triumph of subjective reason, wherein thought is assigned the purpose of producing a desired outcome, and it has been a long time coming. Max Horkheimer identified this as among the maladies of our time—“the sickness of the thinking mechanism”—in “The Eclipse of Reason,” which he published in 1947, the same year, it is worth noting, the Truman administration set Cold War I in motion.

“‘Objectivity’ has lost its usefulness as a shorthand for journalism’s aspirations,” Michael Luo suggested in a piece he published in The New Yorker four years after Rutenberg’s. At the time, a reporter for one of the networks dismissed objectivity as “a failed experiment.” Reading these and other commentaries like them gave the strong impression that journalists active in  mainstream media were well on the way to making a mess of the matter, if they had not landed themselves in one already. Their thoughts as to what ought to replace the ideal of objectivity amount to a case for radical subjectivity, for a license to infuse one’s work with all that was previously to be guarded against: belief, emotion, bias, ideology. Wesley Lowery, who rendered the “failed experiment” judgment, calls this “moral clarity” but fails to explain whose morality he means.

“I’m not arguing for subjectivity,” Lowery told Downie and Heyward, apparently in reply to his (numerous) critics. “I’m actually whole-heartedly endorsing objectivity as properly defined.” Lippmann, the old advocate of objectivity as an instrument of liberal ideology, lives in phrases such as Lowery’s.

Not to be missed in all of this and as Lowery suggests, the subjectivists, as I will call them, are almost invariably inclined to wrap their biases and beliefs in the very language they purport to oppose—the traditional language of objectivity. It is in this way the subjectivists take us straight back to Lippmann and the restoration of objectivity-as-pose. With the history of this question in view I can think of few greater ironies. But a reading of any major daily’s front page on any given day makes this point quite clearly: We find the same sonorous, authoritative diction and the same faux disinterest used to naturalize contempt for whomever or whatever the press wants to attack and to approve of whatever it wishes to favor. It is by way of this professional sleight of hand that advocates of subjectivity propose to advance their ideological proclivities as none other than objective truth. We are back in the 1920s.

To cast this question in a larger context, to refute the principle of objectivity, is to railroad journalism straight into the swamp of postmodernism, wherein there is no reality but subjective reality, the truth is whatever one posits it to be, the truth one asserts on Monday is entirely fungible and may be different by Tuesday. How far distant do we stand from Orwell’s “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength?” Pomo newspapers and newscasts: Are we ready for this, readers? Or have we already arrived?

It is already evident—has been for years—where this kind of thinking gets us. If you can tell where the news section of any major daily ends and the opinion pages begin, I need your assistance. I can’t.

Here I make common cause with none other than Bret Stephens, the far-right New York Times columnist. You’ve got to love Bret. We all love Bret. We all set aside the disclosure a year ago next month that our Bret was on the QT editing a right-wing journal, Sapir, that is funded by a dark money op called the Maimonides Fund, a minor detail I would have liked to have known about. And let’s just forget that The Times ought to have fired Bret on this news, assuming—and this is a dicey assumption—it did not know of and approve of this undisclosed conflict of interest. At least now we can read Bret’s commentaries on Israel and know who writes one of his checks.

Bret hasn’t got an objective bone in his body, his blood running as it does with conservative ideology. But Bret Stephens dwells in the land of opinions. We can buy them as he offers them or leave them on the shelf, as we wish. And in a column published last week he has come to the defense—imperfectly argued, but still—of objectivity and the difference between a reporter’s responsibilities and a columnist’s.

The genesis and timing of this… this swerve into stupidity must be noted if we are fully to understand it.

It is not hard to discern the facts of the case. Recall the outsize expectations during the 2016 presidential campaigns that Hillary Clinton would win handily in her contest with the relentlessly denigrated Trump. This had a deeper meaning apart from delivering unto Clinton her moment in the sun. Her victory was to consolidate liberal ideology as humanity’s only way forward; it would mark the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama had so idiotically postulated years earlier.

Read into the chronology I have pencil-sketched—the Rutenberg declaration of The Times’s intent just as Trump rose to prominence, the debate subsequently conducted in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and now the Downie–Heyward report. As these people defenestrate the principle of objectivity, they are waging this same ideological battle on another front. It is quite unmistakable, is it not, that the campaign to drop objectivity as a professional principle is a  campaign conducted by liberals.

We are listening, then, to the frightening emergence of liberal authoritarianism as it manifests in our newspapers and over our airwaves. Spongy, insidious phrases such as “moral clarity” refer to nothing more or less than the “morals,” if this is what they are, of the illiberal liberalism that has flowered among us since 2016. Never mind Donald Trump and his many wrongs, his hamburgers, and his ice cream. It is the liberal authoritarians among us who will prove the lasting blight, they who already begin to fulfill de Tocqueville’s prophecy of a “soft despotism” descending on US.

To stand for objectivity is to stand for something very important to a thriving public space, a verdant village green. It is part of what makes debate—discourse altogether—possible. To stand against it is nothing more than an argument in disguise for one-sideism, and that—know your history—leads to places only the worst among us would favor.


A portion of this essay is extracted from “Journalists and Their Shadows,” forthcoming from Clarity Press. Cara Marianna contributed additional insight. 

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans after the American Century. His Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored. His website: Patrick Lawrence

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