In 1896, Adolph Ochs bought The New York Times and promised it would now deliver the news “without fear or favor.” For most of the following century, journalism waved the flag of objectivity as its highest standard. Soon even those who took shortcuts, fibbed, slanted, or embellished began pretending to be objective, as partisan outlets do today.
But for years now, the profession has quietly acknowledged the impossibility of objectivity, at least when coolly defined as detached from any point of view.
Is it time to lower the flag?
“People on the street have stopped me and said, ‘What do you think about objectivity?’” says Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School. He is introducing a panel discussion, “The Objectivity Wars,” moderated by Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Note some of the panelists’ recent work:
“The War on Objectivity in American Journalism” (David Greenberg).
The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity (Lewis Raven Wallace).
Not Exactly Lying: Fake News and Fake Journalism in American History (Andie Tucher).
Note, too, the perfect casting: the tenured White male on the panel is about to defend twentieth-century journalism, the tenured White female will share his fears, and the other three—younger, one Black, two trans, all with lively bios but less established power—will focus relentlessly on objectivity’s failures.
“Journalism has to change,” Pope says by way of kickoff. But David Greenberg does not seem convinced. Professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, he points out that “for much of the nineteenth century, you had an overtly partisan press.” Positivism, with its emphasis on facts and scientific inquiry, professionalized journalism. But alongside that new objectivity was “a very robust sphere of advocacy journalism, of opinion journalism, of partisan journalism, of polemics, of provocations, of fake news…. The strength of the American system over the last hundred years was the fact that we had both of those models in play.”
Before that happened, “journalism was terrible,” notes Andie Tucher, who holds a distinguished professorship and directs the communications Ph.D. program at Columbia. “Interviews were routinely invented, and they talked literally about how much fun it was to fake… Objectivity was in some days designed to stamp out fake news.”
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A few years ago, on his personal blog, Lewis Raven Wallace wrote a post he titled “Objectivity is dead and I’m ok with it.” National Public Radio promptly fired him. Earlier, he had worked in the LGBTQ press, where “the façade of objectivity was actively used to silence and exclude us.” Then, when Trump was elected, Wallace watched anxiety rise in newsrooms: “‘Okay, if we are going to run two stories today about something Trump lied about, do we need to do a third about something he did that was good? Can we say that he’s racist? Can we say he benefits from White supremacy?’ Which I think is a checkable fact.” He began to resist the invocation of objectivity, thinking, “It might not be the right frame for dealing with this tyrannical lying person.”
Wallace also questions the incessant resort to “polarization” as a framing device. “I’ve recently come to feel that it’s a distraction,” he explains. Polarization is presented specifically as a left-right political dynamic, and that overlay can cause us to forget that what we are really talking about are consequences of institutional racism or gaps in class and education.
“I think the crisis of legitimacy that journalism is in is parallel to—or even the same as—the crisis that democracy is in now,” he adds. The long-term question is how to rebuild trust in various communities. The short-term question is how to improve journalism by the time of the mid-term elections, and Wallace doubts that could happen. “It’s really profitable for news organizations to cover elections as a horse race, as a competition, as a back-and-forth,” he points out, with “bothsidesism” taking the place of meaningful analysis.
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Wesley Lowery won a Pulitzer for The Washington Post, and his book, They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement—written after he was arrested at the McDonald’s in Ferguson—is being adapted as a tv series.
What mainstream journalism has labeled objective truth has been decided almost exclusively by White reporters and White editors, Lowery points out. And their decisions about what to cover—and how, at what length, and with what resources—are, “no matter how much we may fetishize the idea of objectivity,” highly subjective.
Which is especially problematic when you realize that in today’s politics, “a lot of what we see playing out is the continued backlash to integration.”
When President Donald Trump targeted four Congressional representatives of color, tweeting that they should “go back to their countries,” that was a nativist and therefore racist remark, Lowery says. Yet most news organizations soft-pedaled it as “racially charged.” “Here we are, the bulwarks of our democracy, the Fourth Estate, too scared to look at the sky and say that it is blue.”
The timidity might also have a racial component, he adds. Because who was in those newsrooms? “There’s been no point in the history of American journalism where those decisions have not been decided almost exclusively by upper-class White men.” Objectivity should have been defined all along as earnest, sustained effort to recognize one’s biases and correct for them. And that should have led automatically, much earlier, to more diversity and inclusion. Instead, the creed took on a certain arrogance, as though it made journalism’s power unimpeachable. Too often, “objectivity” was wielded “to silence people who do not fit with the politics of the people who own and operate the newspapers.”
Which to me says the real problem is not the ideal of objectivity but its secret absence.
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Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who writes for The New Yorker, is nonbinary and trans and began their career writing about AIDS in the gay press. Journalism was a political act. Without reports on drug trials, no one would have known those drugs existed.
“The idea that mainstream and advocacy journalism can coexist strikes me as if not false then maybe facile,” Gessen remarks, noting that those in the mainstream marginalize advocacy journalists as “not real journalists.” Also, mainstream journalism is now corporate, owned by a handful of wealthy companies—which is proving “a massive failure.” Perhaps because the profit motive has supplanted objectivity? But Gessen would not put it that way; they see objectivity as a style, not a method. In the Trump era, they say, it has served to normalize things that should not be normalized by “putting everything in the smooth, shiny language of objectivity.”
“The abject failure of the media to cover what Donald Trump did to the courts” can be blamed on the objective style, Gessen adds, because it prevents deeper analysis.
Covering Ukraine, The New York Times had access to resources the Ukrainian state did not have access to, they continue. “How can we make an argument for an independent observer…when that observer has more resources to document and shape reality than the people on the ground?”
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The solution? All the panelists agree on the need for honesty, rigorous factchecking, fairness, a conscientious examination of one’s own biases, and a sincere attempt to correct for them. But spewing sanitized, objectified facts is not enough; a journalist’s job is to convey their meaning. A Ping-Pong volley between two sides is only quantitatively balanced, with truth and idiocy pretending to weigh the same.
So why not simply write from an acknowledged point of view? People have already lost faith in objective, mainstream journalism, Wallace maintains. But Greenberg thinks the central problem of the Trump era was an increased abandonment of objectivity, as left-wing institutions raced to mimic right-wing institutions in order to catch up and overcome the polarization. The result, he says, was “an even more precipitous decline in trust.” If we forsake objectivity altogether, “we get something even more riotous and ugly.”
Tucher thinks moving away from the ideal of objectivity would only clear even more space for people practicing what they say is journalism but really is not. Already, partisan news organizations are using the language of responsible journalism to steal its credibility. Outlets announce, “Truth is our banner,” and nobody factchecks.
“Where we are ending up, I fear, is that we have two dominant modes of journalism,” Tucher says. “We have the right-wing media empires that say, ‘We are the ones that have the facts,’ and the responsible journalists saying, ‘We’re working on it.’…. It’s a rigged debate, and it leaves me very nervous.”
Gessen suggests “moral clarity” as a better ideal than objectivity, pointing out that it was the highminded muckrakers of the early twentieth century “who did, frankly, the most important journalism of the period.”
We do need our muck raked. But who, in the current corporate oligarchy, will want to pay for that? And in a media landscape clogged with charging knights—their steeds kicking up clouds of dust in every direction—how are we to locate moral clarity?
That does not feel like an ending, a news story’s classic “kicker.” Because the conversation is not over.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.