Mere journalism

One-time “Crossfire” pugilist Michael Kinsley has wondered out loud in the Washington Post and Slate whether it “might even be a healthy development for American newspapers to abandon the conceit of objectivity.”

Kinsley, the former editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, posits that: “Writers freed of artificial objectivity can try to determine the whole truth about their subject and then tell it whole to the world.”

With his piece, “The Twilight of Objectivity,” Kinsley joins the Higher Truth squad of journalism professors and media critics who—wrongly, I would maintain—argue that objectivity stands in the way of providing readers and viewers the “whole truth.” This post-modernist critique of American journalism often includes the notion that journalists should abandon the notion of balance and weigh in with their unvarnished views of “what is really happening.”

As Kinsley sees it, once journalists shuck the “pretense of objectivity” they will be free to hammer home what they know to be the truth. “Their ‘objective’ counterparts have to sort their subjective observations into two arbitrary piles: truths that are objective as well, and truths that are just an opinion. That second pile of truths cannot be published, except perhaps as a quote from someone else.”

The European model of a partisan press is often cited approvingly by the Higher Truth advocates (and Kinsley is no exception): “Most of the world’s newspapers, in fact, already make no pretense of objectivity in the American sense. But readers of the good ones (such as the Guardian or the Financial Times of London) come away as well informed as the readers of any “objective” American newspaper.” Sorry, but to be as well-informed as, say, a loyal New York Times reader, you would have to supplement the Guardian with numerous other sources to correct for its lefty slant. (I enjoy the Guardian‘s bite, but have found that a balanced journalistic presentation of facts on, for example, issues in the Middle East, is clearly lacking).

So I don’t buy Kinsley’s argument. Count me as one who has little patience for a mediated Higher Truth.

Just give me mere journalism, one focused on the basics: who, what, where, when, how and (if possible) why. I have confidence that the truth (with a small “t”) will emerge over time. I don’t want premature filtering or interpretation. Healthy skepticism, and a willingness to admit what isn’t clear or yet known, are worth a lot more to me than Kinsley’s second pile of “truths that are just an opinion.” Unfortunately I’ve heard those “second-pile truths” from journalists and pundits over the years, and know how unsubstantiated and false they often prove to be.

Underlying Kinsley’s thinking, it seems to me, is the notion that journalism offers transcendence, that it can somehow create a better world or advance the cause of justice. Admirers of this philosophy often see journalism as a means to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” (I agree with the Poynter Institute’s Dr. Ink: “If journalists want to comfort the afflicted, they should send money to the Red Cross.”) In practice, by the way, this grander vision inevitably leads to a journalism in thrall to a given political agenda or platform.

I would argue for a more modest view of what journalism—mere journalism—should aim for. How about an attempt to explain and illuminate the world, the world as it is, not as we may wish it to be (to paraphrase the educator Michael Bugeja)? Journalists should report and inform, recognizing that different people presented with the same facts will make different decisions. The improvement of society should be left to the do-gooders (and I say that without meaning to denigrate the role of voters, elected officials and other stakeholders who seek to “do good.”)

Underlying this bare-bones philosophy of journalism is the notion of objective-means methods of reporting and editing. Report the facts and the context—with as much accuracy as possible—and let the facts shape the story, not the other way around. Newsmen Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their engaging primer “The Elements of Journalism” stress a few other objective means fundamentals: journalistic independence, the need for verification and original reporting, and transparency about motives and methods.

In fairness, Kinsley recognizes the need for fact-finding under his new, non-objective model: “Without the pretense of objectivity, the fundamental journalist’s obligation of factual accuracy would remain.” In practice, however, that obligation wouldn’t count for much.

Human nature being what it is, once the “pretense of objectivity” disappears, a journalism of exaggeration, omission and fabrication, will emerge. Ideologues and partisans are notorious for forgetting to include any evidence that undercuts their argument. My European friends laugh about their need to read multiple newspapers to collect enough information to triangulate the facts.

The intractable problem with the Higher Truth approach is that it becomes easy to justify a trim here and tuck there—after all, what has been called the “cold arithmetic of fact” might not support that Higher Truth—and before long we are in the territory of the novelist, or, perhaps more accurately, that of the propagandist.

The irony is that today, just as Kinsley calls for the abandonment of objectivity, American newsrooms are struggling with reporters who haven’t been able to resist the siren song of the Higher Truth and have shaved, fudged or fabricated, often tailoring the facts to match prevailing anti-establishment (often left-of-center) preconceptions. Consider the list of those fallen from objective grace: Michael Finkel in the New York Times Magazine, Jack Kelley at USA Today, Eric Slater at the Los Angeles Times, Uli Schmetzer at the Chicago Tribune, Barbara Stewart at the Boston Globe, and Mary Mapes of CBS News. Some of these “journalists” may have been driven by ambition or pathological needs, but if you actually look at their fabricated reporting it is remarkable how often it supports a left-of-center ideological Higher Truth, an urge to “afflict the comfortable.”

Dropping the “pretense of objectivity” would only make this worse. ABC News just suspended the executive producer of the weekend edition of “Good Morning America” “over a pair of leaked e-mails in which he used inflammatory language to slam President Bush and Madeleine Albright.” In Kinsley’s brave new world, this bias would become routine, I am afraid. Imagine the over-the-top sermonizing of Lou Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly as the model. No thanks.

A final irony. The transparency of the Internet makes a journalism of verification, of objective means, even more crucial for the future of newspapers and other traditional news organizations, and—by extension—a healthy and functioning Republic. We need the anchor of objective, original reporting in this sea of information and half-truths, in an age where conspiracy theories bounce merrily about the Web. Let’s hope that the best news organizations continue to embrace mere journalism and its principles of accuracy, balance and independence, for we will all be better off for it.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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