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The End of ‘Objectivity’

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

In October, MSNBC launched a new ad campaign, featuring opinionated, liberal-leaning hosts like Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann and the tag “Lean forward.” You didn’t have to be an etymologist to see that the slogan played on the concept of progressivism, which had elevated MSNBC from the ratings tank to second place, behind conservative Fox.

Then Olbermann leaned a little too far. In November, MSNBC temporarily suspended him for donating to three Democratic candidates’ campaigns without getting permission (violating MSNBC’s rule and discomfiting the larger NBC News outfit). The decision was puzzling — was someone out there unaware that he’s liberal? — but not surprising. The overarching media story of 2010 has been what happens when old-fashioned authority gets uncomfortably mashed up with newfangled voice.

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The long-held rule of journalism was, Keep your point of view to yourself. The new rule is, Be outspoken, engaging and colorful — until we decide you’ve crossed the line.

Traditional media outlets know that they’re losing audience to online media and organizations like Fox, which encourage the kind of outspokenness and first-person voices that poker-faced news pages and evening newscasts have long repressed. They’re caught between the old paradigm of journalism, in which authority derives from hiding one’s subjectivity, and a new one in which authority derives from being transparent about it.

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So they’ve tried to co-opt the new guys the way the old guys usually do: partly, clumsily and with visible discomfort. Tweet, but don’t overshare! Be outspoken, but don’t tick anyone off! Be human, but don’t make mistakes! The problem is that audiences want journalists to engage matters they know and care about, not just Dancing with the Stars and their cats. So we’ve seen a chain of journalists get punished for, essentially, doing a little too much of what news outlets now encourage.

Not every lapse is equivalent, or defensible. Rick Sanchez was canned at CNN for saying that Jews dominate the media. Juan Williams was cut loose by NPR for saying (on Fox News) that he gets nervous seeing airplane passengers “in Muslim garb.” Veteran columnist Helen Thomas retired under fire after saying Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine.” Political reporter Dave Weigel was dropped by the Washington Post for criticizing certain conservatives. CNN’s Octavia Nasr lost her job for saying that she respected a deceased Hizballah leader who had opposed honor killings of women.

Whether any of those opinions was beyond the pale is one debate. But is anyone surprised that intelligent people have opinions about subjects they spend their careers studying? Of course not. In most fields, drawing informed conclusions is a sign of credibility. Only in journalism does the ideal health care reporter purport to have no opinion as to what makes a good health care system.

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Why? News organizations are still beholden to a concept of objectivity that has little to do with the word’s actual meaning. Real objectivity does not mean having no opinion or voicing no point of view. It means seeking, recognizing and interpreting facts even when they conflict with one’s preconceptions or desires. What journalists and the people who talk about them call objectivity is more like neutrality — often a false and labored one — intended to avoid offending the audience or sources (or advertisers).

Now, the argument has been made that this illusion is necessary to get people to talk to you and believe you. But looked at, well, objectively, that doesn’t hold. Arts journalists, sports journalists — and, yes, magazine journalists — have long proved that a point of view helps reporting. Today, we see solid reportage from journalists like the libertarian Weigel (now at Slate), the progressive Josh Marshall and the conservative Matt Labash, just as we long have from “subjective” writers like Michael Lewis or Joan Didion.

(See pictures of Diane Sawyer’s career in journalism.)

This doesn’t mean there should be no rules. Journalists should be up-front about their predilections and prejudices, and it makes sense to forbid political donations when, say, they could amount to buying access. But a news outlet’s work doesn’t become better or worse because, like NPR, it forbids reporters from attending Jon Stewart’s rally or draws an angels-on-a-pin distinction between Juan Williams’ “analysis” (good!) and his “opinion” (bad!). And if someone believes NBC’s Brian Williams must be liberal because MSNBC’s Maddow is, that person was always going to believe that Brian Williams is a liberal.

The days of pretending that journalists are dispassionate infobots are ending. And that’s good: trust built on openness is stronger than trust built on an agreed-upon fiction. We are seeing the death throes of the unsustainable concept of “objectivity.” Long live the real thing.

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