Wednesday, July 28, 2004

That's the way it was

As Eric predicted, the NY Times ombudsman's admission of the paper's liberal bias got a lot of bloggers rocking. Such a "dog bites man" thesis, it got me to thinking about the premise behind it, about the presumption that objectivity is the great (if rarely achieved) goal of journalism.

In journalism, objectivity comes and goes. In the last century it got the wind knocked out of it in the era of Vietnam and Watergate. I would date it to roughly when Walter Cronkite quit signing off with "That's the way it is."

We now have a niche media market to suit every information consumer, the media (the abundance of it) driving the message (the abundance of them). The cultural studies revolution (which grew out of the political upheaval of the 60s), emphasizing the "situatedness" of every story, also helped break down the notion of objectivity. The vibrancy of the blogosphere shows that this trend is accelerating. (Whether the establishment media feels threatened by political bloggers is a lively subject of debate (via instapundit), at least among political bloggers.)

I thought I remembered from ancient-day journalism classes that the "modern" (20th c.) notion of journalistic objectivity was the creation of Walter Lippman. This, it turns out, is not precisely so, though what he did do is even more interesting.

In Public Opinion (1922), writes James Fallows in Breaking the News (1996), Lippman

used the experience of censorship and information-control during [World War I] as the starting point for an argument that the nature of democracy had fundamentally changed. Modern civilization, with its vast scale and great technological advances, had become too complex to be governed by old-style mass democracy, Lippman said. The intricacies of science, economics, diplomacy, the law, and a dozen other areas were so refined and specialized that no ordinary citizen could possibly keep up with them. Government based on informed consent by a fully participating public was simply no longer feasible. Events were too diverse and unfathomable. The possibility of manipulating the news and images was too great, as the handling of war news had shown. The only hope for effective modern government lay in cultivating a group of well-trained experts, who would manage the country's journalism as well as its governmental affairs. The newspapers and magazines produced by these experts would lay out conclusions for the public to follow, but no one should expect the public to play more than a passive, spectator's role.

That is to say, Lippman invented the "media elite."

By now the evidence is strong that this particular kind of journalism became itself part of the power structure that it was supposed to critique. Even at the time, Lippman had a formidable critic: John Dewey. Dewey (according to Fallows)

argued that a healthy process of democratic self-government was at least as important as an efficient result. Indeed, he said that unless citizens were actively engaged in the large decisions any society had to make, the results of those decisions would inevitably be flawed.

Therefore, Dewey contended, those in charge of both the government and the press had a responsibility to figure out how to engage the entire public in the decisions that would affect them all in the long run. If the public was confused, alienated, pessimistic, or hostile to government, that was only partly the public's fault.

Dewey felt that "democracy was too fundamental a value to abandon" (writes Fallows) "simply because technology was moving fast."

Over time, Dewey has been gaining ground, as shown by the renewed interest in "community journalism" and the newer practice of "civic journalism." Dewey would certainly understand the "anger" from "the public's sense that it is not engaged in politics, public life, or the discusison that goes on in the press" (Fallows).

I recommend "Rethinking Objective Journalism," by Brent Cunningham of the Columbia Journalism Review, for further reading. He asks journalists not to abandon objectivity but to do a better job at it:

Journalists (and journalism) must acknowledge, humbly and publicly, that what we do is far more subjective and far less detached than the aura of objectivity implies--and the public wants to believe. If we stop claiming to be mere objective observers, it will not end the charges of bias but will allow us to defend what we do from a more realistic, less hypocritical position.

Secondly, we need to free (and encourage) reporters to develop expertise and to use it to sort through competing claims, identify and explain the underlying assumptions of those claims, and make judgments about what readers and viewers need to know to understand what is happening.

More of this kind of journalism would mean less of the "sloppy" kind that irritates a lot of us, including Ruby.

Meanwhile Cunningham notes that in 1996 the Society of Professional Journalists "dropped 'objectivity' from its ethics code. It also changed 'the truth' to simply 'truth.'"

UPDATE: Interesting thoughts on objectivity at the DNC by David Weinberger at

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