June 26, 2010
Why the News Makes You AngryBy Theodore Dawes
Some time ago, a general manager of the Associated Press, the massive news collective, opined on the importance of "objectivity" in reporting, calling it the Holy Grail of journalism.
He's right, but only in the sense that objectivity is the source and substance of a massive mythology. In fact, there is no such thing as objective reporting. Unfortunately, that has never stopped those who engage in journalism from claiming not only that it exists, but that they practice it.
Objectivity, in the journalistic definition, is a bare-boned restatement of facts, e.g., he said this, she said that. But by the time the reporter gets around to transcribing comments, he has already made a number of decisions, including perhaps the most important one: Is this subject sufficiently compelling to justify my effort and the requisite newsprint or broadcast time?
In fact, there is simply no way to establish objectively what is important and what isn't. The reporter and the editors have to make that decision. Then the reporter, restrained by available column inches (or face time on a broadcast), must pare down the conversation or action, usually by summarizing it. This introduces another layer of subjectivity.
And on, and on, and on.
But! you may be saying to yourself. Can't we at least get both sides of the story?
Well, yes, if both sides are compelling. It's called balance, and it assumes the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, there is no basis in logic for assuming any such thing, and so it has, naturally, been carried to extremes. Though I've never found strong evidence of the event, there is an urban legend that at least one reporter, in the interest of balance, gave equal time to a rapist to give his side of the story. The tale is often used to illustrate the absurd lengths to which "objectivity" by the press could be taken.
There are more concrete examples. During the first Iraq War, CNN reporter Peter Arnett was widely criticized for reporting on Operation Desert Storm from Baghdad, where he was fed propaganda daily by the government of Saddam Hussein. In a later television interview, Arnett was asked, "If there was information you could have gotten out that could have saved scores, hundreds of American lives, you wouldn't have transmitted that information?"
Arnett replied, "I would not have transmitted it. I was in Baghdad because I was a correspondent for CNN, which has no political affiliations with the U.S. government, thank goodness." Objectivity would have required him to stand by and watch American soldiers die.
If you think his stance was unusual, you're right. If you think it's unheard of, think again. Michael Schudson, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, has written a number of respected and widely quoted essays on objectivity in journalism. In one, he said:
Arnett simply spoke for those modern journalists who hold "objectivity" as the highest calling. He felt no obligation to act morally -- in any sense of the word you or I might recognize -- because he had a higher moral ideal, which is objectivity, which is by definition amoral.
If that sounds paradoxical, that's because it is.
It's also remarkably dumb. After all, without some moral basis, facts are useless in determining what is newsworthy.
Consider: A bomb exploded.
Or: A bomb exploded in a day care center.
The first is meaningless data, while the second outrages the moral sense and thus becomes a story. Determining what is newsworthy requires judgment, and that's why the news is always, in small ways and large, a product of the reporter's very subjective viewpoint.
To illustrate the point, let's reconsider the rape story I earlier mentioned, using it as a kind of thought experiment:
Let's say you were a reporter for the local daily, and you took the call from the young woman who said she was raped. She tells you it took place at a college party, and her rape was abetted by many of the young men in attendance at the party. Would you then interview the alleged rapist to hear his side of the story?
What if it took place at Duke University, and he was a Lacrosse team member?
The simple fact is, objectivity is useless at determining what is news, and how it should be covered. That requires judgment, not math.
The concept of journalistic objectivity is fairly new. For our first centuries, most newspapers in the U.S. were partisan, serving the political or religious parties that financed them. H.S. Stansaas, writing in Journal of Mass Media Sciences, said it took until 1904 for objective journalism to become commonplace, and only by 1925 had the practice been established as the norm.
No one can say with certainty where the notion of objectivity came from or how it became an ethical imperative, but it almost certainly had something to do with money. Some say the primary impetus was the introduction of the telegraph, which introduced the delivery of news over long distances (the news wires). The stories had to be palatable to those in both Seattle and in Sewanee. Certainly in the age of three television networks, objectivity -- defined as unobjectionable to all -- was the only business model that made sense.
It is also largely an American invention. Following the recent elections in Great Britain, essayist Paola Totaro penned the obituary for objectivity in the British press. Addressing her readers, Totaro said,
Most conservatives call for more objective reporting. They are completely accurate in declaring the MSM is almost wholly biased to the left. But here is where things get a little sticky. Those on the far left (see The Nation, for example) claim the MSM is tilted to the right. They are also correct.
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby recently provided a nice overview of the "lack of ideological diversity" found within most American newsrooms, describing "the reflexive support for Democrats, the distaste for religion and the military, the cheerleading for liberal enthusiasms from gun control to gay marriage[.]"
Those on the far left, however, say the major media companies are shills for the country's biggest corporations, primarily because they are so beholden to them -- and are, in fact, mostly owned by them. They're absolutely right.
Let's do another thought experiment. Let's say you're the anchor of the lowest-rated evening network news broadcast. You're nevertheless making $15 million a year, which you know is more than the entire combined budgets for NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Handlers dress you. Important people buddy up to you. And somewhere, in your heart of hearts, you know your only real talent is that you're cute as a bug.
Tell me, Katie Couric, how angry are you with Corporate Amerika?
And yet, many people, particularly those in the press corps, deny that there is bias. Conservatives and leftists both say this is self-serving nonsense, and disingenuous at best. Some dishonesty is in play, but there is another mechanism at work, a kind of optical illusion. Call it a trick of perspective.
When conservatives read The New York Times, they can see that the underlying assumptions of the reporters are basically those outlined by Jacoby in his Boston Globe essay. When those on the far left read it, they are frustrated to see capitalism as the working assumption of the American polity.
But when a New York Times reporter reads the story, he sees objective truth, because he shares his colleague's underlying assumptions. The assumptions disappear, as if by magic, because it is only in conflict that you can recognize someone else's bias.
Okay, we've now established that journalistic objectivity is 1) a new idea, 2) a bad idea, and 3) impossible.
So what do we do next?
We should stop pretending that objectivity is possible, and stop asking our news providers to practice it.
That might sound shocking, but it may be easier to accept if we properly define our current system. We're indebted to the remarkable Marvin Olasky, who has provided exactly that. Olasky, a former journalism professor at the University of Texas and now editor of World magazine, says journalists today engage in "disguised subjectivity." In reality, it isn't objectivity at all, or even the effort to come close. Instead, Olasky says, it involves the practice of "strategic ritual," which he describes as "the process of selecting sources and structuring quotes so that a reporter may advance his view in the news story while claiming objectivity."
In his comment, Olasky provides the key reason why we need to abandon all notions of objectivity. It is in fact the perfect mechanism for slipping ideas and opinions into news stories while leaving readers unaware they are being propagandized. Under cover of "objectivity," the nation's reporters and editors are providing us not with the truth, but rather with the facts, the quotes, and the views they want us to hear, read, and believe.
Of course, if you are unaware you are being propagandized -- if you actually believe you're reading the objective truth -- then you are most likely to believe it.
It's the old primrose path, don't you know. And that's why the news makes you angry.
Theodore Dawes is a freelance writer in Mobile, Alabama.