Time to Abandon the 'Conceit' of Objectivity
CNN says it is just thrilled by the transformation of Lou Dobbs—formerly a mild-mannered news anchor noted for his palsy-walsy interviews with corporate CEOs—into a raving populist xenophobe. Ratings are up. It's like watching one of those "makeover" shows that turn nerds into fops or bathrooms into ballrooms. According to the New York Times, this demonstrates "that what works in cable television news is not an objective analysis of the day's events," but "a specific point of view on a sizzling-hot topic."But Kinsley says being objective is not a real goal.
Objectivity—the faith professed by American journalism and by its critics—is less an ideal than a conceit. It's not that all journalists are secretly biased, or even that perfect objectivity is an admirable but unachievable goal. In fact, most reporters work hard to be objective and the best come very close. The trouble is that objectivity is a muddled concept. Many of the world's most highly opinionated people believe with a passion that it is wrong for reporters to have any opinions at all about what they cover. These critics are people who could shed their own skins more easily than they could shed their opinions. But they expect it of journalists. It can't be done. Journalists who claim to have developed no opinions about what they cover are either lying or deeply incurious and unreflective about the world around them. In either case, they might be happier in another line of work.People who are trying to be objective must play internal mind games.
Or perhaps objectivity is supposed to be a shimmering, unreachable destination, but the journey itself is purifying, as you mentally pick up your biases and put them aside, one-by-one. Is that the idea? It has a pleasing, Buddhist flavor. But that's no substitute for sense. Nobody believes in objectivity, if that means neutrality on any question about which two people somewhere on the planet might disagree. May a reporter take as a given that two plus two is four? Should a newspaper strive to be open-minded about Osama Bin Laden? To reveal—to have!—no preference between the United States and Iran? Is it permissible for a news story to take as a given that the Holocaust not only happened, but was a bad thing—or is that an expression of opinion that belongs on the op-ed page? Even those who think objectivity can be turned on and off like a light switch don't want it switched on all the time. But short of that, there is no objective answer to when the switch needs to be on and when it can safely be turned off.
Would it be the end of the world if American newspapers abandoned the cult of objectivity? In intellectual fields other than journalism, the notion of an objective reality that words are capable of describing has been going ever more deeply out of fashion for decades. Maybe it doesn't matter what linguists think. But even within journalism, there are reassuring models of what a post-objective press might look like.
Opinion journalism can be more honest than objective-style journalism because it doesn't have to hide its point of view. It doesn't have to follow a trail of evidence or line of reasoning until one step before the conclusion and then slam on the brakes for fear of falling into the gulch of subjectivity. All observations are subjective. Writers freed of artificial objectivity can try to determine the whole truth about their subject and then tell it whole to the world. 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 then gets tossed out, or perhaps put in quotes and attributed to someone else. That is a common trick used by objective-style journalists in order to tell their readers what they believe to be true without inciting the wrath of the Objectivity cops.