I won’t take credit for the following quasi-column, which appeared as a comment on Scott Lemieux’s Lawyers Guns & Money a couple months ago. I liked it so much that I pasted it here but haven’t had the opportunity to share. Reading yesterday afternoon’s coverage of the FBI inspector general report on the malfeasance practiced by this agency reminded me of the most loathsome parts about political journalism. Thank you, Axios and Maggie Haberman, for covering Donald Trump as if he were normal; thank you, Frank Bruni, the kind of liberal created by conservatives so they can give him noogies.
I have a few friends who are classically educated (as in, went to a decent-to-excellent J-School as part of their formal education) journalists. One of them is a former editor of his college newspaper, which doesn’t sound like much but the University Daily Kansan has a higher circulation number than many remaining city papers.
These guys generally have their heads screwed on right, and some of them are superb writers. A few of them are much better people in general than I am.
But nigh-universally, they have drunk deep from the well of “objective journalism.” By objective journalism they don’t mean “what I say should be supported by facts if possible, and by sound logic and reasoning if not. I should be aware of my biases and examine them thoughtfully for how they might negatively impinge on my work.”
What they mean is “I shouldn’t render value judgments in my reporting. A good piece of reporting should NEVER do this. It should present mostly facts, clearly and without bias. A journalist is never involved in the story except as an arbiter, a neutral chronicler to history. We do this to uphold the public interest and the public trust.” This was pounded into them all through J-School and through their elders in the profession.
This would be a noble goal if journalists were actually omniscient beings. But they are not.
They exist in a context where resources are finite and facts will be concealed from them, sometimes quite skillfully. Deciding what stories to pursue is an ideological decisions made ideologically. Deciding how those stories will be written is an ideological decision made ideologically. Deciding what’s in the public good is an ideological decision made ideologically.
Trying to pretend that it is not will induce massive cognitive dissonance in the person trying to do so, as they assemble increasingly-convoluted logic as to why what they want to write about is just good objective journalism, whereas what others want to write about is just about them pushing an agenda.
I had a guy get really mad at me when I pointed out, after we’d watched Spotlight (quite the good movie) that those journalists were highly motivated by their ideology and personal senses of morality. He claimed that my trying to make “clear-cut matters of public interest and criminality” into “an ideological football” undermined civil society. This was someone who’d been published in the Guardian.
It’s a pernicious mental attitude within the profession and needs to be destroyed. Journalism has tried to establish professional ethics and standards as some kind of totem that wards away all that nasty ideology and so elevates them above the common fighting rabble into noble seekers of truth.
And hey, you know what, many journalists are noble seekers of truth. But that doesn’t elevate you above partisans. People desperately want the stamp of “non-ideological” because they feel it lends additional weight to their… ideology.
This is a problem.
All journalism is activism and has an agenda. What you choose to cover and what you choose to not cover is a form of activism. Too many have mistakenly convinced themselves that the opposite of activism is maintaining the status quo. But that is also activism of a different sort. You can comfort the afflicted, or comfort the oppressor, but either way, that is an agenda.
Likewise, aggressively refusing to take a side and refusing to acknowledge that one side may be right and the other wrong is also a choice. It is in fact the moral cowardice of “both sides do it” and “some people say”. It is NOT actually journalism, it is stenography. It is in no way a search for truth, but rather a simple recitation of information with no context.
The whole problem with this hot take is the false premise that somehow activism and the honest presentation of facts are mutually exclusive and that if one has an agenda, by definition their facts can be discounted. This silliness flies in the face of the entire history of journalism and is an insult to the many real journalists mentioned in both the article and comments here (and in the replies to that dumb tweet). No human is completely without an agenda- there is no such thing as no activism – even a tape recorder has to be operated by an all too fallible human.
The idea of “true objectivity” is a self-serving farce that lets those who claim to practice it comfortably retreat to their ivory tower perch above the fray, where they will never have to do the hard work of presenting the necessary context and additional information that is crucial for the readers or viewers to understand the issues.
Again, any help finding this person’s name or publication I’d most appreciate.