The failed promise of “objective” political reporting

There are two main reasons why the leaders of America’s elite newsrooms are so devoted to the journalistic practice commonly referred to as “objectivity”, which precludes reporters from “taking sides” in their political coverage —  even when one side is an obvious lie, or an affront  to core journalistic values like pluralism and democracy.

The official reason is that they sincerely believe that press neutrality leads to a more informed electorate. They argue that voters will trust their news sources more if those sources are “unbiased,” and that accurate information is more likely to be accepted as the truth if readers come to their own conclusions rather than being told what to think. A news organization perceived as objective, they say, has an increased power to persuade.

The unofficial reason, which New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen pithily calls “refuge seeking,” is that the “objective” approach protects editors and reporters from criticism – specifically, from accusations of bias. It also allows them to feel superior to partisans and activists, because they remain “above the fray.”

OK, let’s review. Our leading journalistic institutions engage in “objectivity” to achieve two major goals:

  • An informed electorate.
  • Immunity from accusations of bias.

So, here’s my question to New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, Associated Press executive editor Sally Buzbee, and the other proclaimed and self-proclaimed guardians of our biggest, finest news organizations:

How’s that working out for you?

Not so great, huh?

The obvious answer is that “objectivity” has failed miserably to achieve either goal – and is more likely having the opposite effect.

Informed electorate? Some four out of 10 Americans currently believe all sorts of things that aren’t remotely true, like that the Black Lives Matter protests have been mostly violent, or that voter fraud is a problem and that mail-in voting makes it worse, or — despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that Trump is doing a good job. Nearly three in 10 believe Covid-19 was made in a lab and that Bill Gates wants to use vaccination to implant trackable microchips in people.

Immune from accusations of bias? Those misinformed voters believe these things because they heard them from Fox News or some other right-wing super-spreader of conspiracy theories, after having decided that the “mainstream press” is, like their president says, so biased that it has become “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.”

And before you simply blame social media and filter bubbles – which of course are factors here – ask yourself this: Could it be that the “objective” approach to covering major political issues is simply too anodyne to convince anyone who’s on the fence?

What if the mainstream, reality-based media armed its audience with facts as emphatically and effectively as Fox News arms its audience with misinformation? What if the New York Times aggressively advocated for the truth, rather than just putting it out there for the record?

A large fraction of America has tuned out the elite media, treating it like so much white noise. What if the Washington Post more assertively said in its news stories: “Here’s what we believe are the facts, and why”? What if they said: “Here’s where we’re coming from”? What if they said: “Here’s our best explanation of why all this crazy stuff is happening and why you’re so screwed?

And what if the mainstream media provided its audience with a true, overarching narrative in which to situate the day-to-day stories – true, evidence-based narratives as  compelling as the false ones that Fox and OAN and others are selling — rather than throwing their hands up in the air and saying “you decide”?

The only thing hard about this would be overcoming decades of self-censorship.

Reality-based reporters know the truth: Economic stories exist within a narrative of grotesque inequality sustained by the people who benefit from it; the earth is in grave danger from climate change but fossil-fuel interests have blocked necessary action; law enforcement is only one of many institutions that devalue Black lives; and Donald Trump doesn’t fix problems, he exploits them.

People hunger for compelling and explanatory narratives – that’s why they respond so strongly to people like George Conway and books like those by Mary Trump and Michael Wolff.

My view is that journalism as it is currently practiced by our most elite organizations simply isn’t persuasive. It frustrates the liars enough that they’ll still try to delegitimize it – and succeed, in scary proportions.

But printing the truth and the lies and letting the people decide just isn’t working. You have to shout the truth from the rooftops, and fight the lies in the streets.

And although Trump and Trumpism have brought these issues to a head, the failure of objectivity is not just a Trump-era phenomenon.

Most notably and fatally, the failure of the press to assertively call out the flaws in the case against Saddam Hussein – out of fear of appearing biased — quite arguably led to a devastating war. When a poll in late 2003 showed that a shocking 69 percent of Americans falsely believed Hussein had a role in the 9/11 terror attacks, newsroom leaders across the country should have launched a major reassessment of their approach to fighting misinformation.

Today, with Trump openly challenging the basic mechanics of democracy, the question is upon us: When it comes down to a choice between authoritarianism and democracy, will the elite media “take sides”? Or will they be afraid of appearing biased?

The alternative: “moral clarity”

In a seminal tweet early this summer, during the battle over a particularly abhorrent op-ed, journalist Wesley Lowery set down a marker:

Some have depicted this view as radical, demanding some sort of uniform view on all issues. But what Lowery and others (including myself) are arguing for is not moral conformity, just clarity.

Government “by the people” depends on voters being exposed to different points of view — but it also requires the media to fight misinformation. So that means journalists should strive to present a variety of political arguments to their audiences. But they need to be based in reality and presented honestly. Alternately, political arguments that gain currency but are made in bad faith – particularly those that are racist, or sexist, inhumane, or anti-democratic — should be clearly identified as such.

Moral clarity in news journalism isn’t partisan or polemic.

Journalists shouldn’t pretend they know the answers. We should just stop pretending we don’t know what the problems are.

Heck, maybe “moral clarity” just means having an occasional open discussion in diverse newsrooms about how to do the work, rather than just doing it the way it’s always been done.

“What I argue for is a more deliberate process that acknowledges that there are morals and ethics at all,” Lowery told newsletter journalist Luke O’Neil in early July. “All these folks get off on saying ‘We don’t make any decisions ever. This is what it’s always been’ as a way of shielding the fact that they are constantly making decisions, and those decisions are subject to their biases.”

Lowery noted: “I’ll be honest, in my experience there is far less discussion than there should be. Everything operates on autopilot.

Losing trust not gaining it

Objectivity is supposed to create a bond of trust between journalists and their audience. But I’ve often argued that an honest, transparent journalistic application of moral clarity would enhance trust a lot more than the transparently bogus application of strained euphemisms, flagrant false equivalenceamnesia and credulousness.

As I wrote last month, editors like Baquet are pursuing a form of objectivity that encompasses a whole range of anachronistic attitudes and habits that actually reduce the accuracy and authenticity of news coverage, rather than enhance it – and the readers notice.

Intelligent readers cringe when they read star New York Times reporter Peter Baker join the he’s-changing-his-tone chorus by pronouncing that “denial no longer appears to be a viable strategy for Mr. Trump”. (The Times itself published an unsigned and oddly short-lived item in its live news updates a few days later, headlined: “Trump Returns to Where He’s Mostly Been on Coronavirus: Denying Reality”. It started off: “Trump’s supposed shift on the virus didn’t last long.”)

Focusing on tactics rather than substance leads to horrors like this recent Washington Post article examining who will benefit politically from Republicans letting unemployment benefits run out for desperate Americans. It literally featured headers saying “Democrats say” and “Republicans say”.

The worst thing, however, is the hypocrisy. Reporters confidently describe Trump’s thinking when they’re making absurdly generous and incorrect assumptions (as when he recently restarted his daily briefings because he missed the ratings, but the Times called it “a tacit acknowledgment that the public health crisis he had hoped to put behind him was still ravaging much of the country”). But they can’t bring themselves to write that he’s lying, or crazy, or stupid.

Consider how at the New York Times sometimes it’s important not to tell people what they should think about a news story, but other times it is – and a key factor seems to be whether it will annoy the left.

Don’t want to take my word for it? In his interview on the Times’s own Daily podcast in January, Baquet defended the paper’s both-sides coverage of Trump by saying: “I think of the reader who just wants to pick up his paper in the morning and know what the hell happened. I’m beholden to that reader, and I feel obligated to tell that reader what happened.”

But defending an article about Bernie Sanders’s entrance into the 2016 Democratic presidential primary that framed Sanders as a longshot who at best might shift Hillary Clinton a bit to the left, Baquet said: “I think we got to tell the readers, in the moment, how should we think about this.” He added: “I think the reader picks up The New York Times and says, Bernie Sanders, I’ve never heard of him. How should I think about him?”

There’s no consistency. “Objectivity” seems to be based on an oversensitivity to the imagined views of a mythical center-right white male who doesn’t exist — and it pisses off readers who do.

Taking the public’s side

Local journalism is dying, and to some extent I blame that on “objectivity,” too.

Here’s the core argument I made in 2009, when I wrote that “Playing it Safe’ Is Killing the American Newspaper”:

But we’re hiding much of our newsrooms’ value behind a terribly anachronistic format: voiceless, incremental news stories that neither get much traffic nor make our sites compelling destinations. While the dispassionate, what-happened-yesterday, inverted-pyramid daily news story still has some marginal utility, it is mostly a throwback at this point — a relic of a daily product delivered on paper to a geographically limited community. (For instance, it’s the daily delivery cycle of our print product that led us to focus on yesterday’s news. And it’s the focus on maximizing newspaper circulation that drove us to create the notion of “objectivity” – thereby removing opinion and voice from news stories — for fear of alienating any segment of potential subscribers.)…

While we legitimately want to keep partisanship and polemics out of our news coverage, we need to stop banishing our humanity and the passions that made us become journalists in the first place. When we find a great story, why shouldn’t we shout it from the rooftops?

Maybe if local papers were pluckier and more assertive about advocating for the people in their communities those people would be more willing to pay.

If they want to take the public’s side, local, regional and national newspapers should consider creating beats based not on how officialdom organizes itself, but on major areas where people are getting screwed. So maybe there should be a beat about struggles with poverty, and another on the effects of criminal justice.

National news organizations are suddenly, finally, devoting resources to race issues. But what about creating beats for inequality, misogyny, and official secrecy?

There are signs of progress here and there. In regards to Trump’s attempts to delegitimize the Nov. 3 election, the mainstream media has, effectively, taken sides (with some notable exceptions.)

Some news organizations are recognizing that taking sides is just fine sometimes. Here’s the vice president of new at McClatchy:

Am I hopeful that the industry can change? Not so much in the short run, no.

That’s because there’s actually a third reason so many journalistic leaders cling to “objectivity”: Abandoning it would require them to admit they were wrong – and that “liberals” like me were right. It would mean surrendering the moral high ground they treasure more than anything. That’s why I don’t expect much to change until there’s a new generation of leadership in our newsrooms.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I agreed with everything until the last line. Age is not the problem here.
    Those at the top of the journalism food chain may be older journos, but that’s not what blinds them. Trust me, I came up with these people. Age didn’t get them the job of running the place.
    Playing along did.
    Those who had “moral clarity” were laid off long ago.
    The problems in Journalism are deeper than “old people just don’t get it.” Should probably have that myopia adjusted before moving into the future yourself.

    • I didn’t mean to suggest its purely a generational thing. But a) until the Baquets and Barons are gone, nothing’s going to happen; and b) I think the next crop will arrive more aware of the problems of “objectivity” than the last one.

      And your point about people with moral clarity being laid off is not lost on me. 😉

  2. Could not hurt for elite media to mention that Trump has ridiculous amount of federal and personal resources to respond to criticism. 4th estate theoretically part of the equation to balance out the disparity of power. The “both sides” trope is only “objective” when those sides are somehow at least remotely equitable or even equatable, e.g., “Trump is right to send Federal troops to big city because riots”.
    As a NYT reader for multiple decades, I feel as if I’m seeing many fewer “afflict the comfortable”, but more “oh look what good liberal virtue signalers we are!”. Advocating for removing Confederate monuments is not exactly heavy lifting. When the Times brings Wall Street oligarchy to account I’ll be the first to cheer them, but not holding my breath.

  3. So true. I can’t understand why NYT and WashPo haven’t run a column headlined Trump’s Lie of the Week calling out his most insane remarks of the previous seven days. Mainstream media is not failing because it is unfair. It’s failing because it’s too fair to idiots, and thereby disrespects its own audience. Instead of saying the lunatic emperor has no clothes, they say the emperor looks like he’s lost weight since the last time we saw him naked. True or not, it misses the point that the emperor is crazy.

  4. THE INDUSTRY IS DYING. Why can’t you see that that’s the elephant in the room. The way stories are or aren’t framed didn’t kill local news, Dan. The internet did.

    Whataboutism is bad (i.e., I agree with you about faux objectivity), but the reality is that things are going to get worse: We are in a “last man standing” situation. Most legacy news organizations (and many of the new digital ones) are going to go away. They don’t make any money, and never will. It will be the NYT, WSJ and substackers and tweeters.

  5. First, Dean Baquet is a cancer on American journalism who has done incalculable damage to the institution. Second, the new normal for the national media has been to politicize the non-political. When a politician makes an obviously untrue statement about something factual, instead of getting an expert rebuttal on the topic, they insist on getting someone from the opposite party to respond. During the financial meltdown of 2009, I quit watching TV coverage of it because they insisted on interviewing politicians and political commentators instead of economists. I’d begun being extremely dissatisfied with that kind of coverage during the lead-up to Iraq when experts on, say, aluminum tubes were sidelined in favor of political commentators or politicians with obvious axes to grind. There will be no positive changes in this destructive situation until the media powers admit they’ve made serious errors. Right now, most of them continue to maintain there’s no problem, past or present, to that requires any introspection.

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