Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is Journalistic Objectivity "Bullshit"?

What is a journalist? That is the question. Are bloggers? Clearly some of the best bloggers are. One of the main characteristics of what a being a journalist was entailed something nebulously called "journalistic objectivity." Then there was the whole Dan Rather episode. Dan Rather, the weakest of the evening network anchors, became the whipping boy of the right during the thick of the 2000 Presidential campaign for insinuating -- ! -- that there may be questions about George Bush's national guard service. In retrospect Rather was the perfect target.

Viacom, fearful perhaps of the blowback, did not support Rather. And CBS News moved on. In 2008, John McCain, to brilliant political effect, attacked the New York Times on the grounds that they were a left-leaning enterprise. It earned him the cache with conservatives that he had been looking for. As much as McCain's moderate philosophy was the bete noir of true-blooded right wingers, they could all agree to love to hate the left-of-center slant of the New York Times. Point: McCain.

Dan Rather has since gone on to become something of a leftish journalism legend -- as a friend of The Nation and appearances delivering his awkward Texas Rather-isms on the Chris Matthews Show -- but the question remains: is "journalistic objectivity" possible? Or is it simply a conceit of the 20th century. Did the right attack cultural institutions like CBS and the New York Times out of political opportunism or did they actually expose real bias? Let's go to TechCrunch:

Jeff Jarvis is the creator of Entertainment Weekly, a San Francisco Examiner columnist, the Associate Publisher of The Daily News, and a consultant to new media companies — in other words, a veteran of the old school and a proponent of the new. Jarvis took to the stage today at Disrupt NYC for some banter with TechCrunch Big Kahuna Mike Arrington .... To kick things off, Jarvis flatly asked Arrington (full disclosure: Mike is my boss) about whether he would consider himself a journalist. Mike replied by saying that he does not consider himself a journalist, likening the current identity of journalist’s to that of priests. “When I think of journalists”, he said, “I think of people who are biased, hiding their bias between theoretically objective text”. That is to say, journalists misappropriate words like “objectivity”, and sometimes tend to be self-righteous about their role as objective observers (my words), when in fact, all reporting is advocation. And, inherently subjective. (Again, my words.)

"To elucidate, Arrington then cited the example of a particular journalist telling him that he would not share his political leanings, or how he voted, because it would negate the objectivity in his reporting and how people viewed his content. Both writers were in agreement that this is a common misrepresentation among journalists today — that true objectivity is 'bullshit'."

I found this and most anything that Jeff Jarvis -- a very transparent journalist and a fellow Stern fan --  has to say on media as worth seriously considering. Five years ago, if someone of Jeff's calibre said this there would be an argument and a debate on multiple platforms. But we appear to be at a cultural tipping point. More and more journalists like NPR On the Media host Brooke Gladstone are pretty much arriving at this same conclusion. From NPR:
"Illustrated by Josh Neufeld, Gladstone's The Influencing Machine is a comic book about the media: Who are they? What do they do? How do they affect us? Is there even a media anymore, now that anyone with a cellphone can potentially reach millions? Is objectivity even possible?

"Gladstone answers that last question with a resolute "No."

"'Reporters can be fair,' she tells NPR's Scott Simon. 'But there's no way that we can divorce ourselves from the experience gleaned over a lifetime that forces us to come to certain conclusions.'

From Gladstone we get "fairness" and from Jarvis we get "transparency" as the new virtues of the journalist in the digital age. But the idea of reporters serving up a daily helping of objective truth is a project that appears to have been largely abandoned by the new new journalism, which is a significant cultural event. What does this say about how journalism was practiced in the post Cold War 20th Century?


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