Recently a friend of mine sent me a link to an article about journalism in the Washington Times, a small newspaper published in D.C. by the Unification Church. The piece was written by a columnist named Ben Carson.
The column began, “There is no question that a free, honest and unbiased press is a great asset to any free and fair society. A press characterized by integrity demands answers to hard questions from everyone, regardless of political affiliation. When the press chooses sides, it enables those on the selected side to ignore rules and conduct themselves as they please, having no one to whom they must answer. Of course, this assumes that the populace is largely asleep at the wheel and not demanding objectivity in the press.”
That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the column (which also included an odd self-assessment of the writer, who referred to “my emergence on the national political scene”). Its publication provides a good occasion to take a look at the notion of objectivity.
Objectivity in journalism is one of those things that everyone praises without knowing much about it or even what it is. Supposedly it means a person achieving a state of truth, independent of her or his own feelings, interpretations, whatever. In other words, it is both impossible to achieve and divorced from any moral values. Yet in journalism, it is considered by some to be essential – though it is a relatively new concept.
Nowhere is it carved in stone that journalism must even BE objective. Certainly it did not exist when the First Amendment was written.
Objectivity would require that in any story about cancer, bank robbery or genocide, both favorable and unfavorable sides be given. It would also require that every single fact about the subject of a story be included in the story, none excluded, which is unattainable because of space limitations. And so, just in deciding which facts to include and which to exclude – horrors! – a lack of objectivity must come into play. Moreover, under objectivity, information that can damage reputations or endanger public safety cannot be withheld even for good reasons – withholding them would be a lack of objectivity.
The truth is, no such thing as objectivity is possible in human behavior. What IS possible is fairness. A reporter can make sure all relevant players get their say and that a sense of the fitness of things prevails – fairness but not objectivity.
As for the United States, Ben Carson is calling for the founders to be ignored. The colonial and post-colonial press was partisan, often vicious, libelous – and the founding generation wanted THAT kind of journalism protected, so the First Amendment was enacted. Great journalism names of the period – John Campbell, Isaac Doolittle, James Franklin, Benjamin Harris, Thomas Paine, James Rivington, Isaiah Thomas, John Peter Zenger – were hardly models of objectivity. In 1998, author David Mindich’s history of journalism objectivity had a sub-title that reflected how things had changed: “How ‘Objectivity’ Came to Define American Journalism.”
The journalism community itself has become rather stuffy about traditional advocacy journalism, treating it with disdain. Finley Peter Dunne’s classic definition of journalism – “comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable” – is disallowed by objectivity. And advocacy journalists like Ben Carson diss advocacy journalism, apparently when practiced by others than themselves.
The greatest achievements of our calling came not from objective journalists but from advocate journalists. In March 1999 New York University released a juried list of the top 100 works of U.S. journalism of the 1900s, and the bulk of them did not come from writers or entities that espoused objectivity.
Should the National Review have been objective when it took on anti-Semitism or George Wallace? Should Hannah Arendt have been objective in covering Eichmann in Jerusalem?
Whether it is Ted Poston covering the Scottsboro trial, Dorothy Thompson recording the rise of Hitler, A.J. Liebling reporting on the faults of the press, Lillian Ross inventing novelistic reporting, Betty Friedan reporting on the subjugation of women, I.F. Stone tracking innumerable amoral U.S. policies, Ron Ridenhour pushing the My Lai massacre into the light, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele reporting on tax fairness, objectivity would have been a bad joke.
Objective journalism has a place, but so does advocacy journalism. One size does not fit all.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.