The Myth of Objective Journalism

Mainstream MediaThe primary difference between Fox News and MSNBC is not ideology; it is that Fox pretends to be objective. Yes, in general, MSNBC does a better job of reporting actual facts and doesn’t go out of its way to mislead. But they are both advocacy groups: one for the Republican Party and the other for the Democratic Party. But no one ever claims that MSNBC provides the Truth that the other networks don’t want the people to know.

Other than this fact, I have no problem with Fox News. I believe strongly that news organizations should have an explicit political inclination because they all have an implicit inclination. But even worse that Fox who any reasonable person can see is just GOP-TV, I’m concerned about the middle of the road media outlets. I’m visiting my sister and I just overheard some reporting on the TV from a local station, KTVU. They were covering information about the company who did Edward Snowden’s background check. It was anything but objective. The coverage was akin to the coverage of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial.

This has long been a thorn in my side: the idea that centrists are not ideological. They are—every bit as ideological as those of us on the left and the right. It is just that their ideologies are usually incoherent. Let’s think about my favorite centrist example: Nazis. On one side you have the Nazis who want to kill all the Jews, on the other you have people who don’t want to harm any Jews, and in the middle you have those who just want to give all Jews life in prison. It’s clear than the centrist position is ideological.

Similarly with Edward Snowden, the centrist position that he did something dangerous that put us all in danger is just as ideological as my position that he did the American people a great favor that did not put us in any danger. Matt Taibbi wrote an excellent article yesterday about this issue, Hey, MSM: All Journalism is Advocacy Journalism. It is basically a defense of Glenn Greenwald.

Greenwald is explicitly an advocate. Andrew Ross Sorkin is not. He’s an advocate, but he isn’t upfront about it. Recently, he got into trouble by saying that he would “almost arrest” (whatever that means) Glenn Greenwald for publishing the Snowden revelations. But Taibbi highlights a more important passage from that same article:

I feel like, A, we’ve screwed this up, even letting him get to Russia. B, clearly the Chinese hate us to even let him out of the country.

Whatever happened to a press that was an adversary of the government’s attempt to hide things? This is right out of Pravda: we’ve screwed up by letting Snowden get to Russia? In that sentence, he indicates not that he’s an American (I do that all the time) but that he is an arm of the government. Clearly, he is advocating—and in a way that is dangerous to democracy because he isn’t explicit about what it is he’s doing. In fact it is worse: he’s claiming to be an objective journalist.

The hidden assumptions are always the ones that harm us. That is why I would rather discuss politics with a right wing extremist than a centrist. Most centrists really have convinced themselves that they aren’t ideological just because most people they know agree with them. But that’s just silly. If everyone you know thinks that Man of Steel is the best movie ever, it doesn’t mean that it is objectively the greatest movie ever; it means that you don’t know a very diverse group of people. With silly superhero movies, it hardly matters. When it comes to US foreign policy, it does.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “The Myth of Objective Journalism

  1. That was really one of the more enjoyable Taibbi articles in a long time. His extended pieces on corruption are useful and informative, but not fun. This one was fun.

    I think "Rolling Stone" hired him because of his flair for language, putting him in Hunter Thompson’s old "National Affairs Desk." At first, they didn’t seem to know what to do with him; he was assigned to celebrity trials and the like.

    He’s become what Thompson could have been, if HST’s identification had been a little less with the lifestyle side of the counterculture and a little more with the political activist side. Not that Taibbi’s a radical activist — but he looks into the malfeasances of power more intricately than Hunter ever did. Thompson wrote more often about how politicians he despised were making life hard on rebels and iconoclasts like himself than how the same politicians were screwing over boring, normal working people. Of course those were different times, and I don’t mean to denigrate HST. I just think Taibbi’s a bit better. (Hopefully HST is looking up from his bordello in Hell and smiling at Taibbi’s work.)

    I remember, somewhere (maybe in "F&L On The Campaign Trail"?) Hunter going on a similar rant about journalistic "objectivity," saying that the only objective journalism could be found in the stock reports or box scores. As Taibbi points out, the box scores aren’t necessarily objective . . . and neither are the stock reports, for that matter.

    A thought on Sorkin’s "we." I don’t think it’s just that he presumes himself an ally of US spy services. I think it’s "we" in the way sports fans use "we," as in: "we would have won that game if Buckner didn’t boot that grounder." It’s the mindset which gets personal validation from thinking America is the most powerful country in the world.

    Think of how many US citizens responded to Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, or Iraq War I, or the start of II, or the clandestine assassination of bin Laden (who probably could have been captured and tried for murder.) There’s a definite "woo-hoo, we won the Super Bowl" vibe there.

    That’s what I assume Sorkin’s "we" means — that personal pride is insulted when our country’s military machine doesn’t kick some serious shit out of anyone it wants to. (Including individual whistleblowers, apparently, not just defenseless impoverished nations.) It’s not just intolerably arrogant in the imperial sense ("we lost China, we must civilize the natives in _____"), but in the assumption that every real American shares this same need to feel empowered by demonstrations of force.

    It’s kinda insecure, isn’t it?

  2. @JMF – I think that Thompson was a better, far more creative writer. Taibbi is a real journalist. I think of him very much like Glenn Greenwald, but with a sense of humor. (Taibbi has a great sense of humor, but you couldn’t say he has a [i]better[/i] sense of humor, because Greenwald has [i]no[/i] sense of humor. I say that as a huge fan.)

    As for Sorkin, I think you are right. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it either. But it is most clearly not "objective" journalism. It is like Winston Smith as the end of [i]1984[/i], instead of drinking shots of vodka and watching TV were writing a blog, "It’s a good think [i]we’re[/i] winning the war with East Asia." I’d rather have [i]Pravda[/i], because at least people knew that the news was coming from the government’s perspective.

    As for insecurity, I think that is America all over. All the "we’re number one" triumphalism: that’s not what a secure people do. By and large, I think we are a soulless people. That’s why ostentatious religious displays are so big here. Other than consumers, what are we? So many of us pretend to be religious. But I challenge you to talk to a lot of religious Americans. Only one in ten gets anything from their religion other than dogma. And 1-in-10 is probably very generous.

  3. Right, right. Comparing HST and Taibbi is apples and oranges; Thompson wrote about his perspective interacting with political corruption, Taibbi writes about corruption itself. Different gifts; similar skill with abusive metaphors. (Taibbi wrote the introduction to a new edition of "Campaign Trail.")

    At this point I’d send Greenwald to the lithium island if he attempted to be funny. It’d be a sign he was cracking up. Although Nader had a novel, "Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us!", which attempted humor in some places, and I don’t think Nader’s lost it. Yet.

    On soullessness — my late mother used to say that you can tell what’s missing in American culture from what it pretends to be. I think this is an axiom. To wit:

    We make a big deal of our military heroes, when they don’t protect us from anything, and they are paid and institutionally treated far worse than servicepeople in saner countries. (In the Danish navy, for example, enlisted personnel get good salaries and benefits and are not considered beneath officers in terms of intelligence or skill.)

    Seemingly every other ad for food products depicts the warm family moments serving such-and-such a product will inspire, when families have almost no time to spend together these days. Investment firms emphasize how safe and solid and in favor of the average Jane/Joe’s well-being (hah.) And my favorite, which I’m sure you’ve seen, Apple’s recent ad stressing how their products are designed/imagined in California . . . to obscure their manufacture by outsourced near-slave labor.

    Most religion, I’d agree, contributes to this soullessness. It substitutes allegiance to the church for genuine connection with other people, giving adherents the feeling of community without the risks actual involvement incurs. (In fundamentalist circles I’ve known, when someone gets sick or backslides, often the other fundamentalists will pretend that person doesn’t exist; they signed up for the warm fuzzies of feeling like part of a larger whole, not actually giving a damn about each other.)

    But some churches really do provide an actual community gathering place, where people can get to know and support fellow members. In my experience, this is most likely to happen in urban churches, where the variation among participants makes it impossible for the congregation to essentially become a spiritual country club. There are urban churches here that routinely have meet-and-greet-and-eats with other denominations, synagogues, mosques, temples, and the like. (Feeding each other is a powerful thing.) I knew an elderly lady whose Catholic church basement Friday fish-fry gatherings were staffed by flamboyantly gay volunteers, and her funeral feast was held at a Lutheran church nearby with rainbows all over its webpage. Nothing pro-gay could be said in sermons, of course; But the congregations clearly felt community was more important than official dogma.

    So, I think the kind of phony-baloney religion you describe as being barely serious to more than one person in ten is a rural and (in its foulest, most politically powerful form) rich suburban phenomenon. Unfortunately, memberships in those churches tend to keep growing . . . or metastasizing, as the case may be.

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