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New media, Trumpism have undermined the values of ‘objective’ journalism

The so-called “objectivity” model of journalism is under tremendous pressure. It may be dying or already dead. It was always highly imperfect. But if it is abandoned, I believe it will be missed.

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump
The so-called “objectivity” model of journalism is under tremendous pressure. It may be dying or already dead. It was always highly imperfect. But if it is abandoned, I believe it will be missed. And I fear its disappearance will be a blow (yet another) to the norms — of not only journalism but of even fundamental democracy that have, I believe, supported the functioning and maybe even the survival of democracy in America — that have prevailed throughout my lifetime.

Columnist Roger Cohen of the New York Times opined on this over the weekend, and did an excellent job. Read the whole thing, but the best short segment from it (imho) is here, from Cohen: 

If I have always been skeptical of objectivity I have always believed in fairness. That is to say, in the attempt to speak to people on both sides of a question, to report your way to some approximation of the truth by filtering diverse views.

I highly recommend his column. Cohen is not young; he is due to turn 65 shortly. I’m even older, turning 69 this month. He’s smart and his column did a good job. Feel free to bail out here and just follow that link above and read him. But it’s a topic I’ve discussed often with fellow scribblers, and I’d like to give you my take. Here goes:

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Real “objectivity” works best in science. It’s a method for moving ever closer to the truth, rooted in the belief that you can never get all the way there. State a hypothesis. Design an experiment designed to disprove that hypothesis (or, to put it another way, to test that hypothesis). If the experiment doesn’t disprove it, that doesn’t mean it’s true, but you can move forward with a bit more confidence in it while keeping your mind open to the possibility that it will someday be disproven.

The journalistic version is less systematic, but even more humble: Talk to people with differing perspectives. Quote, accurately, the best and smartest things they tell you. Add some facts that are verifiably accurate. Do your best to include facts from differing perspectives (otherwise, you’re rigging the exercise.) 

In simple-minded terms, talk to honest, intelligent people from both (or many) sides of an argument, in a political argument at least a Republican and a Democrat. Quote them both, accurately and fairly, expressing their differing views. Don’t say which view you, the reporter, favor. That’s not your job. Let the reader make up his own mind. Let the opinion journalists argue about it on the editorial page. But you, the reporter, are supposed to play it down the middle.

Now, my MinnPost gig (they call me a columnist) has given me the freedom to state my views and make an argument; but I still try to provide facts, including the inconvenient ones that don’t support my own position. That’s a good system too, or I thought it was, pre-Trump.

This isn’t all about Trump, but he’s a big part of my analysis of why the old system is over. 

The old system relied on people on both sides of the argument giving the reporter actual facts, honest facts, that supported their side of an argument. The reader could get a fair presentation of facts and arguments on both (or more than two) sides of an issue. 

That system had its flaws; a reporter’s personal bias could get in the way. But it was much, much better than what we have today.

Now we have, much of the time, an audience in which most of the members are already on one side or the other of the argument. And the new system of covering the argument makes it easier for people on each side to listen to those from their own side most or all of the time, until they become more and more convinced that all the relevant facts and the best arguments are on the side they are already on.

If there’s any chance that a smart person from the other side might pry your mind open with a strong fact or a good argument and open you up to the possibility that the other point of view might actually be somewhat valid, that chance is eliminated if you hear only the facts and arguments convenient to the side you already occupy.

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When I started in the business (1973, believe it or not, at a newspaper in Pine Bluff, Arkansas) the objectivity system was imposed on reporters. It had its flaws, but that system was pretty rigid. The vast majority of working journalists were required to respectfully quote people on both (or sometimes more than two) sides of the argument, and keep the reporter’s opinions out of the story.

It was an imperfect system. I know that. But it was forbidden for the reporter to express an opinion and much harder for him or her to rig the story so the side he favored won all the arguments. 

There were constant complaints of reporter bias, often “liberal” bias (since most reporters actually were liberals). But, compared to the new normal, the old system made it much, much more likely that the reader could get a respectful presentation of both (or more than two) sides of an argument.

The Roger Cohen paragraph at the top of this little tone poem of mine captured it pretty well. Here it is again:

If I have always been skeptical of objectivity I have always believed in fairness. That is to say, in the attempt to speak to people on both sides of a question, to report your way to some approximation of the truth by filtering diverse views.

I’ll mention two factors that have seriously undermined the values of the old system: new media, and Trumpism.

New media includes things like talk radio, which has greatly increased in influence since I was young, and then the creation of liberal and conservative TV and radio networks, and then the internet and Facebook and Twitter, etc., all of which make it much easier for a news consumer to read, watch or listen only to a highly selective menu of facts, including many that shouldn’t be called “facts” because they are false. 

Someone who relies on Fox News and someone who relies on MSNBC will have a very hard time having a substantive, open-minded discussion/argument because a) they don’t even know one another and b) if they do happen to know one another, they don’t start from a common set of facts.

Facebook, Twitter, and probably some developments I’m not even cool enough to know exist, make it easier and easier for today’s citizens to live in a world where all of the facts they know are on their “side” and those of their fellow citizens who aren’t already on their side can be dismissed or despised as some combination of stupid and evil.

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Trumpism took this to a new level. We’ve never had a presidential liar like Trump, not even close. In the old system, such a colossal liar could never have sustained even his miserable 40 percent of followers, because the old system would have made it roughly impossible for Trump’s followers to believe him for very long.

But, I sometimes think (and pardon any arrogance) that Trumpism benefits not only from the new media system but relies heavily on two closely related qualities of human nature that can be called “selective perception” and “confirmation bias.” 

“Selective perception” is what I said above, that if you only want to hear “news” from a right-wing perspective, for example, you can watch Fox, listen to Alex Jones, read Trump’s Twitter feed, none of which would have existed in the old days. It’s just too easy to close your eyes and your mind to facts that might cause you to have a rethink.

I suppose that, until that last paragraph, I had sorta tried to present this analysis as being very much two-sided. It is, of course, two-sided. There are closed-minded lefties who also use selective perception to ignore evidence that goes against their beliefs. I don’t believe this problem exists equally on both sides, but I am not blind to the power of selective perception and confirmation bias on the left.