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

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:

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.

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.

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.

Comments (37)

  1. Submitted by William Duncan on 06/15/2020 - 10:45 am.

    Here is an astute observer of society and markets, Matt Taibbi, discussing the recent failures of journalism. He has written at length in article and book form about journalism, how it has turned into a shouting match or the reinforcement of biases, no longer about finding any truth but about narrative control.

    Basically he is saying too, Trump has deranged the press. But it is not just Trump. It is the zeitgeist; corporate/big money media today is more about censoring the discussion, than opening up dialogue.

    https://taibbi.substack.com/p/the-news-media-is-destroying-itself

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/15/2020 - 11:16 am.

    Taibbi is a good example of the problem Eric is discussing here. A terribly dishonest “journalist” who doesn’t let facts interfere with his narrative.

    • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/15/2020 - 02:18 pm.

      Taibbi is one of the few journalists alive who has written in detail about how the economy is gamed for the wealthy: see his book Griftopia. Read his “Hate Inc” book and you will see he is saying much the same as Eric is about the media. He is also one of the few writers working today not blinded by ideological partisanship, willing to criticize both sides. He also wrote a book about the death of Eric Garner called I Can’t Breathe. But, like he is saying in the article I posted, anyone now can be accused of being “terribly dishonest… doesn’t let facts interfere with his narrative” on no other basis than you don’t like what he has to say, no facts or evidence required.

      So if you want to accuse him of being a liar and a fraud, you will have to do better than just calling him that.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/15/2020 - 02:36 pm.

        Anybody can be accused of anything, but in this case its true with Taibbi. I put some examples from the terrible piece you linked to in another comment.

        You have previously indicated how you don’t read mainstream media, and I think that is a real problem. James Hamilton has it exactly right in needed to get a variety of perspectives to put any of them in the right context.

        I actually used to like Taibbi. Years ago he did some great writing exposing the ridiculous 9/11 conspiracy movement. And I do agree with his take on Frey in this one. But somewhere along he started letting his beliefs take precedence over actual facts.

        • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/15/2020 - 03:12 pm.

          I have read tens of thousands of articles from the mainstream media. I still will, except most of them are behind paywalls now. I’ve read enough though to know when I am being manipulated, so I don’t mind too much, and I’m smart enough to recognize those who rely on facts and those who just use the word “facts” as a cudgel to tear other people down, again, no actual facts required. Between you and Taibbi, Taibbi is the one immersed in facts trying to elucidate truth for others.

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 06/15/2020 - 11:21 am.

    Media consolidation is another relevant component. There really isn’t much local media left, whether in print, tv, or radio. Instead we have fewer voices, each with a wider audience than in the past. That’s true for both Fox and the NYTimes. Ezra Klein, of Vox, was writing about this last week too. Online media are competing, not just nationwide, but internationally, for the same eyeballs/advertising dollars.

    Those fewer voices mean fewer points of view; fewer opportunities to find information that challenges our preconceived notions. It takes active effort to find new points of view. It’s far easier to stick with what we know,.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/15/2020 - 11:43 am.

    Objective journalism was a fad and it’s time is passing. It was never something that caught hold outside the United States, and now it’s lost it’s grip here. as well.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/15/2020 - 12:58 pm.

    Having read a good bit of Taibbi myself, I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Duncan. I would add only that, because corporate and big-moneyed interests are often the controllers, the censorship Mr. Duncan refers to seems to me largely in the service of – what else? – the corporate bottom line. If readers / listeners / viewers don’t like their existing views to be challenged (or their informational silos invaded), and given the media mobility of most people in developed countries, providing “fairness” might drive some of them into the arms of corporate, if not ideological, competitors.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/15/2020 - 01:33 pm.

      The Taibbi piece linked to his comment is a perfect demonstration of Taibbi’s dishonesty. His defense of Tom Cotton’s offensive piece by saying it was simply represented popular support for military help misrepresents what the Times did and what the editorial said, and ignores the fact Cotton is more of an authoritarian than Trump. His defense of Lee Fang – an even more dishonest journalist – ignores Fang’s long history of racism and misogyny. Its a collection of half-truths masquerading as above-the-fray reporting.

      Sure, corporate media ownership is a big problem. But so are guys like Taibbi pretending to be the solution.

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/15/2020 - 02:35 pm.

        So you are now calling Lee Fang a racist (and a misogynyst too!)? Clearly, writing truth about the abuse of power by billionaires, corporations and banks, and the unaccountability of the military and law enforcement generally, will get you denounced left and right if you dare question any one little thing thought sacrosanct by whomever.

        You are free to call Cotton a monster too. All Taibbi is saying is, get a spine and treat democracy like an ongoing dialogue and get over the urge to censure everything you don’t agree with – like the Times, firing the opinion editor rather than just write a counter editorial denouncing or mocking Cotton.

        • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/15/2020 - 03:00 pm.

          I’d like to point out too, the NYT always takes the lead, manufacturing consent for war/military everywhere else in the world. Anyone surprised that they printed an opinion piece by a US Senator about using the military to crush the protests/riots has not been paying attention, or is being as hypocritical as the NYT. Firing the opinion editor is a cowardly act, the making of a scapegoat to distract from the general warmongering stance of the Times editorial board.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/15/2020 - 03:09 pm.

          I am not calling Fang a racist and a misogynist because of his writing about banks, billionaires, cops, et all. I am calling him those things because of his racism and misogyny.

          Again, you demonstrate the problem with relying solely on Taibbi and his ilk for information. He’s being dishonest about what went down with the Times and the Cotton piece, so you only have his false narrative to rely upon.

          • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/15/2020 - 03:35 pm.

            Calling someone a racist and a misogynist is tremendously serious. I called you out about it, and your reply was, “I am calling him those things because of his racism and misogyny,” without any example whatever to bolster such a terrible claim. That is not fact based anything, that is just the casual character assassination Taibbi is talking about.

            • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/15/2020 - 04:49 pm.

              Your link provides a good example of the racism. Fang really likes to talk about black on black crime, which is a right-wing, racist trope, and in light of recent events, he got called out for it and was nearly fired. His colleague at the Intercept called him a racist and (as Taibbi points out) none of his colleagues stood up for him. Taibbi (being Taibbi) tries to pretend it was about censorship and just asking tough questions, but its really about racism.

              Fang’s misogyny is directed mostly at female candidates, or any woman who failed to support Bernie Sanders. As you know, that was pretty common among Sanders more fervent supporters.

              • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/16/2020 - 10:06 am.

                The link states clearly that the accusation about racism stems from Lee Fang sharing a post on twitter from a black man who has lost two family members to black on black crime, asking the legitimate question, why is black on black crime rarely news, or white officers murdering a white person rarely news, when every time a white officer kills a black man it is all over the news?

                That is a legitimate question in a democracy, coming from a man who has seen violence come to his family, and he can’t even talk about it without being denounced as some right wing nut job.

                There is nothing in that link suggesting misogyny, except more accusations without evidence.

                Now I have said many times, white rural communities, some white urban communities, and primarily black urban communities have been hollowed out for 40 years by deliberate economic choices by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, these economic choices have left many destitute leading to a life of homelessness, crime and drugs. From my vantage point, hardly anyone on the left or right will acknowledge that, and many on the left would like to say it is purely and only about racism, and not about economic choices and a lack of economic opportunity.

                To say this is purely about racism ignores how these economic choices have effected poor white people, which then opens up an opportunity for cynical republicans to play poor whites against poor blacks.

                So we rage about racism, meanwhile, in this pandemic, the Federal Reserve is printing trillions of dollars made from nothing to hand to banks and corporations and hedge funds and private equity, so we can have another round of a transfer of wealth from poor people to rich people, which is guaranteed to make life a lot harder for the majority of white and black people, and yet hardly anyone in the media except for people like Taibbi and Fang have anything to say about that. And what do they get for it – denounced as racists and misogynists.

                • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/16/2020 - 11:27 am.

                  Talking about black on black crime isn’t a legitimate question at all. Its nonsense. Crime exists. Some of it is black on black. More of it (because this country is still mostly white) is white on white. But talking about black on black crime in the context of police shootings is a racist, right-wing trope.

                  Do you really think the writers at the Intercept are calling Fang a racist because of his politics and investigative work? Everyone there writes the same contrarian leftist nonsense Fang does. No, they are calling Fang out because of his long-standing was racism.

                  And Taibbi is an apologist for racism. A guy who whitewashes racism.

                  The whole idea about economic anxiety turning rural areas conservative as opposed to racism has been repeatedly debunked. You wouldn’t know that because you read guys like Taibbi who want to pretend racism does not exist.

                  • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/16/2020 - 01:36 pm.

                    Any astute reader should notice that you consistently make absolutist statements as if they cannot be questioned, yet rarely ever offer up any link to support your comments, even after repeatedly being asked to do so. Now you are saying rural people who voted for Trump have no economic anxiety and are proven to be racists, again authoritatively, without offering any support for such absolutist, broad brush certainty.

                    Also, indeed it is a racist trope to point out black on black violence, if you are implying black people are inherently violent and should be oppressed. It is legitimate to point out that much violence in the black community (and white community) is due to economic anxiety due to bipartisan economic policy hollowing out poor communities.

                    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/16/2020 - 03:37 pm.

                      Again, black on black crime is not a legitimate issue. Its just racism. Lee Fang is a racist. He was called out by people or color at his left-wing publication, and no one there came to his defense. Because there is no defense. Because he’s a racist.

                      https://www.google.com.mx/amp/s/www.cleveland.com/news/2020/06/stop-using-black-on-black-crime-to-deflect-away-from-police-brutality.html%3foutputType=amp

                      And Matt Taibaii is an apologist for racism. A man who lies to protect his racist friend.

                      Here is a link to an article talking about the economic anxiety vs racism argument. There is plenty like this out there, but if you read frauds like Taibii and Fang – “journalists” with little or no interest in actual facts – you are going to miss it.

                      https://www.google.com.mx/amp/s/www.vox.com/platform/amp/identities/2017/12/15/16781222/trump-racism-economic-anxiety-study

                    • Submitted by William Duncan on 06/17/2020 - 09:25 am.

                      That Vox article you linked is only about millennials, and the link to the actual study is “forbidden.” another thing I noticed as I went to other links related to that article, is how every article and every study downplayed economic factors and focused almost exclusively on racism and misogyny.

                      There is no question racism and misogyny exist in Trump land. You prefer to say that is the ONLY reason Trump was elected. But when you really dig into the research it is clear, economics were a very real factor:

                      https://www.voterstudygroup.org/publication/story-of-trumps-appeal

                      “Among primary voters, 54 percent of Trump supporters said their finances had recently gotten worse (using the 2012 baseline measure) and 62 percent said the economy was getting worse (2012 baseline measure). This compares to 42 percent and 52 percent, respectively, among supporters of other Republican candidates

                      Among general election voters, Trump supporters were twice as likely as Clinton supporters to have said their personal finances were getting worse (52 to 26 percent) and four times as likely to have said the economy was getting worse (59 to 15 percent). And on both of these questions, 40 percent of Obama to Trump switchers thought things were getting worse

                      Long-term pessimism was also widespread among Trump supporters. Two-thirds of Trump primary supporters thought life today for people like them is worse than it was 50 years ago, compared to about half of other candidates’ supporters. The figure was similar among Trump general election supporters (62 percent compared to 28 percent among Clinton voters), and it was 47 percent among Obama to Trump switchers

                      Finally, Trump supporters had a jaundiced view of trade agreements. Two-thirds of Trump primary voters thought trade agreements generally decrease the number of jobs available to American workers. But then nearly as many (64 percent) of other candidates’ supporters thought the same thing. Roughly the same number of Trump general election supporters and Obama to Trump switchers thought trade agreements decrease jobs — more than the 50 percent of Clinton voters, although this difference was not as sharp as most of the other characteristics we examined”

                      Yeah, and maybe his colleagues at the Intercept didn’t stand up for Lee Fang because once such a charge is made and blows up, how do you stand up for the accused without the accusers turning their venom on you?

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/15/2020 - 12:59 pm.

    I more often than not find myself agreeing with Mr. Black and do so again on many of the points made here. My experience, however, leads me to disagree on this point:

    “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.”

    Perhaps it’s the people I know and interact with, or the variety of news sources I review each day, but I don’t believe the problem is as lopsided as he suggests or even that it breaks down to right vs left. My Facebook feed is filled with left-leaning sources pandering to the biases of their readership, eschewing fact for innuendo, substance for headlines, or consideration for advocacy. MinnPost is an important part of my daily wanderings yet it, too, has a bias, one which it clearly states, to its credit.

    I highly recommend this app to those who encounter a variety of new sources throughout the week. If nothing else, it can help alert the reader to possible issues with any given piece.

    https://www.newsguardtech.com/

    I also urge readers to engage with sources that expose them to opposing points of view, even though some of their material may be the most shameless right-wing or left-wing prattle. TheHlll.com is one such source.

  7. Submitted by BK Anderson on 06/15/2020 - 03:35 pm.

    As long as a media model has a universal doctrine that does not allow public figures (from elected officials to CEOs) to traffic in open falsehoods and known lies (and a method of repudiating the lies), then a democratic system could survive. But as soon as a segment of media supports a political movement and refuses to call out lies by the operatives of the movement, then a form of Gresham’s Law for the Media takes over: Bad media drives out good. That is what’s happening now, particularly in the “conservative” world.

    Trump’s singular characteristic is that he is a pathological liar, yet his utterances and tweets are basically covered straight, as “news”. Hell, we’ve had a 3 year long debate in whether his (repeated) lies should be directly called “lies” by the traditional media. Views differ! It’s not really a surprise that traditional media models would collapse in such an environment.

    Since the US media model is failing (just as our democracy is failing), perhaps we should consult the media model of more successful democracies, although it appears their number is declining the world over.

    Journalists used to have “beats”, over which they presumably developed some sort of expertise. But expression of such expertise was apparently deemed bias. For political coverage, now we have “embedded” folks who simply cover the daily vomit dispensed by “campaigns”, without much effort at analyzing it. The horse race is all.

    It may be that the world simply became too technologically complex for the (rather naive) idea like an “informed electorate” to continue to function even fitfully. Add in the ability of a democracy’s global opponents to poison the citizenry’s information stream at will (which is the current situation) and the existence of an unqualified failure like a President Trump is not too surprising.

    Especially in a country that never really embraced democracy to begin with, and now has 40%+ crowing about how wonderful it is that we are “a republic, not a democracy”….and doing all they can to keep the failed system going!

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/16/2020 - 12:37 pm.

      Exactly!

      Who could have imagined that we could devolve to the point where we can have endless discussions on the merits of TRUTH.

      Is it good?
      Are lies bad?
      How necessary is it?
      How many shades of truth do we have?
      When does gray turn black?
      How do we know?

      From Ford to Carter to Reagan and on to GWB & Obama we did not have this dilemma to nearly the extent we see today.

      And the extent can be traced to one Donald Trump: a lifelong truth abuser. And to the soulless lap dogs who will sacrifice all their past values to get and maintain power and win some victories that they must way over rationalize in order to justify following a path they flat out know is wrong: McConnell privately calls Trump the “stupidest politician I have ever met” while rationalizing judicial appointments as the reward for Trump tolerance.

      Lindsey Graham is a walking, talking example of the meaningless of truth:

      https://youtu.be/g5Xpwyd4aMM

      And to our religious right friends who also have found alliance with Trump I can only add:

      John 17:17 ESV
      Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

      Psalm 145:18 ESV
      The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.

      2 Timothy 2:15 ESV
      Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

      Ephesians 6:14 ESV
      Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,

      Proverbs 12:22 ESV
      Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.

      John 4:24 ESV
      God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

      Watch out for lighting bolts…

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/16/2020 - 01:32 pm.

        Acts 5:3-11, which, at the very least should teach us what God thinks of those who would falsify a financial disclosure.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/15/2020 - 04:43 pm.

    Objective journalism trades on certain assumptions. It assumes the people it deals with possess some modicum of good faith. Absent that, objective journalism can’t help but report unobjectively, to be a contradiction of its own terms.

  9. Submitted by James Clark on 06/15/2020 - 09:48 pm.

    I agree with articles point on people can be selective on what they hear.
    I have an issue with giving Trump so much credit for this failure in perspective. Journalism took a huge credibility hit when they reclassified network news as “Entertainment” than news. Journalism real journalism has not had Credibility sense then.
    Credibility is needed first in bringing people different perspectives of ideas on serous issues. In honest observation Trump just pointed it out very publicity.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/16/2020 - 08:33 am.

    If you have to think long and hard about what objectivity in journalism is, then you’re trying to hard to justify your own lack of it. I would suggest that you’re not a journalist as much as you’re an advocate with space in a newspaper or TV news program to spin your side’s point of view.

    Just tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. Too many in journalism today can’t even do that.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/16/2020 - 01:27 pm.

      You have pretty much invited this question:

      Whom do you regard today as an objective journalist?

    • Submitted by ian wade on 06/16/2020 - 03:42 pm.

      Is that why you folks want to throw Chris Wallace off of Fox?

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/17/2020 - 12:25 pm.

      “Just tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.”

      My first post attempt at this was rejected by the MINN POST standards and practices board, I suppose for being too snarky (Well, yeah, it was).

      So maybe we can just quietly reflect on a Trump supporter telling us:

      “Just tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.”

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/16/2020 - 03:10 pm.

    Please forgive the lengthy post- but this is a complex issue.

    I don’t think “Objective” reporting was ever the portal to “truth” Eric wants to think it was; rather it was merely a journalistic “style” that sought to convey authority and created a comfort zone within which many journalists took refuge. It was a failed attempt at “branding”.
    I think Eric’s attempt to describe objectivity in science reveals common misunderstanding among journalists, the claim that science’s attempts to eliminate or recognize bias are an attempt to practice “objectivity”, is simply mistaken. When journalist seek out contrary or opposite “perspectives” as a form of objective “balance”, they’re not emulating science in any way.
    Scientists don’t assemble reliable observations by seeking out people with different perspectives, they assemble reliable observations by deploying reliable methodology. Science has explanatory power because it explain things… not because it refuses to explain things. When scientific publications assemble peer reviewers for instance, they look for expertise in the field, not diverse perspectives.
    Objective journalism pretends that their refusal to draw conclusions is what makes them “objective”, as if refusing to offer conclusions or judgements inoculates them from accusations of bias; that’s always been a fantasy. For all their attempts to brand themselves as un-bias, the establishment media has always been saddled with accusations of bias. And they say: “well if everyone’s mad at us we must be doing our job”, or if everyone’s mad at you it might be because you’re not doing your job. You can wear your disapproval as a badge of honor, but then don’t complain about the collapse of confidence.
    In the end journalistic objectivity isn’t a portal to the “truth”, it’s an illusion, a portal to nowhere. “Objectivity” may be a journalistic narrative, but it’s not a real thing. The “objective” status of journalism was always a myth assembled around an establishment comfort zone. Objective journalism has rarely been the vanguard of truth, they’re typically the last to arrive on scene.
    The primary mission of “objective” reporting has been to limit perspectives, not expand them. This brand of journalism has spent decades filtering out diverse perspective, not inviting them into the conversation or our consciousness. Had we gotten “unfiltered” (rather than Cohen’s “filtered”) reporting about the racism, sexism, health care crises, economic disparities, and dictatorial impulses of Republicans, or militarized law enforcement decades ago we might have averted or at least diminished some of the crises we straining under today. I don’t think it’s hard to imagine being better served by journalism that would have exposed these crises of the last few decades rather than marginalizing those who tried to raise the alarms and filtering out their voices.
    If the objective regime of reporting is collapsing today, it’s because it’s a failed regime. Trump has pushed establishment journalist well outside their comfort zones, but for the first time in decades we’re actually seeing truthful and critical analysis of a president, his policies, and his cabinet. The Press Club may have collapsed but some journalistic independence has emerged from the rubble. Had establishment journalists been willing to cover Reagan, Bush, Clinton etc. the same way, imagine how different things might be today. When Clinton decided to hand out all that post war weaponry to police departments all over the country imagine what a little critical examination of militarized law enforcement might have changed instead of the “objective” cheerleading for the war on crime? By the way, there WERE journalists trying to sound the alarm at the time… but they were filtered out.
    The pretense of objectivity was celebrated by the powerful status quo it serviced for decades, but everyone else has been steadily recognizing its illegitimacy. The idea that the collapse of “objectivism” heralds the collapse of democracy itself strikes me as rather grandiose. Reliable reporting is simply about integrity. That’s not to say that people like Eric have no integrity, on the contrary I think Mr. Black is a decent and honest human being, and I respect his professionalism. We just don’t share the same nostalgia for the golden age of “Objective” reporting, and I’m not alarmed by the collapse of failed regimes. I would argue that we’ve actually seen more reliable and courageous reporting in the last three years than the last three decades. I would suggest that the collapse of the Objective comfort zone is exactly what we need right now and that it will rescue rather than destroy our democracy.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/16/2020 - 06:32 pm.

      I would suggest that a journalist submitting a story idea to their boss with a reference to the “statistical significance of the null hypothesis” won’t have a lasting journalistic career. Now, they could head over to academia and make it to the pinnacle of academic achievement: a regular guest spot on a cable news show.

      These academic folks do fulfill the aspects of a scientific researcher in their pursuit of the truth, often in a peer reviewed environment. With the possible exception of Alan Dershowitz, they are sensitive to protect their academic reputations and hang closer to the truth than a politician or political activist or political journalist.

      Which explains why CNN and MSNBC regularly offer up the likes of John Meachum, Douglas Brinkley, Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin and FOX relies on Geraldo Rivera.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/17/2020 - 11:00 am.

        Yes, science is an institution with it’s own institutional problems, strengths, and weaknesses. My point is simply that journalism is attempting to lend itself credibility when it references the “objectivity” of science, and that attempt is basically incoherent for a variety of reasons.

  12. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/16/2020 - 07:04 pm.

    Back in 1988, I received a fellowship that financed a summer at the University of Michigan. In addition to doing what I was supposed to be doing according to the terms of the fellowship, i.e. taking part in a seminar about traditional Japanese music, I took advantage of the rich variety of events and performances that were available during the summer session.

    One of the most memorable events was a talk by a former NPR reporter. Her name was familiar at the time, but I have since forgotten it.

    She had reported from Nicaragua recently, and she told a lot of stories about her time there. Especially interesting was her revelation that most American reporters there did not speak Spanish (as if nobody in the U.S. has ever studied Spanish?) and were dependent on press releases from the U.S. embassy (that’s what “Western diplomats” means, she said) and on interviews with English-speaking Nicaraguans, who tended be the wealthier members of that society. She told of incidents in which American reporters misunderstood what they saw because they didn’t understand what was being said, nor could they question the participants afterward. Another revealing part of the talk was comparison, illustrated with videos from newscasts, of American, Canadian, and British coverage of the 1984 Salvadoran elections.

    Anyway, in the question-and-answer session, I asked the speaker about something I had experienced. That is, I saw Eliot Abrams being interviewed on what was then the McNeill-Lehrer Report, and he outright lied by saying that Nicaragua had never held an election. (It had, only the “wrong” people won, from the Reagan administration’s point of view.) The interviewer did not challenge him, even though anyone following news from Central America should have known that Abrams was lying. I even went to the library and checked old newspapers to confirm my memories before writing a letter of complaint to PBS.

    I heard nothing for months until a preprinted postcard showed up in my mailbox. “We are sorry that you think our coverage is biased. We endeavor to provide an objective account of the day’s events.”

    The speaker explained what had happened. High-level officials in the Reagan administration (and presumably in other administrations as well) refused to be interviewed by anyone who did not submit questions in advance, and anyone who contradicted their statements would “lose access,” that is, any further requests for interviews or statements would be rejected. And reporters without “access” were of no use to the news organization and were in danger of losing their jobs.

    This was how the Reagan administration kept Washington-based journalists tame.

    I asked why the news organizations couldn’t act like “60 Minutes” and simply state that so-and-so refused to comment, and the speaker reminded me that PBS is partly dependent on Congress for its funding.

    But I see this stenographic approach to journalism all too often, and it’s not necessarily a complete picture. To continue with the coverage of Nicaragua, the mainstream media seemed to be united in the idea that the U.S. had to “do something” about the Sandinista government. The hawks promoted military action and blockades, while the doves said that diplomacy should be the means of getting the government to step down. Nowhere in the mainstream media did I see advocates for the view that Nicaragua was no threat to the U.S. and that it should be left alone.

    I haven’t been able to watch mainstream TV news for years. It gets me too angry. Instead, I read newspapers, so when the upper-class bias of the New York Times or the political horse race coverage of the Washington Post gets to be too much for me, I can skip those articles and keep my blood pressure low. Thanks to the internet, I can eavesdrop on right-wing outlets, too, but my usual reaction is, “How can anyone not see through the obvious propaganda techniques unless they slept through history class and never left their hometown?”

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/17/2020 - 12:25 pm.

      Thanks you Ms. Sandness. One of the other mythical aspect of “objective” journalism is of course it’s claim to independence. In some ways the focus on objectivity rather than independence is a giveaway of sorts.

      I’m sure we can all site our own examples of monumental establishment media fails over the decades (the Gulf Wars, Reagan and Central America, Clinton and his neoliberal romp, just to name a few). But the goofiest claim that establishment journalist keep making is that their reporting emerges from different perspectives. Sure… as long as those perspectives represent the voice of some kind of power. We’ll get the Democrat AND the Republican side of things, or other sanctioned and recognized voices. Anything outside that narrow range of consideration is beyond the pale.

      My choice of story will be the coverage of the Hiawatha Reroute Resistance back in 1998. Back then they were preparing to re-route Highway 55 in South MPLS over by the VA and Minnehaha creek and falls. The reroute required the destruction of a number of houses, green space, and four trees that were sacred to the Mdewakanton Mendota band of Sioux Indians.

      I choose this example because it not only illustrates the tunnel vision of establishment media, but it was also an early example of a militarized law enforcement regime.

      Throughout the entire occupation, the establishment media adopted the position that the State and it’s agents, be they MNDOT or police, were the voice of authority. Despite the fact that very well knowledgeable and articulate activist were available for interviews and inclusion, those voices were locked out. Once in a great while someone among the demonstrators would get a soundbite but for the most part the voice of power was the only voice covered by local media.

      In October of 98 the State launched what was at the time the largest law enforcement operation in State, history: “Operation Cold Snap”. Over 600 officers descended on 39 Earth First! and sundry other demonstrators at 4:30 in the morning. Operation Cold Snap was a preview of the tactics to be deployed at the 2008 Republican convention, and any truly objective reporter would have (and did) see that coming.

      In 2002 a well known local reporter wrote a book about the reroute resistance, and that book followed the same establishment pattern. It provided more detail, but the narrative clearly established the State and it’s officials as the arbiters of “facts” and information, while relegating emotional “truths” to the demonstrators and the Native Americans. The problem with this narrative structure is that it is completely false.

      I covered this entire episode for two years. I interviewed law enforcement, politicians, MNDOT archeologists, Historians, demonstrators, Indian People, Earth First!, etc. etc. and I can tell you that the LEAST reliable sources of information were those in “authority”.

      Law enforcement described reports that Earth First!ers had weapons (no such reports existed). MNDOT archeologists and communication’s people made a series of false claims about archeological findings and the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement. I was even lied to about whether or not MNDOT had ever had a meeting with demonstrators, for some reason they denied having a big meeting onsite that I found to be clearly documented.

      State officials and law enforcement (with eerie similarity to recent claims about Anarchists and ANTIFA) portrayed demonstrators and Earth First! as domestic terrorists, and used THAT as justification for their military operation. Had this story not been “filtered” through a distorted lens of pseudo-objectivity many many lessons could have been learned. Lessons about heavy handed military tactics, the integrity of our government, environmental awareness and transportation planning, and community activism and involvement, just to name a few. As it is, told from the perspective of power, it ends up being a story about some lamentable aspects of progress. The voice of colonization, once again.

      So the idea that THIS kind of journalism has been safeguarding our liberties for decades is simply goofy. As Ms. Sandness points out the allure of “access” and proximity to those in power has more often than not warped the lens of objectivity establishment journalist pretend to stand behind. Power is too often challenged only when tacit permission is perceived.

  13. Submitted by Bruce Marshall on 06/17/2020 - 09:37 am.

    Very good piece, Mr. Black. When members of a group cannot agree on (what to call) the facts of the physical world that they have in common, they split up. And fight. Witness, Protestants from the Catholic church in the 16th century, overthrows of numerous hierarchies (American, French, etc. revolutions), the American Civil War.

    All we have in common is the physical world. We differ how we interpret it—use different terms. If we can’t get back to largely agreeing about the physical world, we won’t be able to live together.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/17/2020 - 12:34 pm.

    Just to finish a thought about establishment media, permission, and comfort zones: Donald Trump has clearly pushed a lot of establishment media journalists out of their comfort zones, but a large extent that’s actually happened because he’s literally attacked them.

    Trump is awful president doing more awful things than most presidents, but you have to wonder… if he did ALL of those things without attacking the media and pushing them out of their comfort zones- would the coverage still be THIS critical?

    Imagine a Trump that’s nice to reporters, charms them, “works” with them? We’d have the same Fascist in the White House, but would we get the same reporting? Or would so many reporters find the allure of proximity to such a flamboyant and “unique” POTUS too powerful to risk alienating? If Trump showed up at the press club and played along… what then?

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 06/21/2020 - 09:37 pm.

      If Trump played along you would see what happened when George W Bush encouraged embedded reporters during the Iraq War.

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