Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate
Topics

The end of objectivity?

I worked most of my life under the old model of journalism, and am aware of its many shortcomings.

The so-called “objectivity” model of mainstream American journalism, which has been under pressure for a long time, seems to be collapsing in the late days of the Trump presidency.

I don’t have a big problem with this. I worked most of my life under the objectivity model, and am aware of its many shortcomings. But I also grasped the value, especially in the 20th century as more and more cities became dominated by one big paper that couldn’t be either the Democratic or the Republican paper, of practicing that model, which emphasized neutrality and factuality over partisan bias.

That old model relied on what we used to call “he-said-she-said” journalism. There was a partisan dispute. You quoted, with respect, an intelligent Democrat and an intelligent Republican, each arguing their side’s view. You left it to the editorial page to express the paper’s official view, which was really the view of a very small portion of the staff, and even that would be anodyne and balanced by a different view on the op-ed page. 

Of course I’m oversimplifying it, but that was the theory and it was imposed and practiced by mainstream newspapers fairly religiously for about a century.

Article continues after advertisement

Donald Trump has killed it. As president, he is entitled to considerable respect, but he has undermined that respect so totally with (among other things) his constant and blatant lying that it becomes foolish to pretend that his utterances deserve the same level of respect as previous occupants of the office. 

Maybe the old model will come back under a different president. But as I looked at the front page of this morning Star Tribune I was quite struck at the previously unimaginable anti-Trump tone of even the headlines. So let’s just focus on the headlines (which, in the old days, were just as obliged, or maybe even moreso, to avoid any hint of editorializing).

The lead story on top of page one is headlined: “Trump trying to nullify election.”

I agree. But that is not what Trump says he is trying to do. He and his legal team would say they are trying to throw out improper or illegal ballots so the election result will be proper. And, presumably, the story quotes someone from Trumpland making that argument. But, in the old days, the headline would have said something like “Trump challenging results,” a much less, shall-we-say, editorial statement, leaving it to readers to read more and decide for themselves whether Trump was actually trying to make the election results more fair or accurate.

What’s more, the subhead on the story, on the very top of the page, clarifying how Trump is trying to nullify the election, reads: “He wants GOP lawmakers to ignore will of voters.”

Well, that clears up any doubt (if there was any) about whether the main headline was an accident, an ambiguity, or a clarion statement of the paper’s position on who is right and who is wrong. 

I agree, of course. Both the headline and the subhead are accurate. My only point is that they make no effort at concealing the newspaper’s position as to what Trump is doing. That used to be something that had to be reserved for the editorial page.

There are also two other stories sidebars explaining and expanding on what the headline means. One is headlined: “Despite claims, states can’t legally override the results.” And the other is headlined: “Giuliani relies on lies, conspiracy to push case.”

Again, I don’t disagree with any of that. I agree, although these are conclusions rather than plain fact. The question of whether a state can “legally override results” is a bit complicated by the vagaries of the (stupid) Electoral College system. And Giuliani relies on lies, yes, I agree, but in the old days we would expect the newspaper to say that Democrats claim Giuliani lies, and Republicans disagree.

Article continues after advertisement

Is this new, what-should-we-call-it, honesty? Candor? Editorializing? Or a step toward something better?

Maybe yes. In fact, it may even be a step back to a day when many newspapers had “Democrat” or “Republican” in their names. Or it may just be, and I suspect it is, an attitude that says: Screw the old norms. This is a national emergency. Trump is a lying, cheating danger to democracy and this is no time to pussyfoot around old norms.

I’m an old man. I came up in the heyday of the old model, days when headlines like those in a mainstream respected mainstream newspaper – especially in a one-newspaper town – were unimaginable. But let me make it clear. I am not outraged. I think candor, calling a spade a spade, is a good thing in journalism and life generally. I’m just expressing, as one who spent most of his writing life in the old model, that this is very different from the old norms.