The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, December 29, 2003
 

Objective journalism: the defence is made


Jeff Jarvis has a couple of pieces (here and here) on a piece by Tim Rutten in the LA Times (December 27) which strives to make the case for objective journalism.

It's a concept to which I have a visceral aversion - last unleashed on December 15 - on grounds that can be accommodated, most of them, under the headings of
  1. no such animal; and

  2. dire moral hazard.

Contempt oozes from virtually every sentence of Rutten's:
Liberal and conservative intellectuals who have sipped more Kool-Aid than they realize from the post-modern punch bowl insist that because pure objectivity does not exist, only pure subjectivity remains. According to this view, because not every form of prejudice and predisposition can be eradicated, every piece of "fair and honest" journalism must contain a confession of the inevitable reportorial bias...

There is a certain kind of bright but brittle mind that loves this sort of either/or thinking. What such minds cannot accept is the common-sensical notion that real life - including that of the press - is lived mostly in the pragmatic middle. There, experience has demonstrated that intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline enable journalists to gather and report facts with an impartiality that - though sometimes imperfect - is good enough to serve the public's interest in the generality of cases.


The Times building must be quite the fire risk, with all the straw men that Rutten's got lined up on his altar to the great god Manichaeus [1].

After mentioning such luminaries as Al Franken and Ann Coulter, he concludes that
Our nonfiction literature, in other words, is today a shouting match.

The idea, it seems, that Rutter is waving at us from the pragmatic middle - an area from which opinion has been duly extracted, as by the systems that keep Intel's factories dust-free: he quotes
CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, who is also a leading scholar of public opinion
as suggesting that
It's certainly true that we are now two Americas...Partisanship has grown much harsher in recent years, no question. There is also a more bitter atmosphere in the country generally because our politics have come to involve issues of values and religion in a way they did not 30 years ago."

This is a fault line that ruptured in the 1960s...


Objective journalism, of course, was what allowed free rein to the Red Terror authorised by genial Harry Truman and gleefully taken up by Joseph McCarthy and friends; not to mention the lack of real challenge to the escalation in Vietnam at any time when it might have been reversed. Schneider, with Rutter approving, seems to be holding out this as - not, perhaps a golden era of journalism, but certainly better than today's.

There are more sophomorically dumb false dichotomies - as, for example (from Schneider)
Both poles in our increasingly polarized society now want news as seen by people who see the world as they see it.

And what I would suggest with all due humility is a lame Civil analogy (emphasis mine):
On the eve of the Civil War, Americans were per capita the greatest readers of newspapers in the world....Every single one of those publications was passionately - in fact, bitterly - partisan. A very good case could be made that the free press of that period, though vigorous, not only failed to arrest the nation's slide into civil strife but also played a major role in provoking it. Nobody is arguing that our current divisions remotely approach those of 1863. But it, too, was an era of value-laden politics in which popular sentiment demanded that the press take sides. A partisan press, though free and open about its bias, simply propelled its readers into the abyss.

The sentence in bold involves an evasion well up to the standard of the accursed ranters Coulter and Franken: making a tendentious comparison for dramatic effect, and then admitting that the attention-grabbing element of the comparison is, in fact, false!

[And - I'm the lay-est of men on the Civil War, but wasn't
the eve
of the War in 1861?]

Jarvis is critical of the piece, but lets it off too easily. For instance, in relation to the controversy about New York Times coverage of pro-US demonstrations in Iraq:
From the journalists' perspective, I'd say it's damned hard to look at, say, Iraq coverage without having to parse the perspective of the source. When The Times doesn't cover anti-terrorism demonstrations but does cover anti-American demonstrations, they and we need to ask what that means.

Darn tootin'! But he seems to suggest that Iraq coverage is in some way exceptional. You need your parser on for any news story from anywhere, surely?

Turning up the Podunk Prognosticator site, you see the rag boosting some new road and industrial development. The first thing, surely, to cross your mind is what connection the Prognosticator has with the promoters and financiers of that development - and what politicians have taken benefits of one sort or another from them, or from groups opposing the scheme: the existence of honest graft (in the George Washington Plunkitt sense) or of its relations, close and distant.

The homey quality of the story is no guarantee that the journalism isn't slanted - or even downright crooked!

[Not to say that there aren't, with most stories, matters on where reasonable men struggle to differ - the identity of the current President of the United States, for instance. And, for others, the margin for appreciation is limited - a forecast of a 1932-deep depression in the US next year would fall handily outside the margin, I suspect!

But all sorts of matters other than the text of a story affect its meaning and require parsing: its location in the paper, what stories it's placed next to, sidebars and follow-ups, etc, etc.

There is no story - however apparently judgement-free it looks - which does not have some sort of affective or meta-news value, apart from its objective news content. The fact a story is included at all is such a value.]

Jarvis is right, surely, to suggest that the net, blogs, etc, have opened the news process up to some sort of dialogue with readers, where previously there was none - an infinite improvement, therefore!

But the mechanism for dialogue is crude and cumbersome, and its content limited and rudimentary (think Edison reciting Mary had a little lamb, compared with today's recordings). What is needed is to increase vastly the demand from readers for dialogue with the news sources they use. And that won't happen unless readers expect to parse everything they read - and not rely on the Gray Lady, or CNN or the LA Times or anyone else to do their parsing for them!

  1. Figure of speech: one might suggest Manich├Žism (love the ligature!) as a candidate for a US state religion, if ever such a thing were to be contemplated.


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