Surviving the Death of Objectivity

When Walter Cronkite stepped out of character in 1968 and opposed Johnson on the Vietnam War it was a monumental event.  Cronkite was a sort of national godfather, the arbiter of what is and what ain’t.  His statement said something more powerful than his own personal thoughts.  By publicly announcing his scepticism he was implying that there was no longer a way for a reasonable person to retain principled objectivity on the war.  The verdict was in.  Johnson was finished.

Needless to say, no figure in American journalism has anything like Cronkite’s stature in our era.  That may not be such a bad thing.  Though there’s nothing good to say about the blowhards who now fill the airwaves with fear-flavored lies, the old notions of objectivity were always more aspiration than reality.  The collapse of the old journalistic establishment as reported recently by Ted Koppel has created a lot of angst, but there may be a model for how a post-objective news media can work.

Riding the tube in London you can learn a lot about the people around you by looking at their newspaper.  Blue-collar Labour-types will be reading The Sun (Rupert Murdoch’s product, ironically).  Many will be lingering on Page 3 (no link provided, this is a family blog).  Tories will be pouring over the Daily Mail.  Hard-core working-class blokes might have the highly tabloidy News of the World (featured in U2’s Last Night on Earth).

The Guardian will be folded in the laps of either pointy-headed intellectual socialists, or lazy folks who bought it because of the handy kiosk at the train station entrance.  As the Red Line churns through its stops in The City, you’ll see bankers or traders reading the conspicuous pink sheets of the Financial Times.  Upper class professionals tend to stick with The Times, or expose their lefty pretensions with a peek at The Guardian.

In short, Britain is a successful democracy that has never, outside the BBC, pretended any objectivity in its news media.  Everybody’s newspapers are delivering content on a slant, and yet they suffer nothing like the polarizing ideological blindness we currently endure.

The critical difference between Rupert Murdoch’s British (usually)-Labour rag, The Sun, and his American Republican, Fox News, is intellectual honesty.  Someone may correct me here, but I don’t think anybody on the staff of the The Sun claims that they are delivering news that’s either “fair” or God-forbid “balanced.”  That’s not what the audience wants.  Readers understand the bias and calibrate accordingly.

Fair and balanced aren’t what Fox or MSNBC do either, but they continue to lie about it and listeners pretend they are getting The News.  Deception is bad.  Self-deception is even worse.  Neither are necessary.

Objectivity as a professional goal was always admirable, but it was also more than a little arrogant.  It functioned sorta like this.  A journalist is supposed to actively work to discover all the different angles of a news item and synthesize them in order to establish and report on what is real.  In other words, the professional journalistic establishment was supposed to be the arbiters of reality. That’s a bold stretch in a post-modern world.  It’s not working anymore.

Folks on the political fringes have long complained with some justification that this “objectivity” effectively discredits them, closing them out of mainstream political discourse.  Well, in reality, I suppose what they have more commonly done is claim objectivity is a damned lie and a conspiracy against them, and that the news media is manipulated by either corporate tyrants or leftist tyrants, or Jews or Communists or whatever, depending on who’s doing the complaining.  But beneath all the hyperbole that’s basically the reality they are getting at.

When media, by law, was dominated by television and the local newspaper(s), objectivity was a genuine concern and its preservation was critical.  But in the years since Reagan as the world has opened up and every aspect of life globally has been deregulated and subjected to the profit standard, journalism has taken an &^%-whoopin.  It turns out that objectivity does not sell.  In a financially competitive environment it has been gutted, replaced mostly by entertainers.

But this is not the end of the world.  The British have taught us that a mature political culture can tolerate deliberately slanted, tabloid-infused news.  Plus the emerging constellation of new media outlets mean that anyone who cares about reality (which is clearly not everyone) will have new options for how to discover it.  Undoubtedly, quality is going to suffer around the edges and high-end journalism of the war-correspondent type may be headed for the dustbin.  For a decade now we’ve had virtually no real journalism from our two war zones that was unfiltered by the military.  We have to adapt to this.  It’s a problem that won’t go away.

Well into the future there may still be major media outlets that will strive to preserve some relic of objectivity.  The British still have the BBC.  Americans have NPR and what’s left of the slowly suffocating CNN.  The rest of the old media establishment has already been overwhelmed by car-chases, idiotic crime-shows, feely segments on hero-dogs, and Glenn Beckistry.  America’s most trusted journalist was once Walter Cronkite.  Now that role is served by a comedian with a deliberate leftist slant.

We will adapt and survive.

The element that will make this transition survivable will be the gradual acknowledgement of bias.  The absurd recent scandal over Olbermann’s donations to Democrats will be joined by many others which will accumulate until news networks will be forced to acknowledge reality.  Before much longer you’ll be able to read a stranger’s politics (though perhaps not their social class, like in England) by observing what they read.

So long as we all understand and account for the angle, deliberately biased news reporting is something we can learn to live with.


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