Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Dangerous Myth of Journalistic Objectivity

"What Time Is It In Political Journalism?"
Jay Rosen
Press Think


This is a rhetorical and visual stance, but also a favorite job description: the professional crap-detector, de-illusioned and well informed, sifting out the half truths, calling out the evasions, sizing up the scene in an analytical way, asking tough, necessary, cagey, impolite and just newsworthy questions. It's the self-image of choice for a great many who do political journalism today. It's what Tim Russert, Jody Wilgoren and Howard Fineman would probably say they're about. And it provides an easy answer to:

Dear Journalist: who are you, politically speaking?
Within politics, what kind of work do you do?
And which side are you on, if not your own?
The consensus reply--the one most commonly repeated, readily defended, roundly believed in by journalists--is in serious trouble these days. It says:

Our politics? We're professionals who have no partisan role. We are neutral toward all parties, factions, candidates. We're on the public's side. We supply vital news, a context for understanding it, analysis and interpretation where needed. Beyond that we play the roles of crap-detector, truthteller, probing questioner of politicians and other players. Here, as everywhere, we are contrained by the journalist's imperatives of fairness, accuracy, relevance, timeliness, and equal treatment. And we try not to bore you. Those are our principles, those are our politics. Is that what you meant?
Well, no. It isn't. And that is why this belief system is in serious trouble. It answers a political question with an evacuation of politics, toward which professional correctness in journalism allows only neutrality and its endless equivalents-- one of which is equal opportunity aggression in the watchdog role. Gopnik saw this attitude not as undesirable, but strangely non-descript.

For it fails to say anything meaningful about the journalist's role in the American political system as it stands. It is also relentlessly ahistorical, defeating thought about changes in public life that might present new problems or require new ideas. As the press scholar Michael Schudson once wrote, "The news media necessarily incorporate into their work a certain view of politics, and they will either do so intelligently and critically or unconsciously and routinely."

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