Objectivity for What?

Objectivity for What?

Famed editor Marty Baron’s recent defense of the canons of journalistic impartiality overlooks a damning historical track record.

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In her poignant column in response to the Texas Democracy Foundation’s since-rescinded vote to shutter the Texas Observer, Andrea Grimes fondly recalls the monthly parties where staff and supporters of the Observer shared food, drink, the occasional risk of a natural gas explosion, and an appreciation of the publication’s history of producing accountability journalism in pursuit of a more equitable Texas.

But nostalgia is a soft light that blurs the scars and wrinkles of its subjects, as Grimes acknowledges in her reminiscence. For all too long, the Texas Observer seemed more committed to equity for some Texans than for others, she writes:

[The] Observer struggled internally to embody its progressive politics off the page. Journalists of color rarely thrived in the newsroom, and women complained of sexist sidelining. Without a dedicated HR department, opportunities for redress at the Observer were practically non-existent, and the line for the Texas Democracy Foundation, the board of which oversees the magazine, was often that there simply wasn’t enough money to do much of anything differently.

There’s another way to describe this internal struggle: systemic racism and sexism—a fundamental inability or unwillingness to include and empower members of historically marginalized groups equally—even at a progressive organization with the word “democracy” in its name. The truth that Grimes presents here is that the same news organization can feature the work of trailblazing writers like Molly Ivins and a host of investigative accounts of moneyed corruption in Texas while sustaining a corporate culture reminiscent of the Mad Men era. Organizations shouldn’t get a pass for systemic racism and sexism, regardless of their other accomplishments.

The same basic truth holds for mainstream news organizations claiming a vanguard role in promoting democracy. Former Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron, who helped choose the paper’s slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” recently published an opinion essay about objectivity, media, and democracy. The basic thrust of Baron’s case is that journalists should adhere to a version of objectivity in which they gather evidence, seek and listen to diverse sources, verify what they’ve learned, and speak plainly about what they’ve observed. Critically, journalists should practice this kind of objectivity in service to the preservation of democratic values. Objectively produced information enables people to make better-informed decisions as participants in democracy.

Baron also justly criticizes the most common abuse of the ideal of objectivity: the manufacturing of neutrality in stories by softening the edges of the truth, or obscuring the truth altogether, to appeal to political and economic interests who don’t want to hear it. This corrupted practice of objectivity, he notes, is a perversion of the classic definition popularized by journalist and critic Walter Lippmann.

In his 1920 treatise Liberty and the News, Lippmann discusses a topic that sounds familiar to us a century later: public dissatisfaction with the accuracy of news. “There is everywhere an increasingly angry disillusionment about the press,” he wrote, “a growing sense of being baffled and misled.” His solution was to adopt a variant of the scientific method for journalism and refer to it as objective. He insisted that reporters should gather multiple observations of the object of their reporting and rigorously use words to precisely retell their observations, and not obfuscate the truth of what they have witnessed. Reporters should only report things that are supported by their observations, Lippmann argued. At the same time, they should be aware of the limits of their knowledge, even as they employ that knowledge to analyze the details of what they’ve observed.

Lippmann’s prescriptions carried profound ramifications for how a free press should function in our democracy—depending how reporters and news executives define democracy and assess whether it is properly functioning. If you—as I do—think of democracy as an inclusive, representational form of governance whose purpose is the achievement of racial, gender, and other forms of social equity, then you might have a particular interest in how journalists cover issues like moral panics over “wokeism,” the suppression of voting rights, and the ability of transgender people to simply exist in safety.

There’s a strong argument that news organizations should indeed harbor a pro-democracy bias. The basic tenets of social responsibility theory confirm what American journalists have long claimed to be their professional reason for being: a mandate to provide the public with information that enables people to participate knowledgeably in a democratic society. This is hardly a radical idea—unless you believe that the founders who were sympathetic to this view and passed the Postal Act of 1792 to facilitate the national delivery of newspapers were radicals. This view is also aligned with Lippmann’s vision of modern journalistic objectivity. It’s objectivity with a purpose: to tell the truth about our society and enable people to decide what it means for the health of our democracy.

Journalists who subscribe to this view of objectivity in the service of democracy should rigorously practice its tenets. They should gather multiple observations and uncover patterns while constantly questioning their assumptions. They should realize the limitations of their knowledge and seek the perspectives of others with different experiences and knowledge. They also have the responsibility of ensuring that their use of language accurately renders these observations and perspectives in terms that are fair to the communities they report on. Journalists like Wesley Lowery, who covered law enforcement and police violence as a reporter for The Washington Post, have argued that mainstream journalism evades such responsibilities.

Unfortunately, in his defense of classic objectivity in the service of democracy, Baron seems to suffer from a key blind spot. He appears to believe that American newspapers have done a better job of safeguarding democracy than they actually have. He writes that “every newspaper” he’s ever worked for has “always” demonstrated an explicit bias in favor of democracy. He then vouches for the democratic bona fides of objective American newspapers with a rhetorical challenge to his readers: “They have been vigorously protecting democracy for decades. How is it possible that you have failed to notice?”

That’s a simple question to answer—and a deeply annoying one to have to answer. The most obvious response is, “protecting democracy” for whom? And the next-most-obvious question, in response to the use of the word “always,” is, really? White-owned news outlets in the United States have long been conditionally respectful of the ideals of expansive social democracy at best, and openly antidemocratic at worst when it comes to their attitudes about and treatment of Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous Americans, queer and transgender Americans, and women. Juan González and Joseph Torres, Pamela Newkirk, the Kerner Commission, the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, Lewis Raven Wallace, and other historical researchers, industry veterans, and plaintiffs in lawsuits have stacks of receipts showing how journalism in the United States has been, and continues to be, riddled with systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.

None of the outlets that Baron has worked for is an exception to this pattern. Baron concedes as much, writing, “We often did harm.” Still, he generously concludes, American journalism’s “failures were not ones of principle. They were failures to live up to principle.”

But they absolutely were failures of principle. When an institution consistently ignores bedrock principles in the social practices that make up its legacy, it’s a fair assumption—and indeed, an objective journalistic one—to conclude that it never really had them in the first place. To believe otherwise entails a Clintonesque parsing of the meaning of the word “has.” You should expect a news organization that claims to support inclusive democracy to consistently be inclusive. Evaluating whether a news organization has a pro-democracy bias is less about insisting that it should accurately report the antidemocratic nature of the Republican Party, and more about interrogating whether it’s even capable, given its history and culture, of consistently producing the public service journalism that inclusive democracy requires.

Journalists shouldn’t relinquish the Lippmannesque view of objectivity that Baron endorses. At the same time, however, they should employ that objectivity while considering whether and how the publications that employ them have sustained a serious commitment to democratic values. At a time when a growing fascistic movement is working tirelessly to legitimize misleading retellings of American history, it’s more important than ever to tell the complete and unvarnished truth about our journalistic institutions and the injustices they’ve helped to sustain. Burnishing that legacy in the nostalgic image of a golden age of newspapering is its own kind of self-serving myth—and the sort of luxury that a truly democratic press can’t afford to indulge in.

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