Ed Driscoll

"The Twilight of Objectivity"

Michael Kinsley, Dan Riehl, and Roger L. Simon each weigh in on the state of objectivity in the news today. It’s worth noting that the rise of an “objective”, as opposed to overtly partisan news media coincided with the peak of mass media–when there were only three television networks, one or two big city newspapers, and very little of what we would call talk radio. This also largely coincided with the period when the New Deal was the dominant paradigm for both parties.

That would slowly change beginning in the 1960s and ’70s, when get-along Rockefeller Republicans were replaced as the center of power in the GOP with National Review/Goldwater-style conservatives (culminating of course, in President Reagan’s election in 1980) and the New Deal/Great Society Democrats simultaneously self-immolated over Vietnam and were replaced by the Hard Left during the period of 1968 to 1972 (culminating in George McGovern’s disastrous presidential run, and his lasting influence to this day).

But from, I guess, about 1933 until Walter Cronkite’s anti-war turn in 1968, the “objective” mass media worked reasonably well with the mass political conscious of America’s organization men. But the rise of niche magazines, cable television, and especially the Internet, has signaled the end of that sort of groupthink. And yet, somehow, the idea of a neutral media is still being taught in journalism school. A couple of years ago, Stefan Sharkansky described what a truly “neutral” journalism model would look like:

“Neutral” journalism would give equal time to those who argue that slaves were happier than free blacks, that homosexuals should be executed or that Communism works well in practice. Fortunately, that’s probably not what the [Seattle] Times has in mind. Meanwhile, newspapers that pretend in earnest to be “neutral” have given rise to the varieties of journalism that inspired us to launch this blog in the first place. The Times would have more credibility if instead of flogging the conceit of “neutral reporting” it simply acknowledged its reporters biases and also extended its “commitment to diversity” to broaden the diversity of opinions in its newsroom.

So obviously, all reporters have some standards they work from, or they couldn’t report the news. And yet, this idea that standards are optional can cause a great deal of hand-wringing for many journalists. This past week, Hugh Hewitt interviewed Michael Ware of Time magazine, who draws few distinctions between Saddam Hussein and al-Zarqawi, and the US in Iraq, and can say, with a completely straight face, “I wouldn’t have a clue, you know?” when asked by Hugh if the Russian people were better off under Khrushchev than they were under Stalin.

Which brings us to John Green, the Good Morning America producer who was suspended from ABC for a month for an email in which he wrote that “Bush makes me sick”. In late March, I wrote:

Why? It’s merely in-line with the bias others at ABC have recently expressed. And, as Roger L. Simon wrote today, “In fact, it’s good viewers of ABC are informed of the opinions of those producing the network’s shows. It gives those viewers much more ability to evaluate what they are seeing.”

I agree. Besides, doesn’t Green know that it’s OK to express your bias these days (as indeed, others at ABC have already done?) Or that the need to claim impartiality is merely a temporary holdover of a relatively brief phase from the mid-20th century, when the mass media needed to justify news being disseminated by three networks (originally radio, and later TV) and one or two big newspapers per city?

Update: Mark Steyn tells Hugh Hewitt that Green’s email reveals the groupthink that dominates ABC (with the possibly sole exception of John Stossel–who, as a libertarian, has his own differences with President Bush, but very different ones than the rest of the gang at his network):

you know, a lot of people make me nauseous, but I wouldn’t put it on an e-mail, because I wouldn’t assume that everyone who saw that e-mail agreed with me. What is reveals is that what the media think of as their impartiality is in fact rather a bland assumption that they all think the same way. And that’s what’s revealing about this, that he knew he could send that e-mail to all his chums at ABC, and that they would all agree that Bush makes them puke. And the difference is, you know what I think, and I know what you think. And why doesn’t…I’m happy that this has come clean, that Bush makes him puke.

HH: Yup.

MS: That’s great. Now if he can only say where ABC, where the network thinks Bush makes us puke, that would be one step to a kind of greater honestly and straightforwardness in dealing with the public.

The Internet–and especially the Blogosphere–allows anyone who’s paying attention to track record admissions of bias, and alter his or her viewing habits accordingly. (I’ve altered mine a lot since acquiring broadband in the late 1990s, and discovering the Blogosphere in 2001–I watch very, very little TV news these days. I’m not alone, but I think that’s somewhat of an extreme reaction.) That a newspaper or television network thinks that people aren’t noticing bias–and in the case of bloggers documenting it-is either pure naivety or disingenuousness of the first order (or both).

In other words, Kinsley’s right: this is the Twilight of Objectivity, but it was a surprisingly brief era to begin with.