How to Make Journalism Less Trustworthy—in One Problematically Easy Lesson
Journalism is on a suicide mission.
By J. Peder Zane – February 17, 2023
As America’s mistrust of media lies near all-time lows, my profession’s powers-that-be are doubling down on the partisan, activist reporting that has poisoned our business and the nation’s politics. In a sign of how out of touch these industry bigwigs are with objective reality, they are doing it all in the name of restoring trust.
The latest sign of this dangerous trend is a new report, “Beyond Objectivity: Producing trustworthy news in today’s newsrooms.” Written by two prominent journalists now teaching at Arizona State University – former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and former CBS News President Andrew Heyward – it is drawn from more than 75 interviews with “a variety of news leaders, journalists, and other experts.”
Those sources – including leaders at The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and ProPublica to name a few — are influential. There is, however, precious little “variety” among them. I counted only one interview subject from an identifiably conservative organization.
At the end of the report, when the authors recommend that news organization embrace diversity, they mention many markers of identity – “not just ethnic and gender diversity, but people with different economic, educational, religious, geographic and social backgrounds.”
They never mention different ideological viewpoints or political leanings.
This is the first sign the game is rigged. “Beyond Objectivity” is not a fearless, open-ended inquiry into major problems ailing the news industry. Instead, it’s an apology for the agenda-driven, overly partisan reporting that has erupted in recent years. It fails to address any of the major controversies that have rocked journalism – e.g., The New York Times’ problematic rewriting of American history in the 1619 Project, the scandalously flawed coverage of the Trump/Russia conspiracy hoax, or the censoring of reporting about Hunter Biden’s problematic laptop.
The report doesn’t afford so much as a footnote to Jim Rutenberg’s seminal 2016 piece in The New York Times, “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism,” which argued:
If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.
You don’t have to be conservative to conclude that such episodes have strained reader trust. Just like the stacked list of sources, it is hard to believe the exclusion of these factors from the report is an oversight.
Instead, the authors and the vast majority of their influential sources believe that a core problem journalism faces today is its fidelity to “objectivity.” Downie succinctly laid out this argument in a Washington Post op-ed about the report:
But increasingly, reporters, editors, and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality. They point out that the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world. They believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading “bothsidesism” in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change, and many other subjects.
Despite these pointed concerns, Downie also writes in that piece that he “never understood what ‘objectivity’ meant” during his long career at The Post.
Objectivity is a foundational concept of the Western tradition. As the now-deceased Yale historian Donald Kagan observed, the rise of objectively based reason in ancient Greece helped humankind move beyond will and power as bases for action. It privileges shared knowledge – things we can agree on – over subjective (personal) experience.
In journalism, objectivity has included the intentional effort to put aside one’s personal beliefs to report without fear or favor. It is, of course, impossible to be absolutely objective; we can’t think without reference to our values and assumptions. But the concept urges reporters to be aware of their biases and to try to transcend them.
If there is a single quality that defines the essence of journalism – that defines reporters and editors as practitioners of a particular profession – it is the commitment to pursuing objectivity.
I’ll take Downie’s word for it that this is not clear to him, though it is especially surprising given that he has co-authored a report critiquing the concept. One also wonders why he feels he has a firm grasp of more ambiguous concepts the report fails to define, such as “fairness” and “nonpartisanship.”
Nevertheless, Downie and his sources claim enough knowledge of objectivity to declare that “the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world.”
At one level this was almost certainly true. Journalism was long dominated by white males serving a largely white audience. The shortcomings in their “objective” view are clear to us now. Done properly, bringing more diverse viewpoints into newsrooms will only help newsrooms fulfill that traditional role of providing some approximation of a verifiable reality.
But Downie and his allies err when they conflate the tool for the people wielding it. Objectivity is not a thing, it is a concept, a highly adaptable, ever-evolving approach to knowledge we use to describe reality, not to arrive at predetermined (i.e. white male) truths. It does not skew toward any conclusion. It presents information that others must verify and accede to.
The report’s focus on objectivity is not surprising given the academic left’s insistent attacks on it in every discipline – famous examples include the assertions that mathematics is an expression of white supremacy and that sex, gender, and most every other long-accepted description of reality are just social constructs. The report ignores all of this context.
The report’s real problem with journalistic objectivity seems to be that it has long encompassed the idea of “balance,” or a commitment to telling “both sides” of an issue. This is a straw man because it suggests that news outlets are committed to publishing false information just to be fair. The report offers no examples of such egregious behavior, much less showing that it is rampant. Instead, the critique seems aimed at allowing journalists to simply ignore views they do not agree with.
The dangers of this approach are manifest, starting with efforts to censor voices during COVID-19 who questioned the efficacy of masks or lockdowns and those who have raised concerns, only now being aired in mainstream outlets, about “gender-affirming care.”
Journalists must have some approach to their craft, so the report urges them to “strive not just for accuracy, but the truth.” But if objectivity is hard to define, accuracy is almost impossible, for it permits the assemblage of facts into a narrative that can be wholly misleading. The report does not address this issue. Nor does it define how anybody – much less journalists, who tend to be generalists instead of specialists, are qualified to identify the truth toward which they should strive.
The Greeks called this fatal flaw hubris.
Finally, the report makes only passing mention to a grave problem with this approach, the rise of advocacy journalism. Veteran Washington Post writer Max Fisher raises the alarm when he says, “There is a generation of folks coming into the newsroom with great skills and their own views, seeking more advocacy for their views of the correct side in stories.”
His boss, Post Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, adds that “Advocacy in newsrooms is a real issue. We don’t pretend that it is not a problem.” The report drops this significant issue until it mildly states at the end, “There is a difference between having a ‘point of view’ and engaging in advocacy journalism, although defining that line can be tricky.”
I agree with the report that our profession is in crisis. Most Americans do not see reporters as honest brokers. I also agree with the report’s acknowledgement that younger, more ethnically diverse reporters can bring invigorating insights. But for all their complaints, this new generation, like Downie and Heyward’s report, have not proposed a better way for keeping the public informed.
Indeed, their trust in our work has plummeted during the past few years as newsrooms have rejected time-honored principles to embrace left-wing advocacy.
In a world filled with spinmeisters and activists, journalists have always filled that rare role of disinterested reporters. Joining the fight is a betrayal of our singular and necessary mission.
Peder Zane is an editor for Real Clear Investigations and a columnist for Real Clear Politics.