By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Keller and Greenwald on journalistic neutrality

Today’s New York Times debate between Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald is terrific — better than I had expected. For me, the high point is how they make the case for fair, neutral journalism (Keller) and fair journalism with a clearly articulated point of view (Greenwald). I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do it better on either side.

Greenwald first:

A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge (i.e., reporting is reduced to “X says Y” rather than “X says Y and that’s false”).

Worse still, this suffocating constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring. A failure to call torture “torture” because government officials demand that a more pleasant euphemism be used, or lazily equating a demonstrably true assertion with a demonstrably false one, drains journalism of its passion, vibrancy, vitality and soul.

Now Keller:

I don’t think of it as reporters pretending they have no opinions. I think of it as reporters, as an occupational discipline, suspending their opinions and letting the evidence speak for itself. And it matters that this is not just an individual exercise, but an institutional discipline, with editors who are tasked to challenge writers if they have given short shrift to contrary facts or arguments readers might want to know.

The thing is, once you have publicly declared your “subjective assumptions and political values,” it’s human nature to want to defend them, and it becomes tempting to omit or minimize facts, or frame the argument, in ways that support your declared viewpoint. And some readers, knowing that you write from the left or right, will view your reporting with justified suspicion.

I’m sympathetic to both points of view. But what I especially like about Keller’s is the idea that stating one’s opinions changes not just how the audience sees the journalist, but also how the journalist goes about his own work.

I’ve long argued that even an opinion journalist shouldn’t disclose her voting intentions. That’s because if it’s your job to take positions, it’s a lot harder to change those positions once you’ve joined someone’s team.

There’s a lot more where that came from, including much about Greenwald’s newly announced venture funded by eBay rich guy Pierre Omidyar — explained at some length by the redoubtable Jay Rosen.

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  1. I don’t think you have to have “joined someone’s team” before you start slanting things their way – and in any event, disclosure too often simply confirms what’s obvious in the writing. Greenwald’s “torture” statement is a good example.

    I think most people feel that “objectivity” in reporting these days has been reduced to a pretense.

  2. I side with Greenwald on the issue more, but what Keller says about the role of the editor makes me think that we can have eat our cake and have it too.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Deborah: I think we need both. But in terms of which we need more, I side with Keller.

      • Deborah Nam-Krane

        And I’m biased, because I’ve spent years reading stories about global warming or evolution or budgets or whatever and major papers have equivocated because maybe 3% of the “experts” disagreed. I’ve ranted about this before.

        On the other hand, MSNBC emulating Fox News’ schtick hasn’t made the world a better place.

        So I’ll agree that we need both.

  3. mikelabonte

    Given that ALL writing has our biases behind it, is there any standard describing types and levels of bias, to help decide where to set the threshold for what we do and do not call opinion? Does the AP style guide have anything?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @mikelabonte: My AP Stylebook is at work, and I’m not sure it addresses it all that comprehensively. I don’t think it’s hard to write most kinds of stories without any overt injection of opinion. The larger issue is the degradation of the term “objectivity,” which in its original conception — described by Walter Lippmann — was supposed to be an unbiased pursuit of the truth, but which these days has all too often come to mean balance at all costs.

  4. I also tend to side with Keller but I think Greenwald makes some important points. I spent my 40 years in journalism firmly believing I could put aside my personal biases to assess both sides of an argument fairly, but I’m sure I came up short more than I want to know. But I do think acknowledging biases in print only fools a writer into thinking he doesn’t have to be open minded in assessing both sides. In any event, no denying the debate is important and well done here.

  5. mikelabonte

    A typical news story requires the new information (aka news) as well as some context to help people understand the story. I think the latter is what this tug of war is about. Keller might be satisfied with context limited to barely more than non sequiturs, while Greenwald doesn’t mind if it draws people in some direction.

    In the same way that news and opinion are kept separate, maybe a usable approach would be to have separate context sections written by more than one author, and have the news portion link to them (or have them inline but labeled). Back when I was a NewsTrust “editor” it was an interesting and informative exercise trying to separate out the part that is new(s) from the part that someone injected.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @mikelabonte: That is a very interesting analysis. But do you really believe context is lost without opinion? Or is the real problem an outmoded model that can’t tell the different between context and opinion?

      • mikelabonte

        I’m not saying good context requires opinion, just that it is unavoidable. With good sourcing we can know when context is not completely opinion. But selection bias and even writing style variations are ways in which what lies within a reporter will usually seep onto the page. Given a certain set of news facts involving people, will a reporter write the same story if the genders of the subjects are swapped? I’m doubtful. Opinion comes out in very subtle, and not so subtle ways.

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