The Fox News star’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, has already invoked the First Amendment. But there is, in fact, no constitutional protection for journalists who are called to testify in court or, in this case, before a congressional committee. The problem, as the Supreme Court explained in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, is that granting such a privilege requires defining who’s a journalist and who isn’t. And the First Amendment belongs to everyone.
That said, the government is generally loath to force journalists to testify because of the chilling effect it would have on the ability of news organizations to operate as independent monitors of power. It would be well within bounds for the committee to decide that Hannity is not a journalist. He was a close confidant of Donald Trump when Trump was president, was a featured speaker at a Trump rally and, in his communications with the White House, made it clear that he was a member of Team Trump.
But this brings us back to one of the central dilemmas of the Trump years. Hannity’s behavior was so over the top that it’s easy to say he’s not a journalist. Still, you can be sure that Trump’s defenders will point to far more ambiguous situations and say, “What about?” Ben Bradlee’s friendship with President John F. Kennedy comes to mind, as does Walter Lippmann, the ultimate insider.
The problem facing members of the select committee is that if they subpoena Hannity and other Fox News personalities, they would do so in the certain knowledge that Republicans will claim a precedent has been set and abuse it as soon as they’re in a position to do so. I have little doubt, for instance, that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron would be forced to testify about their papers’ coverage of the Russia scandal.
Which is why the select committee is hoping that Hannity will accept its invitation to testify voluntarily. If he refuses (as he almost certainly will), then it will have to decide whether to issue a subpoena — a move that could have far-reaching consequences.
The McCarthy era is often cited as a time when the limits of journalistic objectivity were exposed for all to see. For years, the press reported Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s false claims that he had a list of communists in a straight-up, deadpan manner, reasoning that it was their job to inform the country of what a United States senator was saying, not to offer any judgments.
But that’s not what Walter Lippmann had in mind when he first defined objective reporting a century ago. As he conceived it, objectivity was not acting as a conveyor belt for the lies of the powerful; nor was it mindless balance. Rather, it was an objective, fair-minded pursuit of the truth. Once you had determined the truth to the best of your ability, your job was to report it.
“We tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned because we’ve done the reporting,” retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said at a virtual appearance at Northeastern earlier this year. Baron defined objectivity as “independence and open-mindedness and a posture of listening and learning.”
Recently I read a book as part of my research into local news that is about as obscure as you can imagine: “Thunder in the Rockies: The Incredible Denver Post,” written by Post staffer Bill Hosokawa and published in 1976. And I was struck by how courageously the Post stood up to McCarthy — especially since, in previous decades, the Post had been mired in corruption and racism.
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By the time McCarthy came along, the Post’s editor was a stand-up guy named Palmer Hoyt, who was unflinching in his insistence on holding the Wisconsin senator to account. In a memo to his staff, he defined true objectivity in such a compelling way that it ought to be taught to every reporter. I’m not going to quote the entire memo, but here’s a key excerpt:
It is obvious that many charges made by reckless impulsive officials cannot and should not be ignored, but it seems to me that news stories and headlines can be presented in such a manner that the reading public will be able to measure the real worth or value and the true meaning of the stories.
For example, when it is possible and practical, we should remind the public in case of a wild accusation by Senator McCarthy that this particular senator’s name is synonymous with poor documentation and irresponsible conduct and that he has made many charges that have been insupportable under due process.
In 1954, Hoyt received the John Peter Zenger Freedom of the Press Award. In his acceptance speech, Hoyt continued to speak boldly, turning media critic: “It is true that the number of newspapers critical of McCarthy has grown during the last year or two. But there are still many of them who are his supporters, his apologists, even his devotees.” And he singled out the Chicago Tribune and the Hearst papers as particularly egregious offenders.
It hardly needs to be said that we are facing a crisis of democracy today — perhaps the most serious since the Civil War, as Robert Kagan recently wrote in The Washington Post (free link). The brainless objectivity of the 1950s has morphed into something else. As Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School has written, Donald Trump received an enormous assist from the press in 2016 by portraying his grotesque behavior and corruption as being equal to Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings — you know, her emails.
Today, Trump and his supporters, who seek to destroy the integrity of our elections in order to pave the way for an illegitimate second Trump term, are getting plenty of harsh coverage, as they should. But to absorb this through the media is to see it balanced against the Democrats’ struggles over its infrastructure bills and chaos at the border. It’s all both sides and false equivalence.
As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has said over and over again, the press is not equipped to cover a reality in which one of our two major political parties remains its normal self and the other has lurched into authoritarianism. You can see it in the headlines this week describing the debt-limit crisis as something the Democrats are struggling to solve — as if it’s a given that the Republicans have descended into madness and therefore can’t be blamed.
We are living through an incredibly ugly time. At the very least, we should remember what Palmer Hoyt said about the media’s obligation to tell the truth.
The meaning of objectivity is at the heart of a lawsuit brought by a Washington Post reporter against the paper, five of its top editors and former executive editor Marty Baron.
Felicia Sonmez argues that she was subjected to unlawful discrimination after she said she had been sexually assaulted by a Los Angeles Times reporter and was then banned from covering stories involving sexual misconduct, according to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy.
I’m not going to get into whether Sonmez is right or wrong; that will be for the legal process to sort out. But what’s interesting about this is that her claim involves the appearance of objectivity — that is, she could have been accused of not being impartial, whether fairly or not. This is a largely bogus argument, in my view, as it places news organizations in the position of preemptively giving in to bad-faith critics.
What’s odd is that Baron understands the true meaning of objectivity, and pursued it during his years as the top editor at the Post and The Boston Globe. In particular, the Post’s fierce coverage of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and subsequent presidency was grounded in exposing the truth, not in “both sides” false equivalencies.
Several months ago Baron spoke to Northeastern journalism students and faculty via Zoom and defined objectivity in terms that would do Walter Lippmann proud. “I don’t think the answer for us is to be partisan,” he said. “I think the answer for us is to be independent.”
Citing Lippmann’s landmark 1920 book “Liberty and the News,” Baron said that objectivity is about “independence and open-mindedness and fairness,” not giving each side equal weight. After thoroughly reporting a story, he added, “then we tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned.”
What Sonmez is alleging is that the Post fell into some of the worst excesses and caricatures of objectivity, such as the bad old days when LGBTQ people were somehow thought to be disqualified from covering same-sex marriage, or when Black reporters were regarded as suspect if they covered issues involving racial justice. Surely some of that was at work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s prohibiting its then-reporter Alexis Johnson from covering Black Lives Matter protests after she posted an innocuous tweet.
There may have been other factors involved in the Sonmez case. You may recall that she was suspended for tweeting details of Kobe Bryant’s sexual-assault case not long after he died in a helicopter crash. I thought the suspension was unwarranted, as did Post media columnist Erik Wemple. But you could certainly argue that she should have waited a day or two.
In any case, her lawsuit raises some fascinating issues and is well worth paying attention to.
Correction: This post originally misstated the affiliation of the reporter whom Sonmez accused of assaulting her.
There’s been an important new development in the Nikole Hannah-Jones story. According to the veteran journalist John Drescher, writing for a North Carolina website called The Assembly, a “mega-donor” to the University of North Carolina opposed hiring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist who conceived of the 1619 Project and who’s been denied tenure by the UNC board of trustees.
The donor is Walter Hussman Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, whose $25 million gift to the UNC journalism program in 2019 resulted its being named the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Drescher reported that Hussman is so enamored of old-fashioned both-sides objectivity that he “relayed his concerns to the university’s top leaders, including at least one member of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees.” Among other things, Hussman wrote:
My hope and vision was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion, and that would add so much to its reputation and would benefit both the school and the University. Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.
Hussman is no fan of the 1619 Project either, although he appears to be aligned more with historians who’ve criticized it than he is with those on the right who’ve attacked it.
Now, there are several curious aspects to Hussman’s opposition. First of all, Hannah-Jones is an opinion journalist who works for the Times’ opinion section. Her journalism is rigorously fact-based, informed by a strong point of view. Does Hussman really oppose such journalism? After all, the Democrat-Gazette has an opinion section. (All four of the ADG’s opinion journalists who warrant a headshot are white men, by the way.)
The other curious aspect is that Hussman doesn’t actually understand what objectivity is. The Assembly quotes from an op-ed that Hussman wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2019:
Two years ago I heard a prominent journalist say she doesn’t believe in the “false equivalency” of presenting both sides, and that she sees her job as determining the truth, then sharing it with her audience. I decided then that I needed to let our readers know that we didn’t agree with those statements.
The problem is that objective reporting, as conceived by Walter Lippmann more than 100 years ago, is an open-minded and dispassionate pursuit of the truth, not balance or both-sidesism. “Seek truth and report it” is the way the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics puts it.
Hussman, unfortunately, has embraced the caricature of objectivity. And Hannah-Jones has gotten caught up in his misunderstanding.
Addendum: In 2019 I wrote about a genuinely innovative idea at the ADG: the paper was giving iPads to its subscribers so it could stop printing the paper and save money. If you let your subscription lapse, it would stop working.
Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker has a terrific interview with Marty Baron, who’s retiring as executive editor of The Washington Post. I’m amused at the way Baron treats The New Yorker with the same brusqueness as he does other media outlets. For instance:
Chotiner: Why do you think [Jeff] Bezos decided to buy the Post?
Baron: You can look at what he’s said about that. I assume that you have. He’s talked about it many times.
Baron also expresses the view that local newspapers are going to have to save themselves the same way that national papers did: by persuading their readers to pay for it.
I was struck by how similar much of what Baron said was to my 2016 interview with him for “The Return of the Moguls.” Baron has his lodestar, and he follows it. But how journalists should and shouldn’t use social media is a bigger issue today than it was in 2016, so he and Chotiner talk about that quite a bit. And Baron also defines objectivity in exactly the way that I try to get it across to my students:
I do think that people have been routinely mischaracterizing what objectivity means. It really dates back a hundred years. Walter Lippmann essentially was the originator of the idea. What was the idea? It was a recognition that all of us as journalists, all of us as human beings, have preconceptions. Those preconceptions arrived from our own backgrounds, our life experiences, the people we associate with, you name it. And it’s important as we go about our reporting that we try to set those preconceptions aside — and almost approach our work in as scientific a way as possible — and to be open-minded, to be honest, to be fair, to listen generously to people, to hear what they have to say, to take it seriously into account, to do a thorough job of reporting, to do a rigorous job of reporting.
The idea of objectivity — I should make clear — it’s not neutrality, it’s not both-sides-ism, it’s not so-called balance. It’s never been that. That’s not the idea of objectivity. But once we do our reporting, once we do a rigorous job and we’re satisfied that we’ve done the job in an appropriate way, we’re supposed to tell people what we’ve actually found. Not pretend that we didn’t learn anything definitive. Not meet all sides equally if we know that they’re not equal. It’s none of that. It’s to tell people in an unflinching way what we have learned, what we have discovered.
The crisis we are living through is, as Walter Lippmann would have said, a crisis of journalism.* Never before have we had such ready access to high-quality sources of news and information (at least at the national level; local journalism, sadly, is in freefall). At the same time, those sources have been under constant attack since Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech of 1969, culminating in President Trump’s denigration of journalists as “Enemies of the People” and their work product as “fake news.”
The frequently stated truism that the public has lost trust in the news media is misunderstood. In fact, we trust the media we use, but the explosion of opinionated sources of news has led to an ideological sorting-out that has harmed democracy and civic discourse. As the Pew Research Center found a few years ago, a majority of liberals trust NPR, PBS, and the New York Times, whereas conservatives put their faith in Fox News, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. It hardly needs to be said that the so-called liberal sources of news are practicing actual journalism, however imperfectly, whereas the conservative sources serve up a toxic brew of falsehoods, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.
This polarized, choose-your-own-facts media environment is very different from the one proposed by Lippmann. A towering figure in 20th-century American journalism who was, among other things, a co-founder of The New Republic, Lippmann nearly a century ago reimagined newsgathering as a profession encompassing educational and ethical standards. Lippmann also conceived of the notion of objectivity, which, properly understood, refers to a “disinterested” pursuit of the truth. What matters, according to Lippmann, is a reporter’s independence: “Emphatically he ought not to be serving a cause, no matter how good.” Unfortunately, objectivity later came to be seen as balance without regard for the facts. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in The Elements of Journalism, first published in 2001, “the concept of objectivity became so mangled it began to be used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct.”
Lippmann laid out his vision in Liberty and the News (1920), a collection of essays in which he vividly described the rancid state of journalism in the early part of the 20th century as well as his prescription for making it better. No one is likely to improve on his description of journalism’s importance in a democratic society:
The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. For the newspaper, is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determine its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read. It is the only book they read every day. Now the power to determine each day what shall seem important and what shall be neglected is a power unlike any that has been exercised since the Pope lost his hold on the secular mind.
He added: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”
Lippmann’s main concern was public opinion and how it is produced, for it is what we think of events, rather than the events themselves, that forms the basis of politics and policy. He takes us through philosophers from John Milton to John Stuart Mill, who espoused various forms of toleration for opinions, and he acidly observes that their indulgence of toleration tended to be in direct proportion to the inoffensiveness of those opinions. In that view, ideas are fine as long as they pose no threat to the established order. Which is to say that ideas that truly matter are not fine at all.
A better basis for public opinion, Lippmann argued, is fact — and that’s where an improved, more substantive journalism comes in. Journalists trained to use authoritative sources of information, to make sense of the torrent of news and non-news being spewed in every direction, and to report truthfully and with the proper context are vital to self-government, he wrote.
Interestingly, Lippmann predicted that if the news media could not reform themselves, they faced the specter of government regulation. “There is everywhere,” he wrote, “an increasingly angry disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled; and wise publishers will not pooh-pooh these omens.” Some things never change. Yet, at the time Lippmann was writing, the Supreme Court was about to embark on a series of rulings that had the effect of greatly expanding freedom of speech and of the press by erecting high barriers for prior restraint, allowing virtually all criticism of the government, and making it nearly impossible for public officials and public figures to win frivolous libel suits.
Around the time that Lippmann was writing, the news business began adopting professional standards, partly in response to his ideas, partly as a natural outgrowth of the increasing complexity and specialization of the industrial age. Codes of ethics were promulgated, the organization that became the Society of Professional Journalists was founded, and schools of journalism were established at many universities. This was elite journalism designed to lead public opinion — a prospect that met with Lippmann’s approval. He disparaged the typical newsroom as comprising men for whom “reporting is not a dignified profession” but was, rather, an “underpaid, insecure, anonymous form of drudgery, conducted on catch-as-catch-can principles.” He added:
How far can we go in turning newspaper enterprise from a haphazard trade into a disciplined profession? Quite far, I imagine, for it is altogether unthinkable that a society like ours should remain forever dependent upon untrained accidental witnesses.
In Liberty and the News, Lippmann balanced his fundamental elitism with his concern for the informational needs of the public. In his later writings, though, the balance tipped in favor of elitism at the expense of the public. As described by Jay Rosen in What Are Journalists For? (1999), Lippmann, starting with his best-known book, Public Opinion (1922), argued that the purpose of journalism was to mold opinion — to “manufacture consent” — for a public that lacked the time and the inclination to seek out the truth for itself. Public opinion, Lippmann wrote, was “an irrational force,” adding: “With the substance of the problem it can do nothing but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically.”
Speaking up in opposition to this pessimistic view, Rosen wrote, was the philosopher John Dewey, who answered Lippmann in his book The Public and Its Problems (1927). In Dewey’s view, the role of journalism was not to shut out public participation but, rather, to find ways for the public to participate, especially at the community level. “Democracy for Dewey,” according to Rosen, “meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how study and discuss it.”
Today we can see the harmful effects of Lippmann-style elitism run amok. For one thing, “elite” has long since entered the vocabulary as a dirty word. Expertise itself is denigrated, and the so-called wisdom of the common people is held up as a virtuous alternative to decadent journalists and intellectuals who are allegedly out of touch with the concerns of everyday life. If we had followed Dewey instead of Lippmann, that alienation might not exist.
Here’s how the media scholar James W. Carey, in his essay “Reconceiving ‘Mass’ and ‘Media’” (reprinted in his Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, 1989), summarized Dewey’s disagreement with Lippmann: “Public opinion is not formed when individuals possess correct representations of the environment [as Lippmann would have it], even if correct representations were possible. It is formed only in discussion, when it is made active in community life.” Imagine if journalism were a participatory process rather than a monologue driven from the top — the promise, still unfulfilled, of internet-based news. If we were in better touch with the public we ostensibly serve, it might be more apparent that the Washington Post is not the liberal equivalent of Fox News but, rather, is engaged in an entirely different sort of enterprise.
Lippmann lived a long and influential life. As David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be (1979), Lippmann urged Katharine Graham to consider hiring Ben Bradlee as executive editor of the Washington Post, a move that transformed the paper into a serious rival of the New York Times and helped bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency. As a syndicated columnist, Lippmann supported the Vietnam War and later turned against it once it became clear that the experts of whom he was so enamored had promoted a ruinous policy.
Despite Lippmann’s embrace of elitism, he remained convinced that the public needed reliable news. In 1971, when the New York Times and the Washington Post were under fire for publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War, Times columnist James Reston quoted at length from a speech his old friend had given eleven years earlier about the role of the press.
“If the country is to be governed with the consent of the governed,” Lippmann said, “then the governed must arrive at opinions about what their governors want them to consent to. … Here we correspondents perform an essential service. In some field of interest, we make it our business to find out what is going on under the surface and beyond the horizon. …
“In this we do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do, but has not the time or the interest to do for himself. This is our job. It is no mean calling. We have a right to be proud of it, and to be glad that it is our work.”
Yet Lippmann could be withering about journalism that fell short of his standards. In 1920 he and Charles Merz published an in-depth analysis of how the New York Times had covered the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. They found that the Times had consistently skewed coverage in favor of what its editors wished would happen — that the Bolsheviks would continue Russia’s involvement in the war against Germany, and then, after the war, that the various White Army factions would defeat the Bolsheviks.
“In the large,” they wrote, “the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.” They added: “From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all.”
Lippmann would be dispirited to see that these flaws are still with us, and that they have played out to disastrous effect over and over again. That was especially true during the run-up to the war in Iraq, when most news organizations accepted at face value the George W. Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. You could also see it in coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton’s reliance on a private email server was held up as an example of wrongdoing equal to Donald Trump’s racism, his boasts of sexual assault, and his corrupt dealings with his family’s charitable foundation.
Ninety-nine years after the publication of Liberty and the News, journalists are better educated, have higher professional standards, and are more likely to adhere to basic ethical rules. Lippmann surely played an important role in those developments. Yet deference to power and false notions of objectivity continue to plague the press, leading to coverage that falls short of serving even that portion of the public that seeks journalism rather than propaganda. Lippmann’s hopes remain unfulfilled.
*About a week and a half after this essay was published, I was paging through Thomas E. Patterson’s Informing the News when I came across this quote from Liberty and the News: “In an exact sense the present crisis in Western democracy is a crisis in journalism.” I have revised my lead sentence to credit Lippmann. Obviously I had seen the sentence and it had stuck in my head, but not so completely that I had remembered where I got it. Not surprisingly, Lippmann put it far better than I could have.
The purpose of mainstream newspapers, if there still is a purpose, is that they provide a shared social reference point. Readers of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or, for that matter, The Boston Globe and other regional papers are looking not just for accurate news. They also seek the considered judgment of experienced journalists as to what matters and what doesn’t, what’s important and what can safely be ignored.
“A newspaper is a theory of what constitutes an informed person,” the late media observer Neil Postman said in 1995. “A newspaper can make an essential contribution to the polity by functioning as a filter.” Postman was pessimistic, though, saying the driving thrust of technology, even in those early days of the internet, was to isolate people from each other, allowing us to indulge our personal interests and thus undermining any notion of a common culture. “Everything is moving us away from a sense of co-present community life,” he said.
What Postman lamented is now celebrated. Who needs filters when we can decide for ourselves? And so the authority of mainstream newspapers and analogous mass media such as network television newscasts has given way to a multitude of niches, from narrowcast cable channels such as MSNBC and Fox News to even narrower digital outlets of the left and right, including conspiracy-minded operations such as Alex Jones’ Infowars.
The latest celebrant at the altar of DIY media consumption is the writer Antonio García Martínez. In a piece for Wired.com headlined “Journalism Isn’t Dying. It’s Returning to Its Roots,” Martínez observes that the current economic travails of journalism and the accompanying decline of objectivity are simply a reversion to the norm — that partisan, financially perilous propagandizing would be far more recognizable to founders such as Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams than the establishment press that dominated American society during the second half of the 20th century.
“Journalists pining for a return to their golden age of advertising-supported journalism are disturbingly similar to aged Midwestern factory workers seeking a return to the time when high-school-educated labor could afford middle-class lives with total job security,” Martínez writes. “Both golden ages resulted from a unique set of economic and political circumstances that are now gone and impossible to reproduce. Those who claim democracy requires the precise flavor of journalism we’ve known for a century or so will have to explain how our republic survived the century preceding.”
This is all true, but it is also beside the point. We’ve lost a lot. At its best, the mainstream press held (and still holds) government and other large institutions to account in a fair and unbiased manner. If we lose that entirely, then we’ll lose one of our most fundamental tools for governing ourselves.
Martínez offers us a history lesson, but there’s much that he leaves out. Yes, the nonpartisan model did indeed grow out a desire to cash in on the rise of department stores and other new forms of capitalism that could transform once-struggling newspapers into money machines full of advertising.
But at the same time that newspapers were becoming wealthy, they were also embracing the idea of public service. I’m not the first to make the observation that, starting in the early 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of landmark rulings that helped transform the press into a powerful institution in its own right — power that served as a crucial counterweight to enormous influence wielded by modern government and industry.
The protections of the First Amendment, once guaranteed only in federal matters, were extended to the states. Prior restraint was forbidden in nearly all circumstances. Government records were made public. Public officials and public figures were constrained from using the libel laws to silence their critics. These were all essential developments in guaranteeing democratic self-government. The scandal sheets that Samuel Adams printed to spread falsehoods about the Boston Massacre would hardly be a match for the gigantic forces that rule our lives in a modern industrial (or post-industrial) society.
Martínez also lampoons “fact-checked both-sides-ism and claims to ‘objectivity.’” Well, I hope we can all agree that fact-checking is a good thing. But his equating both-sides-ism with objectivity ignores what the term really means. As conceived by the journalist-philosopher Walter Lippmann nearly 100 years ago, objectivity was intended as a fair-minded, rigorous pursuit of the truth, not as a mindless recitation of what “both sides” say. We need more Lippmann-style objectivity, not less. (Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explain this well in their book, “The Elements of Journalism,” but you can get an overview of how they describe objectivity by clicking here.)
“The path to the next golden age in American journalism,” Martínez concludes, “isn’t nostalgia for a vanishing past but the same way that led to the previous golden age, namely, that of profit. More than likely, given the new business models, this will mean some partiality from journalism as well. That’s just fine too. It’s what Ben Franklin would have done.”
Now, some partiality is fine. Opinion journalism — truthful, fact-based opinion journalism — can be as valuable as that based on the neutrality model. But that doesn’t mean we should cheer the demise of mass media aimed at informing the public rather than indulging their pre-existing views. We need it all — a mainstream press and opinionated niches.
The scattered, nichified media of the past several decades are partly responsible for the rise of Trumpism. There is no truth — or, rather, we all have our own truth, mediated and reinforced by social media algorithms that we don’t understand.
What we need is not a return to the past, but progress toward something better. A mainstream press that is truly digital, that listens to its audience, that is less arrogant and more willing to embrace change than the print giants of the past century, isn’t just something to be desired — it’s essential.
Jay Rosen announced last week that he would be taking a role with The Correspondent, the American version of a Dutch news project that its founders hope to launch next year. Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and one of our most perceptive media observers, explained in an essay for the Nieman Journalism Lab that he was intrigued because The Correspondent has been “optimized for trust.” Among other things, the site will be free of advertising, and reporters will be required to engage in an ongoing conversation with their readers.
I’ve asked my students to come up with examples of news stories that reflect the View from Nowhere — an idea advanced by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen that, to oversimplify, amounts to “he said/she said” objectivity in its most mindless form — and to balance that with a second story demonstrating the View from Somewhere.
Since some of my students seemed a bit bewildered by the assignment, I thought I’d give it a try. My example is an announcement made on Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The two agencies have issued a new set of rules aimed at protecting small streams under the federal Clean Water Act. The rules are a reaction to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that cast the government’s regulatory authority into doubt.
My leading contender for the View from Nowhere is an article by The Associated Press whose very headline announces the story’s flaws: “New Federal Rules on Stream Protection Hailed, Criticized.” The reporter, Mary Clare Jalonick, focuses almost entirely on the political debate sparked by the new rules. The lede is serviceable enough. But watch what happens in the second paragraph:
WASHINGTON (AP) — New federal rules designed to better protect small streams, tributaries and wetlands — and the drinking water of 117 million Americans — are being criticized by Republicans and farm groups as going too far.
The White House says the rules, issued Wednesday, will provide much-needed clarity for landowners about which waterways must be protected against pollution and development. But House Speaker John Boehner declared they will send “landowners, small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”
And so it continues, with Democrats defending the new rules, Republicans criticizing them and advocacy groups on either side of the issue weighing in. Yes, there’s some explanation along the way, but you never get an entirely clear sense of what the rules would actually do. Rather, it’s a political story, played out against the backdrop of partisan Washington. The informational needs of an ordinary member of the public are scarcely addressed.
I’ll get to my example of the View from Somewhere in a moment. But first, I want to flag this Washington Post story, which is largely grounded in the View from Nowhere but does a better job than the AP of telling us what we need to know — starting with the headline, “EPA Strengthens Federal Protections for Small Streams.” The emphasis is on what the EPA actually did and what effect it might have rather than on partisan politics. The first two paragraphs are full of useful information. Reporter Darryl Fears writes:
Nearly a decade after the Supreme Court pointed out the confusion over exactly which waters fall under the Clean Water Act, the Obama administration responded Wednesday with a new rule that states what is protected and what is not.
Navigable tributaries, as well as the rivers they feed into, are protected because the flow of streams and creeks, if polluted by farming and development, could affect the health of rivers and lakes, the rule states.
Farther down, Fears veers into the partisan battle, quoting an opponent, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, as well as the White House response. The story is also interspersed with tweets from elected officials. But partisan politics are not entirely unimportant, as congressional Republicans could overturn the new rules. Overall, Fears shows how to write a story that embraces the View from Nowhere while still managing to provide a coherent explanation of what happened and why.
My morning search for a story exemplifying the View from Somewhere failed to turn up exactly what I was looking for. But I did find an excellent article on the clean-waters issue from last September in Slate, which has always been a good source of explanatory journalism. With minor updating, the article, by Boer Deng, could have run today — and cast a lot more light on the EPA’s announcement than the AP or even the Post managed to provide. Look how she begins:
Everyone wants clean water, but not everyone agrees on how to make sure it stays pollution-free. The Clean Water Act is one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation in American history: Forty years ago, only a third of the country’s lakes and rivers could support fishing or swimming. Now two-thirds do. But when a bill for the CWA was offered up in 1972, Richard Nixon vetoed it, complaining that it would cost too much. It took a bipartisan congressional override to enact the law.
Controversy over the CWA continues, and a particularly ambiguous phrase in the law has been a perennial source of legal trouble. The CWA compels the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the integrity of the “waters of the United States.” Industrial interests argue that a reference in the text of the law to “navigable waters” limits federal jurisdiction to waters you can boat on. This has let them get away with discharging pollution into smaller waterways. Regulators disagree, since pollutants in these waterways drain into and threaten larger navigable waters, too.
OK, I’ll concede that Deng is leading with background information, which is generally thought of as not the best way to structure a story. But this is a really complicated issue. Thanks to Deng’s explanation, you now know exactly what it’s about before she asks you to jump into the deep end.
One characteristic about the View from Somewhere that can be difficult to get across is that though journalism with a point of view is sometimes opinionated, it doesn’t have to be. Deng takes a first-person stance and expresses the point of view that clean water is, in fact, a good thing. But she does not state an opinion as to whether the regulations that were then being considered were the best way to accomplish that goal. This isn’t opinion journalism. Her point of view is her expertise, which she earned by going out and doing the reporting.
As a result, opponents become human beings rather than caricatures. Instead of House Speaker John Boehner or Sen. Inhofe saying predictable things, she gives us Bob Stallman, head of the Farm Bureau, who asks a very reasonable question: “A good portion of the water on my rice farm would count as wetland ‘water of the U.S.’ Will I now need a permit every time I want to water my rice?” And Deng attempts to provide an answer: “The EPA says this is nonsense — and some of its administrators have expressed exasperation with what they see as willful misinterpretation that has undermined efforts to craft sound policy.”
Jay Rosen’s idea of what journalism can be is animated by the debate between two great philosophers — Walter Lippmann, whose book “Public Opinion” (1922) argued that ordinary people lacked the information, time and interest to be full participants in democracy, and John Dewey, whose retort to Lippmann, “The Public and Its Problems” (1927), took a more optimistic view. Rosen, in his 1999 book “What Are Journalists For?”, describes Dewey’s beliefs:
Democracy for Dewey meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how to study and discuss it. Time and again Dewey argued that to be a democrat meant to have faith in people’s capacities, whatever their recent performance.
(I put together a slideshow for my students on Rosen’s description of the Lippmann-Dewey debate, which you can see by clicking here.)
For Rosen, and for all of us, the question is how to encourage the journalism we need for John Dewey’s vision of a democratic society to work. It is also at the root of my 2013 book on new forms of online local journalism, “The Wired City.”
Stories such as Deng’s Slate article may not conform to the old rules of objective journalism. They may not embrace the View from Nowhere. But they tell us a lot more about what we need to understand public policy — about what our government is doing for and to us — and, thus, it provides us with information we need to govern ourselves.