Objectivity is Not the Opposite of Standing for Something
Words I never thought I’d write: Elias Isquith, my favorite liberal blogger in the entire history of the universe ever, thinks that Fox News is ultimately good for journalism and, I assume, democracy.
Writing over at Salon, Elias is taking aim at that triumvirate of dispassionate darlings, Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, and Nate Silver. Moreover, he’s slipping his blades into the very concept of objective journalism — the practice of which, to Elias, is “almost as bad” as a rolling back of civil liberties on African Americans (or worse, bringing back the Bee Gees). Quoting Jay Rosen and Paul Krugman respectively, he dismisses this View from Nowhere with the famous joke headline, “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a point.”
He’s right about that last bit, of course. Too much of our current so-called “objective journalism” format relies on taking quotes from opposing sides and placing them in juxtaposition prior to publishing. Sometimes it feels like a newspaper reporter can’t run a story about how clear the science is on fluoridated water without calling around to get some kook to say that fluoride is being used to make the citizenry docile for “the next phase.”
Where Elias and others trip up, however, is that they assume the flaw in such reporting is objectivity. It isn’t; reporting on the scientific findings of fluoridation without calling the John Birch Society is objective reporting. You might not know that if you’re a scientist, however, which means in order to objectively report on it you have to read some science journals, and then have long conversations with people who know what the results in those journals mean, and do some research into whether there are other peer reviewed journals that disagree — and then go find people to talk to about those. No, the enemy that makes reporters call the kook isn’t objectivity; it’s laziness. (And that’s an important distinction, because there isn’t a type of journalism more lazy than punditry.)*
There’s also the very valid point — made by Stillwater to me a lot over time — that you can never truly be “above the fray.” We all have our ideologies (even me); we all have our points of view (especially me). There is very little in this world outside of pure mathematics that is truly objective — and some philosophers even quibble about math. But, as with world peace, racial harmony, and liberty for all, sometimes the pursuit of the impossible is worth doing all the same.
Because if you decide that objective journalism is bad, then you’re only a few steps away from deciding that the Fox News model of just making s**t up is what good journalists do. Here’s Elias:
And while it inspired gnashing of teeth and rending of garments from elite journalists more comfortable with the old guard, the ascension of “partisan” media like Fox News, the Huffington Post, “lean forward”-era MSNBC and group blogs on the left (Daily Kos) and right (RedState) was ultimately a good thing. There were drawbacks to ideological news sources, sure; but even if the range of stories covered by a lefty blog was more circumscribed than what you might find at CNN.com, readers could have more of a sense of the biases undergirding any given news source’s reporting and could apply grains of salt accordingly. They wouldn’t have to wonder if a glowing profile of Noam Chomsky gave short shrift to his critics, because they could note the political orientation of the news provider, and get further information from its opposite, before forming their own opinion. It’s not a perfect model, by any means, but it has one huge advantage over the previous standard: It’s honest.
I’m not sure quite how to respond that this, so I’ll simply say that, after three years of covering Fox news and other conservative media sources, Elias and I have a very, very different definition as to what counts as “honest.”
Ironically, even as Elias points out the potential flaws inherent in The View From Nowhere, he blindly succumbs to those same flaws himself.
Elias sees but two possibilities: the “ultimately good” partisan whips of Fox News, Red State, MSNBC and Daily Kos, or the embarrassingly terrible, white-splaining piece by Chait. “Shape of the Planet” indeed — in the world of partisan punditry, there are indeed but a Brooks-and-Broderish two sides and two sides only, and if Chait has slipped up this badly then surely Fox News is good for the nation.
Except, of course, that no matter what pundits say there aren’t just two ways to look at anything. You can actually stand for something and hold objectivity to be precious; you don’t actually have to choose. Indeed, one can look no further than Chait’s most recent race-matters sparring partner to find such an example: the great Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Responding to Chait’s “black culture” remarks over the past few weeks, Coates explains in multiple posts why, while firmly taking a side, the Way of Murdoch is an empty one:
The primary goal of this space is to promote clarity and understanding. The sonning of all interlocutors must always play the back. That is because those of us who seek clarity know that even if we son today, we almost certainly will be sonned tomorrow. Sometimes—in fact often times—the greatest clarity comes in being sonned. My greatest lessons have come to me on my ass, with someone—my dad, my mom, my professor, my editor, my friend, a commenter—standing over me. Seeking clarity is not the business of being right. I hope to often be right. But I know inevitably I must, at least sometimes, be sonned…
It’s tough to remember that you must never do it for [a team]. It’s tough to remember why you came. Why you came was not to be lauded for “destroying,” “owning,” or otherwise sonning anyone. You must always define the debate and not allow the debate — and all its volume and spectacle — to define you…
What I hope to take from this … is something beyond dueling rhetoric. A writer is, mostly, a professional amateur. Part of the job (the least important I’d argue) is fighting with other writers. Certainly what they report back cannot be definitive. But it can be informative. And it can take us away from the land of thought experiments and theorizing, into the world of real people doing real things.
I put it to Elias that there’s more truth in those three paragraphs than a week of Fox News programming and Daily Kos postings combined.
* I should note that while I’m standing up for objectivity, I’m not necessarily standing up for Chait, Silver or Klein.
Our disagreement about objective journalism aside, I agree with Elias that Chait’s recent race stuff is both terrible and tone-deaf. I also agree with him about Silver’s new project; it’s kind of boring to my taste. And I have yet to check out Vox and was never enough of a Klein fan to read him regularly, so I really have no opinion on Ezra’s new joint.