A look at Lewis Raven Wallace’s The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity.
The movement away from journalistic reliance on “objectivity” (I use the quotes for a reason—you will see why below) has come a long way since my first involvement with the issue while writing The Rise of the Blogosphere in 2006. One of my chapters is titled “The Failure of the American News Media.” In it, I wrote:
One of the oddest aspects of the news media in the 1990s was the inability to understand just how they were viewed by the public and their unwillingness to accept responsibility for their cynical reputation. Good observers even then, they knew that the public saw them as callow—but they continued to deflect blame from themselves. “They are simply reflecting the world they see. They say that their cynical tone is justified—even required—by the relentless ‘spin’ of the politicians they write about,” says [James] Fallows [in Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, page 62].The problem was that the reporters had not bothered to consider the situation from the viewer perspective and then adjust their presentation in light of the needs of their audience—once a key part of any journalistic endeavor. (115)
Somehow, journalists had come to believe that they were, themselves, somehow objective, and that any perspective other than their own was not—making all others suspect from the start.
Fallows and a few others, including NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, had seen the warning signs for journalism in the nineties and had tried to alert others. They failed, and disdain for the press continued to rise, culminating in today’s constant “fake news” charges. Journalists, believing strongly in the legends of impartiality and objectivity concocted by preceding generations, could not—and, for the most part, cannot—come to terms with the idea that it is impossible to rise above subjectivity and achieve at least a glimpse of eternal, Platonic truths as a reporter of the news. To most of us outside the profession, that sounds absurd, and it is. It is also elitist—not to mention arrogant. But it continues, and continues to stifle change.
So tied to this belief were journalists that very few of them were willing to even consider alternative paths to news collection and reporting. One who did was David “Buzz” Merritt, whose 1997 book Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News Is Not Enough was an early attempt to show his profession that there are alternate streams leading to the river of effective news coverage, some of them much more efficacious—and less dangerous to the profession’s future—than the one most journalists continue to row up and down.
With the start of the Trump administration, the reputation of the profession collapsed. Journalists had lost so much of their professional prestige that they had now become easy targets for media manipulators from any point of view, especially for those who take subjectivity beyond rational limits and yet who, paradoxically, still manage to cloak their opinions under an “objectivity” blanket. This further complicates the problem, making any claim at all of objectivity seem just sham.
Yet there are plenty who cling to it—even to the point of kicking those raising objections or questioning objectivity out of their jobs—as happened to former NPR and Marketplace reporter Lewis Raven Wallace. Now, Wallace has written a book, The View from Somewhere, detailing that story, the history of “objectivity” in journalism (including some of its more recent failures such as coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and the incidents that led to it) and, most importantly, arguing for another different stream for the covering of news.
As Davis showed us twenty years ago, journalism could change if it wanted to. Like him, Wallace shows a way of doing this. The question remains, though: Is the profession willing to be honest enough, and objective enough, to recognize its failures and change? Lots of newsroom hand-wringing has been going on for lots of years—then the journalists go out and do what they have always done. Few have had the guts to admit their own subjectivities and biases and to forefront them in the ways they collect the news and the stories they present about it. So strong is the impetus to conform that they could, like Wallace, lose their jobs if they don’t.
Toward the end of the book, Wallace writes:
Mine is not an argument against the rigorous pursuit of facts, or even an argument that the job of every journalist is to write opinion pieces all day and then protest by night…. I feel sure there is a place—a big, important place—for people who seek the truth, who shape and give it meaning. But we have to know what power we have in the shaping. (209-210, emphasis mine)
By recognizing the power of the media, the media have an obligation to engage in introspection based on a willingness to change. We have seen too little of this over the past generation or two. It may be hoping too much to imagine that books like Wallace’s will actually lead to a new paradigm (it should have, back in the nineties), but the need for change should be patently obvious to anyone with any connection to American news media today, even as merely a consumer.
Wallace goes on a page or two later:
Even as I expand my ideas about the process of truth-telling and the meaning of balance, I propose hanging on to some basic tenets of traditional journalistic ethics: verification and fact-checking, editorial independence from political parties and corporations, clarity and transparency about financial and political conflicts of interest, and deep, thorough sourcing. I also joining a chorus of journalists who have been gradually replacing objectivity with the practice of radical transparency about both our values and our methodologies. Finally, I think defining our values as journalists when journalism is under attack means admitting that we are activists and becoming clear about what we are activists for. (211)
Izzy Stone would have been proud of Wallace.
All of us involved, even in a small way, with the profession of journalism could learn from A View from Somewhere, no matter how ethical, or balanced, or objective we currently feel we are.