Hiding Behind 'Objectivity'

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Here's an example of hiding behind objectivity. I wrote this in September, the month in which the events described took place. All of the following resides in the public record. All quotes are cited from newspaper articles, though references to Editor & Publisher could not be linked because links to that publication's website have since expired. I have, however, linked to abstracts on the E&P's website.

As you read this keep in mind another of my posts referring to John Walcott's fabulously insightful speech given to the World Affairs Council on Hilton Head Island earlier this year. Walcott is the Washington bureau chief for McClatchy. The subject of his speech was the journalist's obligation to discover truth to the best of his or her ability and the current climate of "relativism" evident in the Bush Administration and mainstream media.

He makes, in fact, the strongest connection I’ve read between the challenges of journalism (finding truth despite the efforts of the powerful to hide the truth) and the ubiquitous notion among certain irresponsible academics and leaders in society at large that there is no such thing as truth, a “corrupted” interpretation, as Walcott rightly calls it, of the post-modern school of thought that sprung from the socio-political upheavals of the 1960s.

While it used to be a tool of the left, Walcott notes, this kind of relativism has now become a tool of the right. More importantly, it’s become a tool that was used in selling the American people on a war that may never end. Please, if you’re interested in this topic, go read the whole thing. Keep these thoughts in mind as you read the following. Thanks, take care, and all the best —J.S.

Speaking of the limits of the genre of objectivity in journalism: Here's the lead story on the front-page of the Savannah Morning News on Sept. 21. The headline in print (not online) was this:

Lynch: War 'winnable.'

The Lynch in question is Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division based out of Fort Stewart, Ga., just a few miles Southeast of Savannah. The kicker of this story is the subhead (again, in print, not online):

But good outcome in Iraq will require support from a better-informed public, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch says.

Lynch goes on to say what we've been hearing about in the so-called Liberal Media since GWB took office: that the Big Bad Media ignores good news in Iraq but not bad news. Who's guilty? Not the chardonnay-sipping, Volvo-driving New York Times. Oh, no. Lynch lays blame squarely on the shoulders of TV news.

"But you never see that by watching Fox, CNN and NBC."

Beyond the incredulous claim that Fox News is anti-war and, by implication, anti-Bush, we have to remember that it's fine for an Army general to say these kinds of things. That's what Maj. Gen. Lynch is supposed to say. He's a general, for Chrissakes.

But a newspaper is supposed to challenge assertions of those in positions of power, especially when those in positions of power are in effect speaking for an Administration whose political capital has shrunk considerably since 2004 and whose foreign policies have led to nearly 4,000 American military deaths.

Interestingly, this front-page story came a day after I posted some musings about the limitations of journalistic objectivity as a genre of writing. Mike Boehm, of the Los Angeles Times, took a moment to comment: the problem with newspapers isn't objectivity, he said; that works fine when it's done right. The problems are fundamentally economic, which I think is true.

But I also think ideas play a part in the problems facing newspapers as much as economics do. And one of those ideas is the doctrine of objectivity, or, in the way I re-frame the notion, objectivity as a genre of writing. And, in this case, objectivity is convenient rationale for parroting military propaganda on the front page.

This isn't the first time the Morning News has shilled for Lynch. In April, the newspaper ran a piece by the Good General. It wasn't an op-ed piece, though. It ran in the metro news section.

The move sparked newsroom-wide outrage. When Editor & Publisher called, the newspaper's executive editor, Susan Catron, told the reporter:

"I'm on the fence about this, my first reaction is that we need to get this man's view in the paper," Catron admitted. "This is a viewpoint from someone who was there and that is how we looked at it. We will start off and see where it goes. I knew it would be controversial."

Getting this man's view in the paper? In the news section?

Later on, Catron told the E&P that she had not been involved in the decision to publish Lynch's op-ed. However, there was no managing editor at that time. There was only the publisher. You do the math. Who's in charge? And moreover, was the newspaper aiming for honesty?

I can hear Mike saying objectivity isn't what's ailing newspapers. Bad management, corporate top-heaviness, and shortsightedness are the problems. Of course, I agree.

But I think we need to talk about how we can be objective but still not be truthful. How the ideology of objectivity is spun using the logic of relativism. How not being truthful has an impact on who we are and how readers regard us. How we can hide behind an ideology to deflect criticism and pernicious influence, especially from those in positions of power? Especially those in positions of power who have direct access to publishers of local newspapers?

And by the way, readers ain't stupid.

Here's the entire story. I talked to the reporter. He told me this report one of three stories he worked on that day; he didn't reflect on how it would be played in the newspaper. There was no news, he said, just commentary as it pertained to a memorial to dead soldiers being honored that day at Fort Stewart. Bottom-line: This call was beyond him.

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