by John Stoehr
I don't come from a journalism background. I never went to j-school. I never took Reporting 101. I was indoctrinated by music school, Western philosophy, the classical and jazz traditions, and graduate courses in literary theory, rhetoric, new historicism, Shakespeare, and American and English poetry.
So when I began writing for general interest publications like alt weeklies, music magazines and especially daily newspapers, I had to learn quickly about objectivity. What is it?
For me, unlike, I suppose, those reared in journalism schools, objectivity wasn't an ethos or mode of thinking as much as it was a genre of writing. As someone who closely studied storytelling as practiced in the Western tradition, objectivity clearly had its own set of conventions, tropes and cliches, just as Restoration comedies, miracle plays, epic verse and horror movies had theirs.
In learning how to write in the genre of objectivity, just as I learned to write an academic paper (or a limerick or doggerel), I discovered something interesting and frustrating: that the rules of objective writing -- he said, she said, officials say this, critics say this -- were very limiting. Ironically, as I strove to tell the truth to the best of my ability, the writing conventions I used were sometimes keeping me from telling the truth.
Case in point is a piece I wrote about a ballet company. The group is called Ballet Savannah. It has problems. Two, mainly. One was hiring an artistic director to professionalize the organization, lead fundraising and execute a 32-week season.
I know, that doesn't sound like a problem. That emerged when it became clear the heads of Ballet Savannah were obsessed with staging "The Nutcracker." They had hired the new director, one with fine credentials and a clear vision, but then hired another when the first couldn't make the transition fast enough to lead a staging of Christmastide ballet.
Hiring two artistic directors is weird. I know this. Dancers know this. It's not unheard of, but for a fledgling group with little identity, little momentum and no infrastructure, two is bad. It means the administration -- in this case a husband and wife with a daughter involved in ballet -- doesn't know what its doing. Incompetence isn't a crime by any means, but incompetence does mean that readers shouldn't take Ballet Savannah seriously.
Which is, of course, just what the husband and wife -- two wealthy, prominent citizens ubiquitous in Savannah's upper crust society -- wanted. They wanted the spotlight but not the scrutiny that comes with being in the spotlight.
As a reporter writing in the genre of objectivity, what to do?
I thought about my experience when I read Jay Rosen's comments in Steve Outing's Aug. 28 column, "Stop the Presses," for Editor & Publisher. Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, said that objectivity was an invention of the early 20th century. It was not a means of communicating impartially but of "limiting liability."
"Part of the problem is that journalists don't realize what objectivity was in the first place," says Rosen. "From the beginning it was a way of limiting liability, and allowing journalists to take a pass when it's hard to figure out who's right and what's really going on. From the beginning it was meant to dull the knife edge of the press. It was meant to 'de-voice' or defang the individual journalist, so that more people would be comfortable with the product [my italics]. But the costs of that system have built up over time.
"One of the most insidious and deceptive things about the system of objectivity is how it persuades journalists that the alternative to it is 'subjectivity.' From this angle, to relinquish objectivity means to surrender to partisanship, opinion, bias. Not very attractive, that. But what if the real alternative is truthtelling itself?" Rosen adds.
In other words, perhaps my hunch was right: that objectivity was a genre of writing. It was a way of writing, not a way of thinking or behaving, that allowed reporters to dodge inevitable charges of bias, slander and sticking his nose into places it didn't belong.
Through the years, objectivity as a way of writing became conflated with objectivity as a way of thinking and behaving. It follows logically that the opposite of objectivity would then be subjectivity, which is still taboo in mainstream journalism.
Friedman makes the case that justification for the Iraq War would have been challenged more aggressively if reporters had been unchained by the conventions of objectivity. He writes that investigative reporters knew what the truth was, but adhered to the obligations of journalism (i.e., the genre rules of objectivity) fearing of being called partisan by partisans in the White House.
Here's a pattern he saw much of:
One or two investigative reporters were probing for and finding holes in the administration's claims. But the news of each day came out of the Pentagon and White House and they led the paper, day after day, straight stories quoting administration officials or the president or the defense secretary. Only occasionally, did the reporter write, "But critics say," or "some Democrats say." It was the obligatory throw-away line to show the story was fair and balanced. Maybe it was, but it was also wrong. Many of the reporters knew the nation was being led into war and that the reasons were questionable, but they hung onto the bandwagon of war because all they could do with their brand of journalism was to become, in Lenin's words, a "transmission belt."
Later, on the charges of partisanship . . .
Telling truth, with good, solid reporting, will be called partisan by those who disagree with the conclusions. That has always come with the territory. Howard Kurtz quoted blogger Arianna Huffington: "too many in the Washington press corps want to pretend they are leaving the question of 'what is truth' to their readers -- refusing to admit there is such a thing as truth ...The administration has faith that, because of the way too many in the press operate, all it has to do is sow doubt." Thus we are forced into writing, in effect, "on the other hand, the White House says..."
As for Ballet Savannah, I was forced to write a straight news story for fear (not mine, but my editor's) of being branded a maverick, muckraker or whatever. It was all bullshit.
In the end, though, no one really found out Ballet Savannah shouldn't be taken seriously. They didn't, that is, until they bought tickets to see "The Nutcracker." Only then did some patrons tell me -- this is true -- that I had deceived them into thinking Ballet Savannah was more than it is. They said they wished I had told them not to take the company seriously.
Given the rise of opinion journalism, advocacy journalism and interpretative journalism, perhaps now would be a good time for daily newspapers to challenge objectivity as the pre-eminent genre of writing.
Re-posted from a Sept. 20 entry for Flyover.