I went to an author talk Thursday night called “The Myth of Objectivity,” and I must confess, I arrived with my dander up.
The author, Lewis Raven Wallace, has written a book arguing that “objectivity” in journalism is dead and gone, and that’s a good thing.
I walked into the room full of self-righteous indignation, itching to argue quite the opposite, that objectivity is the bedrock principle of journalism and is more important than ever right now while it is most under siege. I wanted to hear what Wallace had to say, but I arrived prepared to defend the idea that The Gazette’s success and distinction depends on a both-sides approach to journalism, that our credibility rests entirely on the idea that we will deliver the news to you as unbiased and impartially as we can. I’m talking news and news only mind you, not the opinion pages, which is a different form of journalism walled off from what my reporters and I do every day.
First chance I got, I told Wallace that I worry that journalism, like the rest of the country, is taking sides, and that if we give up on the idea of objective truth, then we will forever reinforce the separate camps in our country, one that believes the truth of MSNBC and one that believes the truth of Fox News, and never the twain shall agree.
There is only one truth, I announced.
He didn’t agree. “I don’t believe that there is only one truth, but I still believe that truth is worth pursuing,” he told us calmly.
“There has always been competing truths throughout history, not a single truth,” he said. Wallace doesn’t really believe there can be arbiters of truth, because those people who set themselves up as arbiters (like us journalists) reflect their own set of biases, and the “sphere of consensus” for their particular demographic group at their particular point in time.
For example, the objective journalists at the time of our Founding Fathers believed that slavery was an OK thing.
His goal in his book “The View from Somewhere” is to expose what he sees as a double standard in which straight white men are treated as inherently objective “even when they’re openly biased, while the rest of us are expected to remain ‘neutral’ even when our lives or safety are under threat.”
This is where I think it's important to point out that Wallace is a transgender journalist who was fired from his job at American Public Media’s "Marketplace" for posting a blog post titled “Objectivity is Dead, and I’m Okay with It.”
When he was fired, Wallace’s boss told him she believed in a clear line between journalism and activism, and that he had crossed that line.
When Wallace told us about this moment, he mentioned that "Marketplace" had a white male host notorious for his opinionated tweets at the time who was never challenged over them, while Wallace was immediately fired. And thus a book was born.
So Wallace’s jaundiced view of objectivity is rooted in his personal experience. In his book, he says he always found the idea of truly “objective” news laughable. “After all, transgender people had been covered for decades with almost nothing but bias and bigotry by supposedly 'objective' journalists.” His point was that objectivity is in the eye of the beholder, and that what is acceptable, and therefore the consensus of what a person should be objective about, changes over time. Objectivity is the ideology of the status quo, he said.
Let me concede right away that journalism didn’t always put a premium on “objectivity.”
Newspapers started out as partisan trumpets for all sorts of points of view. When the penny press took off around the beginning of the 20th century, anyone and everyone with a point of view could suddenly afford to start a publication. Objectivity only emerged in the 1920s amid a wave of mergers and closings after that big burst of newspapers. Economics forced the survivors to avoid partisanship so as not to alienate big parts of the wide audience they wanted to attract.
During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, the definition of objective journalism expanded beyond a “just the facts” approach to include more context and analysis, because just reporting Sen. Joe McCarthy’s diatribes was not good journalism, not really truth, given that his attacks were unsubstantiated and false. Respectful, unvetted news coverage had in fact fueled his rise.
Today’s, President Trump’s rise has caused some journalists like Wallace to question objectivity’s usefulness again. In their view, a commitment not to take sides leads journalists to give oxygen to statements that simply aren’t true and allow Trump to set the daily news agenda himself with his unvetted tweets and sometimes-hyperbolic rhetoric.
For example, President Trump complained on Friday that the news media were trying to scare Americans about the coronavirus to score political points against him.
Mike Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said Friday the administration took “extraordinary steps four or five weeks ago,” to prevent the spread of the virus when it declared a rare public health emergency and barred entry by most foreign citizens who had recently visited China.
“Why didn’t you hear about it?” Mulvaney said of travel restrictions. “What was still going on four or five weeks ago? Impeachment, that’s all the press wanted to talk about.”
But the travel restrictions were widely covered in the media, and the news media has been covering the global spread of coronavirus nonstop since the initial outbreak in China's Wuhan City.
What Mulvaney said was not accurate, so reporting it objectively would be insufficient if the goal is accuracy and truth.
I would still argue that true objectivity doesn’t prevent journalists from making judgments about the news; it simply asks that those judgments be based on dispassionate analysis.
And you know what? Wallace agrees with me.
His argument against objectivity “doesn’t abandon facts, truth, or the hope that we will pursue them without undue influence from political parties or corporations.” He would argue just as much as I would argue in favor of “facticity and nonpartisanship, which are elements of “objectivity.” And he said independence very much resonates with him — “independence from big money and political parties is important to journalistic integrity.”
“I still believe that truth is worth pursuing, and its pursuit still requires the rigorous practice of reporting," Wallace writes in his book. "The careful observation of events, gathering of commentary, verification through a variety of means, and the production and analysis of data are all aspects of “objective” journalism I would not do away with. … We see and interpret these truths through our ever-subjective lens, but it is our job to go looking, to try to be honest about the search."
So Wallace wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, he would just add in a few rubber ducks, like disclosure of reporter backgrounds (like his own), showing your sources and your work, and things like “an analysis of power and oppression, and community accountability” built into all journalism. It's really all about how you define objectivity.
Wallace believes the rebuilding of trust must begin at the grass roots, that the best journalism is not ideological but relational, in which the audience knows and trust the journalists telling its stories.
I completely agree with Wallace on that, which is something local journalism offers that pundits on cable cannot.
The exercise of listening to Wallace was really, for me, a journalistic one. I have a new perspective now, which is exactly what the best journalism brings you. It’s not supposed to reinforce or undermine your beliefs for you, it's supposed to open you up to ideas you weren’t aware of before.
In the end, I think Wallace’s message was that the most important thing, really, is curiosity, that curiosity might be the best framework for a revival of journalism and a return to truth … that the goal, really, should be “endlessly seeking to know more.”