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October 29, 2004

"Our Code is Falling to Pieces." Doug McGill on the Fading Mystique of an Objective Press

Guest writer and ex-Timesman Doug McGill: "Some reporters actually wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. 'Give me any subject and I can write a story within minutes.' But of course that just means they can paint-by-numbers. They can take a bunch of facts and press them into the daily journalism mold that makes a story, really fast. But as for truth?"

In my last post, Too Much Reality I offered up my list of problems and puzzles descending on the press these days. Things like:

  • The era of greater transparency and what it’s doing to modern journalism
  • Trust in the mainstream media and what’s happening to it
  • Bloggers, their role in politics, their effect on the press: their significance
  • The collapse of traditional authority in journalism and what replaces it
  • Jon Stewart and why he seems to be more credible to so many

The discussion afterwards in comments and other blogs was quite lively. I also got some good e-mails. One was from Doug McGill of the The McGill Report:

Dear Jay,

Reality has outstripped the ability of the journalist’s professional code of objectivity to handle it all. Every one of the points you listed are examples of the leakage of this threadbare concept. Not that objectivity in its ideal sense is threadbare, but rather that it’s actual nature as a conglomeration of contradictory practices that serve rationalization more than illumination, has become really evident in recent times.
The bloggers, Jon Stewart, smart amateurs, online fact-checkers — they never bought into the mystique of objectivity in the first place. Therefore, from their perspective, things are more clear than they ever have been before, and they feel more empowered. But we journalists, we are at sea because our Grand Old Professional Code is falling to pieces.

Here’s the essay I wrote to sort it out. I draw most of my anecdotes from the ten years I was a staff reporter at The New York Times.

All the best,

The McGill Report

McGill’s note came with an attachment: his beautiful essay on the fading powers of objectivity as an organizer for the journalist’s mind. Mostly, he says, it’s a way to rationalize newsroom failure. But unlike hundreds of other treatises and laments that make a similar point, McGill has ideas on what’s better than objectivity. And he comes not to bury but to praise the “uncorrupted ideal” of an objective press.

Doug McGill is freer to practice a more truthful discipline now that he’s an independent retailer of wisdom, with a thousand or two of his own readers. Before, as a reporter for the New York Times, McGill was better off not looking too deeply into objectivity. He used to say, “I’m a reporter. It’s not my job to think.” But as his essay says, “now, I am trying to.”

Indeed he is. One of his main points is the press needs to get better in the pattern recognition department:

… After all, you are using a cookie cutter, but they may actually be thinking, and planning, and strategizing. And so they may wreak the very unfairness, imbalance, or partiality that you rationalize your cookie cutter story mold is designed to prevent.

That’s an intricate thought— and an accurate one. I am honored to present this piece of writing. It is an account of a man who lost his illusions about objectivity, but not his faith in journalism as a discipline of the real. Ladies and gentlemen…

The Fading Mystique of an Objective Press

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

In 1983, while working as a reporter for The New York Times, I wrote a story about a proposed telephone rate hike in New York State.

The story got on page one, and that night, as the paper’s news editor and I were walking to Grand Central Station, the editor asked me: “Now be honest, did you really understand the story you wrote on the front page today?” “Not a word of it,” I answered. And we both had a big laugh.

But inside, I didn’t feel so good. I was painting by numbers and I knew it.

I had written the story by calling up legislators who were sponsoring the proposal, and then calling up citizens’ groups who were raising hell about it, and then getting back to the legislators for their reaction. I then stitched all the quotes together under a grand-sounding theme and voila! I’d been dutifully “objective” and gathered both sides of the story and made a “fair and balanced” front page story for The New York Times.

The point is, if anything unfair or truly nefarious was being done by the legislators, lobbyists, or citizen’s group in the process of getting this rate hike passed, I would have been blithely unaware of it. The principle actors in this story could have driven a bribe or a lie or a loophole or a simple unfairness right under my nose, and I wouldn’t have suspected a thing. The “he said, she said” formula was all I needed to get on page one.

Some reporters, including me in my early days, actually wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. “Give me any subject and I can write a story within minutes,” they crow as, I said, did I. But of course, that just means they can paint-by-numbers really well. They can take a bunch of facts and press them into the daily journalism mold that makes a story, really fast. But as for nuance, as for complexity, as for truth?

The Professional Journalist’s Code

For more than a century, objectivity has been the dominant professional norm of the news media. It has at its heart the noble aim of presenting indisputable facts upon which everyone in society can agree, and build upon towards the goal of a better society. Unfortunately, the ideal of objectivity has in practice in today’s newsrooms become a subtle but powerful means of self-censorship. It’s a conglomeration of contradictory practices that serve the purpose of rationalization as often as investigation. It has become a crutch for journalistic practices that work against civic aims.

It is not any disagreement with objectivity in its ideal sense that I am expressing; but rather that, when I compare the ideal of objectivity to the observed practice of it, I see a great gap. I also believe that journalism’s failure to serve the public interest, which has been so pronounced in recent years, is in large part traceable to the breakdown of the norm of objectivity as a practical and ethical guide.

It is natural that the breakdown has occurred. Think of all the contradictory goals that journalists today are asked to serve in the name of objectivity. They are supposed to be neutral, but still to grab attention in a crowded media marketplace. They are supposed to be impartial, yet also crusading. To be a clear and unbiased conduit for the facts, and yet also to “follow their nose”—a clear call to the use of individual moral conscience—to get the facts. My own personal experience as a reporter was that as time went on it became harder and harder for me to reconcile these contradictions.

The uncorrupted ideal of objectivity, in the sense of reporters driving to dig out verified facts and present them fully and fairly, is indispensable in journalism. Unmasking its nefarious twin — an omnipresent and abused pseudo-objectivity – is what I would like to do.

“He Said, She Said”

In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, America’s great pop poet, Bruce Springsteen, recently talked about the state of our national news media.

The press has let the country down. It’s taken a very amoral stand, in that essential issues are often portrayed as simply ‘one side says this and the other side says that.’ I think that Fox News and the Republican right have intimidated the press into an incredible self-consciousness about appearing objective and backed them into a corner of sorts where they have ceded some of their responsibility and righteous power.

When Springsteen remarks that so much news reporting these days boils down to “one side says this, and the other side says that,” he spots the readily-identifiable hallmark of objective reporting as it’s practiced today. He could have been talking about my telephone rate hike story.

Are we served as citizens of a democracy when reporters feel their job is done, merely to report “both sides” of a given public issue? What if the reporter, himself or herself, was deeply convinced – or would be deeply convinced if he or she took the time to look into the issue more closely – that one or another of the side in the argument was right? That is, that one or the other side had the actual facts of the matter on their side? Would it be the reporter’s obligation then, to point this out?

If so, then why don’t we see more of this in journalism today? Why don’t journalists more often take a few extra steps per story, to find out the indisputable facts that support one or another side of a given public issue? True, this would not come across to news consumers as typical “objective” news coverage, but would it possibly serve readers as citizens, and the entire society, better than the standard “he said, she said” template for news?

Let me offer a few thoughts on objectivity from a practitioner’s point of view.

The first thing that strikes me, on the basis of my 27 years as a working journalist, is that the ideal of objectivity in journalism, like the ideal of love in marriage, or the ideal of justice in society, is not an ideal whose essential nobility or desirability is seriously questioned by anyone.

At the same time, however, like the ideals of love and justice, neither is the definition of objectivity at all clear, nor shared by all, nor has the route to achieving the goals attached to any of the possible definitions of objectivity ever been clearly defined in practical, repeatable terms.

We think of objectivity as meaning neutral. But also balanced. Impartial. Non-partisan. Accurate. Verified. Fair. Factual. Unemotional. Detached. Scientific. Reasoned. Unbiased.

Each of these definitions implies a very different essential quality or ideal, any two of which may be mutually exclusive. For example, a news report could be factual but unbalanced; or accurate but biased; or neutral but also unfair.

A Soothing Cliché

So this illogic is one indication that we need to clarify our language, which is a reflection of our thinking, when we talk about “objectivity.”

Another such indication is the mantra-like nature of the cliché that we journalists normally use to end every discussion that comes around, finally, to exposing the many obvious flaws in the professional code of objectivity.

“Of course it’s impossible to be objective,” we say to each other. “But it’s better to try and fall short, than not to try at all.”

But is it? Surely there is a grain of truth to this. But reaching moral destinations is not at all like reaching geographical ones. It’s a lot tougher to be a good parent, than it is to drive to, and successfully arrive in, Chicago.

Unlike successfully arriving in Chicago, if you are trying to be objective in the true and pure sense, you need to frequently check yourself that you are not rationalizing, not being lazy, not skipping over the tough bits with a high-toned excuse. Whenever you say to yourself as a journalist, “I fell short but at least I tried,” you need also to immediately ask, “Am I just rationalizing the fact that I’m sinning over and over and over?” Any of us here who try to maintain some kind of a spiritual or religious life will recognize the problem.

Tricky Morality

There is a tricky moral navigation, a continual process of brutal self-judgment that is necessary for any practitioner of objectivity to undertake, just as a tricky moral navigation is required of anyone who undertakes to love well, to lead well, or to dispense justice well.

A kiss is not just a kiss. It can be genuine or not. Heartfelt or not. Deceptive or not. A betrayal or not. But it will always look the same from the outside. And it’s not always easy even for the kissers to know themselves whether they are being genuine or just a tiny bit deceptive, is it? A slippery slope is always close by, and it’s a hard business to love truly and honestly and well.

Or as the religious or spiritual person would say, to serve God well.

Just so, it’s hard for journalists to stay consistently aware just where they are in this process, especially whether they are using or being used. Whether they are being honest brokers of the truth, or pawns of larger forces peddling bought-and-paid-for versions of truth.

Yet the consequences to society are so great, which of these roles the journalist is playing, it’s vitally important that the journalist try to remain as aware as possible at all times, to avoid being used as a pawn. In a sense, to extend a Walter Lippmann metaphor, the journalist is literally the last line of defense against special interests, which are always essentially trying to hijack all of society to serve their own commercial or ideological ends.

Checking for Rationalization

It’s really important therefore to not only commit oneself to fulfilling a checklist of goals that fall under the name of “objectivity,” as a journalist, but also to continually ask if there is not some rationalizing going on in one’s heart of hearts. Because failure to reach the ideal sometimes sets in motion a chain of events based on rationalizations that works entirely against the original goal, while at the same time going completely unnoticed.

As a practicing journalist both at The New York Times and at Bloomberg News, I’ve faced innumerable deadlines of mere minutes and even of seconds on international stories. I’ve also faced many other external and internal pressures, especially the pressure to beat the competition, to get the interview, to advance the story, to get on page one, and so on. And I can tell you, there is all the incentive in the world to succumb to rationalization.

You say to yourself, “I’m on deadline, I did the best I could to … be fair … be accurate … be balanced … be factual …” etc.

Often as not, because the pressure is so great, as a reporter one simply doesn’t have the time to digest every fact or to test the line of argument that is professed by a source. So one reaches for a story mold, a story frame, into which to cram all the facts one is able to gather within the few precious minutes you have to make the story. The “he said, she said” story mold, as I described in the case of the telecommunications story, is one such frame.

A Handy Shield

But as that story shows, when you use the cookie cutter story mold, you can very easily be used by your sources. After all, you are using a cookie cutter, but they may actually be thinking, and planning, and strategizing. And so they may wreak the very unfairness, imbalance, or partiality that you rationalize your cookie cutter story mold is designed to prevent.

It really is time to ask in the journalism profession, are we doing things the right way?

Objectivity is a handy Swiss Army knife for reporters who not only feel besieged by the pressures of deadlines, but also, quite frankly, extremely vulnerable to the very sources whose access they need and seek every day.

Because deep down, the reporter knows that the sources have all the chips. They have the information. They have the power. And so the sources, once one’s story comes out in the newspaper or on TV, also have the ability to say to the reporter and the editor and even to the whole world, “Wait, Mr. Reporter, you got the story all wrong.”

As a result, most of the journalists I know, including me, are always in a state of near panic that they have somehow failed in the task of explaining or describing the material, often the very complex technical material that their sources have given them. They worry that they can be called on this at any time, with possibly catastrophic results. The advent of the blogosphere certainly has exacerbated this fear many-fold.

As a result of feeling this vulnerable all the time, reporters naturally look around for a shield. And the most handy protective shield of all is objectivity.

Quotes: The Ultimate “Objective” Tool

Quotations of news sources themselves — that is words placed inside quotation marks or actual on-screen TV interviews — are the ultimate tool of objective journalism and the ultimate shield of objectivity. “But you yourself said it, and I quoted you accurately,” the journalist can always say to the source. But that doesn’t take into account the many alternative possibilities that would still allow for the source to manipulate the reporter – for example, the source might have been lying on purpose.

That is precisely one of the deep down self-checks – one of those steps in the tricky internal moral process that a good reporter must go through – before too quickly using the cookie cutter mold of an “objective” story. You must ask yourself “Am I being lied to?”

It’s a matter of routine that reporters feel or know they are being lied to. Yet they take the quotes and pass them on, unchallenged. And they rationalize this essentially corrupt practice – corrupt that is from the point of view of the democracy that the media purportedly supports — any number of ways. “No time to check facts under deadline.” “Well, it’s a lie, but it’s directly from the mouth of the President of the United States (or CEO, or other Important Personage), which makes it newsworthy.” “Yes, it’s a lie, but billions of dollars are being spent right now based on this lie, which makes it a real and genuine story.”

And so on, and so on, and so on.

The Front Page

In my ten years as a reporter for The New York Times, I got on the front page a lot when I was working on the city desk, the culture desk, and the business desk. And over time, I learned a few tricks that always worked for getting a story on the front page. One trick was to reach an important figure in person, or on the telephone, such as a CEO or a prominent government official, and to get that person to say something. Almost anything would do. If that person said something dramatically different from what he or she had said before, or something quarreling with one of his or her public enemies, so much the better.

Once I called the CEO of the 7-Up company, which had recently come out with a new product that for the first time in the company’s history was colored brown, like a cola, instead of clear. I called him at home because I couldn’t get through his flacks at his office. “That product is a flop,” he told me frankly on the phone. “We were wrong to do it. We’re the Uncola. It’s our version of Classic Coke. It was just plain stupid.” That interview took me ten minutes and it went straight on the front page of the business section.

Another way to get on page one was simply to find a story that involved a certain amount of money. That amount, I discovered, was about $50 million. At The New York Times in the 1980s, I discovered that $50 million was sort of a benchmark that meant that whatever activity was involved, it was likely a “phenomenon” in society and thus was real news. The number was particularly helpful in the days I was covering the New York art market. If a painting sold for less than $50 million, that was passé. But if it sold for more than $50 million, something big was going on. I used this same benchmark later as a business reporter, too. If a corporation spent less than $50 million on an ad campaign, that was routine. But if it spent more than $50 million, that meant that whatever was being touted was going to be on enough TV ads, in newspapers, and other media that pretty soon all society would be singing that song or saying those words. I wrote about Nike campaigns selling new sneakers, tobacco company campaigns to counter anti-smoking efforts, and many other stories using that $50 million benchmark.

Buying the News

When I was a business reporter, the first thing we used to do in the morning, of course, was to read the Times and other major newspapers. And if somebody out there in the real world had bought full page ads in the papers, very often I was assigned immediately to cover that as a news story.

However, the fact that full-page ads had been purchased in the Times and other papers was not always mentioned, especially in the follow-up articles after the first story. For example, a wealthy consumer health advocate once took a full page ad pushing the idea that the fatty vegetable oils in processed foods were just as big a cause of heart attacks as animal fats. He aimed his ads directly at the country’s major food processing companies that used tons of coconut oil and palm oil. He bought ads one morning in the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. It cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. But note that reporters at these papers wrote news stories about his campaign, so that he had effectively bought himself not just ads, but also full news coverage of his issue.

Buying advertisement in the media costs a certain amount. And buying news coverage also costs a certain amount, which usually but not always costs a little more. A skillful publicist can get lots of news coverage just by staging attention-grabbing events, i.e. on the cheap. But the surefire way to get news coverage is to spend the money. Just as in the legal system, where money buys high-priced lawyers and thus buys justice, just so in the media system. Money can and does buy coverage of explicitly political and commercial campaigns as “news.”

In all of these cases, I could point to something “objective” that I used to rationalize the story to myself as “real news.” For example, I would say to myself, “the CEO himself said it.” That makes it news. Or, “more than $50 million was spent.” That means that amount of money objectively has a chance to push the society one way or another, so it should be covered. And so on. But the use of that objective standard implied at least two corollaries of great importance. First, that the truth of the claims being made in either case were not the major concern. The newsworthiness was the main concern, and the truth or the lack of it, while not irrelevant, was secondary.

Want to Know vs. Ought to Know

The second corollary — and on this I will end — is that by choosing to write these stories that met these “objective” tests, the decision was also made not to write about something else. It’s in this sense that I say that objectivity leads to a subtle but really powerful self-censorship.

Indeed, by defining news as something that must objectively exist in society and, further, that must be so large as to have millions of dollars and thousands and thousands of people buying or acting in a certain way, the code of objectivity self-censors one of the most precious and necessary of society’s treasures – that is, new ideas, that while they may not yet have millions of dollars or followers, nevertheless are potent with hope and possibility, should conditions be right, to help society survive and thrive.

As Mia Doornaert, a columnist for the Belgian newspaper Der Standaard, said recently, the untold story in the media is most often a story not that the public wants to know, but ought to know.

Why is it, as the media critic John Nichols asked on NPR recently, that Americans know more about Laci Peterson than about their failing social security system? Why is it that likely the single most important fact to emerge from the presidential debate last week—that both candidates agree that the problem of nuclear proliferation is the single most important issue facing the United States and the world today—has hardly been whispered about in the media in the two weeks since. Meanwhile of course we have plenty to chew on when it comes to the horse race: Bush’s scowls and sneers, whether John Kerry spent Christmas in Cambodia, dueling polls on who won the presidential debates, etc.

Under the professional code of objectivity, reporters strive to be “disinterested observers.” “Neutral recorders.” “Impartial witnesses.” But the evidence of history and analysis shows that journalists work within, and therefore serve with their labor, a larger system that is anything but neutral or disinterested. This is true whether the individual journalist is aware of this fact or not. The larger system has very definite commercial and sometimes ideological values and goals that the journalism, as the commodity that is produced by that system, must serve.

A New Way

If journalists became more conscious of the larger commercial and social context in which work; and more conscious, too, of the potential good they could do for society not by chasing the big scoop but rather the solid important story; and if they really steeped themselves in the details of matters truly worth exploring; then yes, I can well imagine they would start to form some firm and principled opinions of their own on public affairs. This would not be objective, but it would be useful.

And then I can well imagine that these opinions held by reporters, supported by factual expertise and connected to the wider society by the individual journalist’s engaged social conscience, might start to deeply inform our news media.

There are problems, of course.

Any journalist who tries this may not last long at his or her place of employment, under the current system. Reporters are skeptical of their sources, but editors are skeptical of their reporters. “Says who?” is the editor’s perpetual query, demanding of reporters that they “source” every scrap of fact and claim. Thus any reporter who exerts his or her independent expertise in writing or on air, is likely at the least to be questioned, at most to be rebuked or censored.

Not to mention an equally serious problem, which is that a reporter who too often challenges or quarrels with her sources will soon lose access to those sources. She will then be replaced by a neophyte to the beat who can be more easily manipulated once again by the sources, whether they are in the corporate or government world.

In my own case, I am really happy writing articles in this new and experimental journalistic style I here tentatively propose. This style calls on journalists to dig even deeper for the facts because they must not only fulfill the objective ideal in the sense of verified facts. They must also finally make some judgments on where they stand on the issue in question. They must form opinions, which to earn credibility need the support of indisputable facts.

Note, however, that my vehicle for distribution today is The McGill Report, my own web site with a membership e-mail list of 1,500, and not the mighty New York Times. Freedom to experiment has its price.

I used to joke when I was a New York Times reporter and people asked what I thought about this or that public issue, “I’m a reporter. It’s not my job to think.” But now, I am trying to.

(A fuller version of this essay, with additional history and nuance, appears here.)

Copyright @ 2004 Doug McGill

After Matter: Notes, reactions, links

Brent Cunningham in Columbia Journalism Review: Re-thinking Objectivity

Steven R. Weisman, the chief diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times and a believer in the goal of objectivity (“even though we fall short of the ideal every day”), concedes that he felt obliged to dig more when he was an editorial writer, and did not have to be objective. “If you have to decide who is right, then you must do more reporting,” he says. “I pressed the reporting further because I didn’t have the luxury of saying X says this and Y says this and you, dear reader, can decide who is right.”

Blogger and newspaper publisher Stephen Waters responds to McGill: Towards more useful journalism.

Elizabeth Albrycht says she was stunned to read this part: “When I was a business reporter, the first thing we used to do in the morning, of course, was to read the Times and other major newspapers. And if somebody out there in the real world had bought full page ads in the papers, very often I was assigned immediately to cover that as a news story.”

Ex-TV news director and blogger Terry Heaton remarks in comments: “Objectivity is a mask designed to create a sterile environment in which to sell advertising. It is not and cannot be journalism’s everlasting hegemony. Thank God we’re finally breaking free. Doug has stated his case beautifully. Now let’s continue the discussion.”

Andrew Cline at Rhetorica engages Doug McGill in an extended and intelligent response. One part of it:

Wasn’t Einstein deeply convinced about what his observations and calculations—an objective process—told him about reality leading to the Theory of Relativity? Wasn’t Neils Bohr? Or Marie Curie? Or Richard Feynman? Or Stephen Hawking?

Journalists convinced themselves, instead, not to search deeply for the facts or to evaluate according to the facts the assertions of their sources because this supposedly indicates interest—and isn’t science supposed to be disinterested, i.e. objective according to the philosophical ideal. Wasn’t Einstein interested?

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 29, 2004 12:31 AM   Print


Shouldn't the reader expect an "interested observer?" Every political reporter seems to be interested in the horse-race, but few seem to be interested enough in the issues to really enlighten the reader. So does this mean the reporter's self-perceived role is not to enlighten and inform? Then what is the reporter's role?

Posted by: Linkmeister at October 29, 2004 2:55 AM | Permalink

McGill> "What if the reporter, himself or herself, was deeply convinced – or would be deeply convinced if he or she took the time to look into the issue more closely – that one or another of the side in the argument was right?"

I choose option two (My italics above). See: Towards more useful journalism.

Posted by: sbw at October 29, 2004 9:35 AM | Permalink

McGill thinks that if journalists have to form a judgment--rather than being prevented by their code from doing so--then they will really have to dig for facts, and will do better reporting.

In support of that idea I featured the quote from Stephen Weisman of the New York Times, who admits "he felt obliged to dig more when he was an editorial writer, and did not have to be objective."

The proposition is that reporting the facts and forming an opinion are not opposed to one another. Having to make a judgment is what motivates the search for facts. It's a different way of thinking.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 29, 2004 9:44 AM | Permalink

My first published piece on this subject was in 1994. I'd come across an Animal Rights magazine with an article on how to manipulate the local media on behalf of the cause.

I felt very bad after reading that, because I could see myself in the article. "If our system is so easily manipulated by this kind of group," I said to myself, "who else is doing it."

And so I began investigating, which is why I ultimately came to the conclusion that so-called "professional" journalism is really the child of a guy (Walter Lippmann) who coined the phrase "manufacture of consent." The consummate social engineer, he saw a future governed by educated elites, who would send down their wisdom when called upon.

Objectivity is a mask designed to create a sterile environment in which to sell advertising. It is not and cannot be journalism's everlasting hegemony. Thank God we're finally breaking free.

Doug has stated his case beautifully. Now let's continue the discussion.

Posted by: Terry Heaton at October 29, 2004 10:25 AM | Permalink

Excellent piece. Thanks.

Objectivity is an indispensable tool for the reporter's typical task: gathering lots of information fast about unfamiliar topics. It's a less useful tool for presenting information, but it is often the only tool available -- short of mindless advocacy -- for stories that remain imperfectly reported when deadline comes.

I can't imagine that daily journalism will ever get much beyond doing what it does now -- and for all its failings, what it does now is no small thing. But other options for good journalism are available. This piece at least points in the direction of those options, rather than perpetuating the mindless trashing of the MSM that consumes so much bandwidth in the blogosphere.

Posted by: David Crisp at October 29, 2004 10:30 AM | Permalink

I enjoyed "the Boss"' quote. I guess Fox News isn't part of the press. And the notion of the Right dictating to the NYTimes how to cover stories--richly amusing.

In fact what McGill describes as "fair and balanced" is really just laziness. Getting quotes from both sides and cherry-picking the passages you like best is a classic way of slanting a story. At the NYTimes, as Mickey Kaus once observed, you don't even have to go through your Rolodex--you can just call a former Timesman.

This is not news to us. We all have seen a zillion times over how reporters keep going back to the same wells for the same blurb-like quotes from the same professional pundits, year in, year out. This has little to do with a false objectivity.

Posted by: Brian at October 29, 2004 12:48 PM | Permalink

My thoughts as a reader, consumer and past subject of reporting, written quickly with little post-self-editorial checking, FWIW:

Objectivity is obscuring the problem. It has become a catch word, a cliche, which is vague enough to be used by partisans and special interests to discredit the press without exposing its flaws for improvement. The goal of the special interests is to manipulate the press while leaving it malleable, to maintain its usefulness to external forces while proclaiming its untrustworthiness.

The mass media is useful as a platform, a megaphone. Much of this debate over the "ghost in the machine" is whether you believe the media is being used by forces in our democracy for undemocratic pursuits (whatever that means) or if you believe this struggle for influence is a competition between democratic forces.

What is the balance between the media as soapbox and the media as arbiter? I think the media should provide both.

What makes the press most useful as a platform for others is not objectivity, it is shallowness. Shallow reporting of a single topic in a single day, which makes it possible to tell lies and speak in abstractions. But it also allows a politician, businessman or activist to reinvent herself and her message day after day. It is also historical shallowness, a shallowness of memory or what sbw refers to as the Economist's deep background. Much of the sensationalized Chicken Little reportage offends the implacability that comes from the wisdom of experience.

The reporter should write demonstrating an awareness of the continuity of a timeline, not the discreteness of a deadline. The goal of his column is not the narrative of a beginning, middle and end; but to elicit a better follow-on discussion by elevating the bar for future debate with a deeper understanding of the issue.

I'm not convinced that reporters should strive to be the arbiters of who is more correct. They certainly should not shy away from reporting which side is correct on basic facts when it is obvious (Baghdad Bob denying tanks in Baghdad comes to mind). But reporters should strive to explain who has articulated the more cogent argument at the time of publishing, as well as whether the subject's present and past actions reflect their verbiage, and what questions remain for readers to ask themselves and others (how does this impact you and/or others based on the information the reporter has provided.)

It would be a story told to the reader that follows this outline:

- here are the arguments that were presented to me by X, Y, and Z.
- here is what I was able to determine about how X, Y and Z benefit or not based on their position.
- I am more convinced by this argument and here is why and how it would benefit me or not.
- here are other considerations that you might consider about how it might benefit you or not, or someone you know, care for or should.

Do I want a reporter to be convinced whether Adam Smith or Karl Marx was more correct and then explaining, as Paul Krugman often does, why one political partisan is more correct than another? Or do I want a reporter which examines the positions, policies and previous actions in the lens of not just he said/she said, but the lens of Smith, Marx, social markets, local labor and glocalized business? Should it be left as an open question on the non-op/ed pages?

Must all questions be left open to be "objective" reporting?

Reporters should also strive to seek out and give voice to other arguments which are more cogent but lack institutional access to the media. If it is not cogent, regardless of its instutional source, should it have access simply for balance?

Fact-checking is a way to filter distractions from from the process of gaining a deeper understanding.

Writing about issues that are NOT being discussed is a way of fighting against self-censorship. (I am interested in how the group of 500 determines why Vietnam became the central issue reported during the 2004 campaign, censoring so much else with barrels of ink, hours of airtime, billions of pixels spent on what Bush and Kerry did from 1968-1972.)

It seems too much of journalism plays in the superfluous area of "gotcha" that is important to the structural bias of news but is noise to the reader. For example, where in journalism is the idea that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and that perfection is the enemy of progress? It obviously exist in the production decisions made behind the curtain by media-types, but is also a tool for generating stories about the imperfections and decisions made by others.

Posted by: Tim at October 29, 2004 12:52 PM | Permalink

Tim: That's a very good overview of possible responses to McGill. I didn't know you are a "past subject of reporting." Could you fill us in on that?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 29, 2004 12:57 PM | Permalink

McGill thinks that if journalists have to form a judgment--rather than being prevented by their code from doing so--then they will really have to dig for facts, and will do better reporting.

That's brilliant. "He said, she said" obviates the need to do that.

Posted by: praktike at October 29, 2004 1:36 PM | Permalink

Precisely, parktike. That's why "he said, she said" is in the way.

But the other way to look at it is... He said, she said is also valuable to journalists in that it eliminates the need to make a judgment. Your job gets easier, and you're more ethical at the same time, a bonus! And let's be real: refuge is valuable when you're under attack.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 29, 2004 1:54 PM | Permalink

Jay: I didn't know you are a "past subject of reporting." Could you fill us in on that?

I've been an ad hoc "hey you" interviewee on different deployments. One reporter tried interviewing me while I was "coaxing" him from a restricted area. That made me laugh.

I've been interviewed as the primary staff guru working a regional project. I've been interviewed as a prototype developer for a trade journal. I was once interviewed as a liaison to a TV movie crew. My friends teased me as "Captain Hollywood".

My name has never appeared (to my knowledge, but I'm pretty sure) in the NY Times.

Posted by: Tim at October 29, 2004 2:06 PM | Permalink


Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 29, 2004 4:06 PM | Permalink

Journalists used to be told, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That’s been replaced by, “We stand by our story that our mother loves us, but our reporting is continuing.” It makes you wonder why that reporting wasn’t done before publication.

A good reporter should be willing to prove the story is wrong, before publication. Take the story apart before a thousand line editors do it for you in front of everyone.

There’s a bland objectivity that says, Don’t go there because you might be taking a side; don’t go there either because you might upset someone; don’t go there or there or there. There’s an aggressive objectivity that says, Go there and there and there. Talk to as many sides as possible, understand as much as possible, and get all those sides into the same story.

I love the passion of blogs. I miss journalism’s passion for objectivity. How many blogs will I have to read to get the whole story on the missing explosives? I only get a slice of the story from the New York Times, a contradicting slice somewhere else and another elsewhere.

If everybody joins the Objectivity Isn’t Cool Movement, we’ll see more problem stories that fall apart quickly and the further growth of competing partisan realities. There’ll be a place in the market to fill this void. Maybe somebody will market it as The Whole Story News: Believe It Here First.

Posted by: Brian Cubbison at October 29, 2004 11:29 PM | Permalink

I found this descriptive of something often left out of the calculations: The first and most elemental experience a journalist has is the fear of being wrong.

Because deep down, the reporter knows that the sources have all the chips. They have the information. They have the power. And so the sources, once one’s story comes out in the newspaper or on TV, also have the ability to say to the reporter and the editor and even to the whole world, “Wait, Mr. Reporter, you got the story all wrong."

If many of journalism's bad habits are a result of seeking refuge from attacks, then the attackers and the bad habits are producing each other.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 29, 2004 11:31 PM | Permalink

I don't know. I'm trying to think up some examples of bad habits, attack responses, and structural problems within the media that apply.

I've been getting the feeling that the less talented have been becoming journalists in big papers/tv networks (low pay for instance) and that has had an adverse effect on quality of reporting. By taking the safe bet, and the media's annoying group mentality (they hate breaking some stories alone), this has effectively told reporters to be report the same stuff as other networks...for fear of being outscooped, and for fear of being wrong. The less talented and more fearful journalists easily can take this route. (Fuck you Drudge for taking advantage of this press weakness)

There's also the issue of access to sources and anonymous sourcing. The safe and bad habit of rampant anonymous sourcing creates legitimate attackers, but also leads to a host of other issues currently being played out with Novak, Russert and Wilgoren among others in the Plame case (whoops guess not Novak!). Do you burn your source if it turns out they're wrong? On the surface, this might seem logical to do, but what if later information turns up and they turn out to be right? Also, do you lose access to potential sources for fear that you might burn them even if they're right?

Bush had done quite a number on the press on the issue of access by giving his message to more friendly media alternatives. Perhaps they need to rethink the "gotcha" attitude inherent in today's media as well, but this comes at the cost of reporting if the president doesn't answer questions. There doesn't seem to be a question to me that both the president and the media hold culpability in the access issue. This seems to be another example of attackers and bad habits producing each other. To maintain access to Bush, journalists have to take Bush's words at face value rather than getting the story right. But this access leads to attackers who also rightly attack journalists for being soft. An endless cycle that could result in disaster unless a solution is found.

Big journalism does need to be more fluid in its ability to correct mistakes, and that should be taken into account, but there definitely is an issue with losing authority and trust if you constantly have to admit mistakes publicly. This may actually have the unintended consequence of damaging democracy if the public isn't educated to know that mistakes are going to happen in stories. Rather the need to correct those mistakes quickly is more important. The inflated attitude of "all the news that's fit to print," that the newspapers have a hold of objective truth may seem elitist, but at the same time, that same authority attracts us to that source.
Admitting mistakes may turn out to be just as bad for the papers as not admitting them unless there's a middle ground.

Getting late and I'm rambling more than I want...will stop here.

Posted by: Steve at October 30, 2004 4:32 AM | Permalink

If many of journalism's bad habits are a result of seeking refuge from attacks, then the attackers and the bad habits are producing each other.

Is there another side to this coin? Or worse, is this a chicken or egg story?

Have sources come to understand the commercial bias of the press as mass media and developed means of attack as a way to gain a check/balance?

The source knows that he loses control over the information once given to the reporter. Withhold information and the reporter may just fill in the blanks on her own or with an opponent's sound bite.

In addition, sources realize the difficulty in their ability to make a correction or challenge a misleading narrative in the aftermath.

Private individuals are made into public figures, reporters dig thru their trash, occupy their lawns and public relations firms are needed to manage perceptions against billion dollar corporations and the stories read by multi-millionaire talking heads.

Poor babies.

Posted by: Tim at October 30, 2004 12:45 PM | Permalink

The internet and democratic debate, Pew Internet & American Life Project, (pdf report)

Wired Americans hear more points of view about candidates and key issues than other citizens. They are not using the internet to screen out ideas with which they disagree.

Posted by: Tim at October 30, 2004 1:33 PM | Permalink

"McGill thinks that if journalists have to form a judgment--rather than being prevented by their code from doing so--then they will really have to dig for facts, and will do better reporting."

This assumes that journalists will tell us all the facts they dig in the course of forming the opinion. But what if journalists don't tell us all the facts they know, and just give a shallow story with an opinion?

Of course, if journalists at different outlets report various facts from the same story, and differing points of view, then consumers of news can simply read/view several reports. But that's pretty cumbersome, and it goes against the business model of the media. Media owners want to keep consumers glued to a single source--that's how media makes money, by getting and holding viewership/readership. You get your consumer, you shove a lot of news at him, and sandwich in some lucrative advertising too. If your consumer is busy switching channels or newspapaper, you're in trouble.

That's why the web is such a threat. It is in opposition to the single-source model.

This is something of a ramble, I know, but I had to start somewhere.

Posted by: dr. cookie at October 30, 2004 3:07 PM | Permalink

Hi, McGill here, thanks everyone for your stimulating comments. A few back from me now:

1. Linkmeister, I love your formulation "Shouldn't the reader expect an 'interested observer'?” Nicely said!

2. Stephen Waters, I wonder if you could explain a little more what you mean by saying it’s best when reporters “travel light.” Light of what? Your phrase connotes to me a worrisome empty-headedness, which to me is just the problem. Seems to me like many journalists have a head full of factoids that support storylines, both of which are conceptually weightless and therefore require no sense of corresponding social responsibility. Whereas, if reporters kept focused on hard actual facts linked to a knowledge of history, community, and principles, those things have serious weight that would then engender a corresponding sense of responsibility to country and community. All that factoids and storylines do is feed the mindless media beast of endless appetite. P.S. -- I sure like your wonderful sentences “Individuals, journalists, and society operate by the same methods, towards the same end. Lay one on top of the other, like concentric circles, and they would share the same curiosity, thirst for understanding, and sense of the future.”

3. Jay, thanks for putting in the remark by Stephen Weisman, who is usually a reporter, that he “felt obliged to dig more when he was an editorial writer, and did not have to be objective." That is precisely what I’m thinking -- that if reporters, not only editorial writers, felt that they had to connect their reporting with their personal convictions and conscience on each and every story, that journalism would improve. I often return in my own mind to this question: “If connecting one’s reporting to one’s conscience is necessary in investigative journalism, the profession’s highest and most socially useful practice, how come making this connection is not considered necessary in everyday reporting and with every single story?”

4. Tim, you gave me a ton to think about, thanks. I agree with you that objectivity is “a catch word, a cliché, which is vague enough to be used by partisans and special interests to discredit the press without exposing its flaws for improvement.” I was especially taken by your suggested format for more usefully written stories, allowing for more useful analysis by the reporter, showing different sides and ending by suggesting other questions and avenues of inquiry a reader could take. New journalistic writing conventions need to be formed, and both writers and readers need to become more familiar with the shared understandings about how those new conventions are to be understood and what they mean. I am definitely not advocating that all reporters now become opinion-peddlers. But I am suggesting it’s a good idea for reporters to push themselves harder to come to some personal conclusions as to the veracity and import of what they are reporting, and then to explicitly describe some of that thinking for readers.

5. Cubbison, appreciate very much your distinction between mild and strong forms of objectivity. The strong form, that sends reporters to dig in every possible nook and cranny, is double-edged. If there is no framework for the facts thus exposed, all you have is more info overload, right? Facts need frames. Michael Parenti has a lovely essay about facts without frames that he calls “Media Moments.” Like senior moments, media moments are those times when you put down a story after having ingested a million facts from every direction on a given topic, and then suddenly realizing that you have no earthly idea what you just learned nor even remembering what you just read.

6. Steve, your point on the quality of people getting into journalism strikes a chord. I fear that journalism is becoming like politics in that regard – who in their right mind, noting all the confusion in the profession, plus the ever-more-limited chance to do anything deep or meaningful in it, would ever want to get involved? Looking just at newspapers for a moment, I see a split in the profession between the small handful of elite newspapers and the thousands of small papers around the country. Only the elite papers pay the salaries, and offer the chance for a lifetime career with a chance for growth, that would interest many smart young folks. The salaries at local papers are so awful that smart young people rightly see those jobs as a stepping stone into another profession. There’s not much incentive there for really talented people to deeply invest in a profession that if done well will help democracy, and if done poorly will tear it down quick.

7. Andrew Cline at, let’s talk. I am really glad you brought up the distinction between “the ideal of objectivity as a stance from the interested, science-based objectivity as process.” As I understand the distinction you are making, I was dealing in my essay entirely with the former not the latter – i.e., objectivity as a professional code that has had many different meanings and practices accrete to it over the years, often in a haphazard and illogical way. Yet the latter, science-based objectivity, it seems to me played a really important historical role in the origin of objectivity as a professional journalistic practice. Objectivity in journalism arose when objectivity was a fad throughout society, correct? When science first rode high; when first Darwin and then Einstein became role models to us all; and when “objective science” led to all sorts of great inventions and the promise of the orderly unfolding of history for that matter too. That faddish acceptance of “objectivity” extended as well to the study of history and the social sciences – sociology, psychology, anthropology. All those fields have in recent decades suffered an intellectual crisis similar to the one that journalism is right now going through, when “objectivity” became patently insufficient as a guide to scholarship and to the production of really useful insight. I think of Clifford Geertz in anthropology, who built a career urging anthropoplogists to embrace “thick description,” a less scientific and more literary way of describing and explaining social reality. What I am urging is essentially more “thick description” in journalism.

8. Andrew again, thanks also for responding as a rhetorician to my essay. Insights from this direction will be tremendously useful in helping us sort out the way forward in journalism, I think. Because one area where journalists must become more conscious of their craft is in the way that as part of our training (either in j-school or through newsroom apprenticeships) we imbibe, usually unconsciously, the skills of rhetorical persuasion. These then become a part of our toolkit as reporters and writers. The unconsciousness of this process is the problem. For example, when journalist learn how to attribute quotes most effectively in story terms, they are employing “appeal to authority,” a well-known rhetorical move. Yet what, exactly, are they using this rhetorical technique to persuade readers of? On whose behalf are they persuading, and what specific points are they trying to persuade readers of, and toward what ultimate purpose? How can we move this area of study forward in a way that’s useful to journalism?

That’s all for now, just for starters …


Posted by: Doug Mcgill at October 30, 2004 4:40 PM | Permalink

I think Doug Mcgill has stepped into the world of CRITICAL THINKING. My brother John is something of an expert in this area. Doug and John should talk. John is at

Posted by: Joseph Corcoran at October 30, 2004 5:38 PM | Permalink

McGill: I wonder if you could explain a little more what you mean by saying it’s best when reporters “travel light.” Light of what?

Doug, pardon the necessities of short blog comments, which lead to uncertainty. I agree we don't need the innocence of Peter Sellers' Chauncy Gardiner in Jerzy Kozinski's "Being There". But consider the opposite: My Dad once said, after a heavy meal, as he paddled off to lie down on the sofa,, "I think I'll go lie down and preconceive some notions."

To travel light is to approach a story with as few preconceptions as possible, and of those encumbering you, with at least a willingness to change your mind. You are not obliged to jettison experience and understanding -- That would make you a spinmeister's pushover. Let's go for a zen-like balance -- at peace, open to the world, and prepared to respond to it. Montaigne said "I'll run to the truth and embrace it as soon as I see it coming." But he checked to see it was truth first.


Re: Tim's conventions of coverage, I've often sought different alternatives between story, analysis and editorial, but it is hard to drag a newsroom that is set in its ways and on deadline. As we open blogdom in our conventional press, I think it will happen. (BTW, the future has room for conventional press.)

Re: Andrew's rhetoric. Not just for journalists. Anyone is disadvantaged without it. I'd like to see more links about Joseph Corcoran's brother's Critical Thinking, too. (Speedy communications has made us dangerously susceptible to demagoguery... as this election has painfully exposed.) This is another instance where "Individuals, journalists, and society operate by the same methods."

Posted by: sbw at October 31, 2004 12:11 AM | Permalink

One of the problems with breaking free of the standard of objectivity and with the challenges to the authority of the MSM is that we have to decide what to replace it with. How do we find something that transmits reality more accurately than our current system does? Figuring that out requires wrestling with the age old question of what reality is and how we know what we know. Here goes nothing; long and philosophical post coming up. I hope it makes sense at some time other than 2 in the morning.

From my location here in Michigan, I have no way to personally see for myself what’s going on in Washington or Iraq. Literally everything I know about events in those places came to me through another source. If DC vanished and the media/internet pretended it hadn’t, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference (leaving aside word of mouth from my relatives, but that can’t carry complex politics anyway). So my dilemma as a reader is to sort through what I see and try to construct a picture of reality from those pieces. Reporters may be closer to the action, but they too face a similar dilemma. They can’t observe everything the government does, they have to ask.

I know that “the facts” are probably the most abused words in the English language. They are regularly used when people really should say “my interpretation of the facts” or “my opinion.” I know that it’s very easy to confuse what ought to be true, in order to be consistent with my beliefs, with what is actually true. I know that people are unlikely to believe that things they agree with are biased, whereas truths they disagree with they believe are biased. I know that bias is not just a question of including true information, but also of what you leave out. How, then, do we find reality?

One way to find reality is to find consensus. Everyone agrees, for example, that Bush and Kerry are the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, for example. A subset of this way is to find people speaking contrary to their bias. (Presumably they are only doing so because the other side brought the issue up). If the Bush administration were to say, for example, “Yes, we messed up at Al Qa Qaa,” or Kerry were to say, “No, I did not talk to as many foreign leaders as I said I did,” I would have great confidence in that statement because they have no motivation to say that unless it is true. (except if the admission is to cover up a greater problem) As long as politicians are willing to admit things they’d rather not admit, “he said, she said” works, at least at a minimum level, for finding reality. He said she misstated the budget deficit; she said she was using the projected numbers, and his numbers were in fact the current ones; and he agrees that that is the case, or at least lets silence indicate his assent.

The problem is this administration (more than most is my impression) won’t admit anything. That may well be the case on the Kerry side too, and I’m just not seeing it, but I particularly notice this about the Bush administration. The “he said, she said” model is stuck because (at least) one side won’t say what the reporters need them to say to create consensus. Even if reporters present them with what would seem to be clear and irrefutable evidence, they just won’t say it. The responsible thing for a reality seeker to do when presented with someone who disagrees with their interpretation of events is to ask, “What do they see that I don’t?” Dismissing everything I disagree with as lies is no way to find reality because no one person ever has the whole story, and no one is omniscient. Unfortunately, it takes two to build consensus. Going back to the last sentence of the previous paragraph, if, knowing she says her numbers are projected, he continues to maintain that her numbers are wrong, there is no consensus. When politicians refuse to play the consensus game, this model cannot find reality.

If they won’t play the consensus game, there is another way to determine reality, and that is by trusting a source. The MSM has long been the common, established authority for determining the truth, largely because of its standard of objectivity. Also, in the past we couldn’t see behind the media filter like we can with the internet today, and I don’t believe politicians challenged the legitimacy of the MSM the way Bush did with the New York Times in the third debate.

The difficulty is that the authority of the MSM is breaking up at the same time as the consensus test is coming back with a huge error message. How do we figure out what reality is now? One way is to pick another source to trust. The problem is that there are so many sources with such radically different viewpoints that we can easily end up with a fragmented reality of everyone trusting their own, very different, news source. This has already happened to a large extent, and the PIPA report shows the results of that, but it could get much worse. That’s unfortunate, especially since taking collective action as a nation requires something approximating agreement on what’s going on. Also, if objectivity collapses as a standard, we don’t have a good replacement standard yet. The obvious standard is that I’ll trust the stuff I agree with, but that creates echo chambers that easily spiral out of touch with whatever reality there is.

What we need is a new set of standards for determining what’s real. Hashing that out will take some major debate, but one possibility is to take the interpretation of reality that’s the most inclusive, that does the best job of explaining how the other side came to the conclusion it did.

Posted by: ErikaEM at October 31, 2004 2:00 AM | Permalink

There is a very logical reason GWB will "not admit anything" ---- actually, two ---- the press, and John Kerry. When he press asks the "admit your mistakes" question to GWB, this is a "gotcha" "When did you stop beating your wife" type of question. ErikaEM (or anyone) do you really believe if GWB did admit mistakes, he would be hailed in the press for his honesty? The truth is our immature press would put his admission on the front page for at least a month, with the accompanying distortions, misrepresentions and additional "context" from unnamed sources. As for Kerry, sound bites from GWB's "admission" would be playing in homes all across the land in heavy rotation. But what about Kerry? Has anyone asked him about his mistakes? If so, please send a link. But I've noticed it doesn't matter one way or the other, Kerry and his minions have been flooding the zone with "Bush won't admit mistakes" and ErikaEM is just one of many who have bought this wholesale. In other words, as for the "confess your sins" gambit ---- you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. Thanks, MSM, for helping Kerry with his campaign!

Posted by: paladin at October 31, 2004 8:11 AM | Permalink

What is important for my piece is that people speaking contrary to their bias are automatically credible. Admitting mistakes is only a subset of that. By "not admit anything" I mean this administration seems to have a greater than average tendency to deny things they don't like, even in the face of seemingly irrefutable evidence. Without that admission, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what is, in fact, true. Paladin has a good point that candidates who admit mistakes are ripped apart in the press. Candidates certainly have a very good reason to say only things they would like to have repeated. That is why when they do admit mistakes, or admit that something is happening that they wouldn't want to happen, they are especially credible. I am thinking in particular of Clinton's admission that he had an affair.

Posted by: ErikaEM at October 31, 2004 9:30 AM | Permalink

I love the comparisons between "objectivity" in journalism and "objectivity" in science.

Yes, scientists are interested; in fact, most of the time they're downright hopeful to prove one thing or another. So I'd say they're crusaders who rely on *empirical* measures -- but they're not necessarily objective.

And all discussion of the value of objective vs. advocate vs. subject-matter-expert vs. crusading journalism still falls back on one point, touched on in this essay and elsewhere:

"What they need to know vs. what they want to hear."

Scientists could concoct a dog food that they prove, empirically and enthusiastically, cures cancer in dogs. They can get out there and advocate it until breathless. But it won't help one animal if dogs won't eat it.

Posted by: Jay Small at October 31, 2004 10:05 AM | Permalink

Dogs will eat anything. Readers will too.

Posted by: John Macdonald at October 31, 2004 10:30 AM | Permalink

Great overview of the difficulties facing contemporary journalism.

Another issue I perceive that has not yet appeared in this thread is the challenge of specialization in modern society. 100 years ago, most journalists were far more likely to have some personal experiences, acquired skills or formal education that would help them understand the subjects of their stories. Life, in general, was simpler then.

Today, the average media generalist has only superficial understanding - at best - of the topics they cover. This absence of "domain knowledge" about the complex, multi-faceted world they cover makes them far more vulnerable to being mislead by those with an agenda, and much more likely to fall into the comforting role of the "human tape recorder" that finds refuge in the safe harbor of the he-said, she-said story frame.

Example #1:

The shallow idiocy of the reporting about re-importation of drugs from Canada as a viable public policy. Any thinking adult will quickly realize that any market that is only 8% as large as the US will be physically unable to accomodate significant demand from US buyers, without untenable distortions to the Canadian health care system and inevitable counter-strategies from drug companies. This "solution" will never play out on a large scale over any meaningful period of time. Yet, the credulous reporting from media professionals who exhibit complete ignorance of international trade, intellectual property, pharmaceutical development or simple logic continues apace. The MSM story line is that this is a real policy alternative. Pathetic....

Example #2:

Media coverage of the forest-products industry often refers, uncritically, to the concept of sustainable yield. This term is used to imply that timber companies are praciticing sustainable forestry, re-planting forests after harvest, managing land in ways that support a natural ecosystem, and leaving virgin tracts alone. Of course, almost none of this true. Although timber companies will re-plant monoculture tree farms on land they own, the natural ecosytems are destroyed, watersheds are permanently disrupted, and old-growth stands, outside a few protected Parks, are continuing to disappear, all over the world. The US Forest Sevice is still under the Dept. of Agriculture, after all.

I could list examples all day, but the point is that most J-School grads will inevitablty fail to report with insight or courage on subjects requiring actual knowledge they do not possess. They are at a terminal disadvantage in the current model.

I humbly suggest that a new model might be better, one that takes people with actual knowledge and brings them into journalism as a second career, or even as a sideline. The best case-studies for this model come from education, where career teachers are often out-performed by those who come to teaching after succeeding in real-world careers. The obvious, recent example for this in journalism is the massively distributed knowledge-base of the blogosphere, which will often bring exponentially greater expereince and intellect to certain issues than any single journalist, or even an entire network news staff (hello CBS).

This will not be a solution that addresses every deficiency or is practical in every setting where modern journalism falls short. However, I submit that this approach could address some serious shortcomings that face journalists who are expected to explain the complex world to the rest of us. Far easier, in my view, to teach the practice of journalism to an airpline pilot who can write about commercial aviation, than to throw a complex story about aviation to a J-School grad who does not understand how airplanes fly (see: Bernoulli).

In an effort to gain self-respect, J-Schools have tried to make the simple practice of journalism into a Guild, akin to Medical School or something equally difficult. Let's admit this is all just a stylized form of interpersonal communication, and that the basics can be passed to those who have already established themselves in other fields.

Posted by: Evor Glens at October 31, 2004 11:52 AM | Permalink

Great topic. I just wanted to bring up CJR's newest piece on objectivity and the havoc wreaked on science reporting by "balance games" of he said / she said, etc. I went on about it at some length here.

Posted by: gavin_rose at October 31, 2004 1:06 PM | Permalink

ErikaEM, I agree with you that "speaking contrary to their bias" has more impact. I read The Weekly Standard because I'm more impressed when Bill Kristol criticizes GWB than when Josh Marshall does the same. But as for Bill Clinton---I honestly don't remember, did he confess to an affair before or after he looked us in the eye and said he never had sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky? Was it before or after he dodged the conviction bullet on his impeachment? Was the political danger to him that great, or just managable?

Posted by: paladin at October 31, 2004 2:04 PM | Permalink

Doug Mcgill: wonderful, wonderful view of what goes on behind the curtain. Thank you.

"when 'objectivity' became patently insufficient as a guide to scholarship and to the production of really useful insight..."

Perhaps I'm not grasping subtleties here, but...

Yes, 'objectivity' as tabula rasa isn't going to happen, and wouldn't be desirable. But how about objectivity as prediction?
As Timothy Burke put it: "The reasonable thing to do is be predictive. What information would change your mind, whatever your feelings are? ...Is there any series of events that would change your assessment? ...If there’s nothing that fits the bill...Stop writing about it."

Posted by: Anna at October 31, 2004 4:02 PM | Permalink

Evor Glens,
The only thing that makes such reporting on drug reimportation from Canada problematic is Bush administration coddling of cartels. The slightest interest of the Bush administration in the welfare of US citizens could solve the problem in minutes. Wake up, dude.

Posted by: Ben Franklin at October 31, 2004 7:33 PM | Permalink

Hey Ben:

I took you for an educated man, unfortunatley you disappoint once again by ignoring my thesis -- in this case about journalism -- to make an inane, tangential swipe at Bush.

Maybe it is just the bewitching hour before the election that has you all wound-up; perhaps you need to go tear down some more BC04 yard signs to soothe your angst.

You seem to be absolutley clueless about the drug issue; pick on an issue your own size, like "outsourcing the hunt at Tora Bora!" or "380 tons!" or something equally bombastic. Health care policy is too important for your simplistic slogans. Cartel coddling - eh gads!

Happy Halloween

Posted by: Evor Glens at October 31, 2004 8:31 PM | Permalink

The field of modern journalism has largely failed to comprehend the implications of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, published nearly a decade ago :

There is no favored vantage point that towers over all others, and all speak from a place which is, if not a slant, then certainly a distinct viewpoint : this holds for all beings, journalists as well.

In denying that - and in propping up this tired myth of "noble objectivity" - journalism willingly accepts blinders and so allows monsters to creep in.

But to be more blunt, with semaphores :

1) The Powell Memo.

2) The grafting of highly sophisticated tecnnologies of PR and political manipulation techniques onto both imperatives of corporate greed and also newly emergent theological doctrines from the religious right that are as odd as those of cargo cultists ( or "New Age" concepts grafted to rightist agendas, as Susskind described ) but far more menacing for promoting religious ideologies that are expansionist and now increasingly and explicitly amoral in the service of an overall goal : "Dominion".

Another issue neglected by this generally excellent take by Doug McGill - the problem posed by forces which intentionally game the "objectivity" he said-she said framework, hence - pseudo objective journalist's narrative : "X says Global Warming is a big problem. However, Y says it's a hoax because everyone knows scientists are biased and - furthermore - they're not actually sure if the Earth goes around the Sun or vice-versa."

: One of the the main driving forces which is undermining mainstream beliefs in objectivity is a quite nakedly religious force.

Now : take the trend of increasingly concentrated corporate control of media networks, and pair that with the growth in far right Christian television and radio broadcast networks, the growth in far right talk radio (some of whose starts explicitly hint - in naked expressions of hate speech - at genocides or pogroms), and also the rise of FOX, and the Sinclair Broadcasting Network....

And there you have have a gravitational force which steadily and irresistably pulls the sentiments of average Americans further (a force with little compunction about lying or distorting facts for political gain) away from the sensibilities of "mainstream" media professionals.

The problem here, in a nutshell, is that mainstream journalists (the best of them, anyway) think in terms of edification, of raising awareness, while other lords of media have no reservation about engaging in blatant propaganda.

Posted by: Troutfishing at October 31, 2004 11:42 PM | Permalink


Not sure I track your arguments -- many conservatives are like me, secular & liberterian in philosophy & outlook. It seems to me that both Falwell & the Pope have less pull now than 10 years ago.

Anyway, here is a copy of an email sent by Leslie Cockburn, a CBS producer at 60 minutes, to the spouse of a National Guard soldier in Iraq, reprinted today at Powerline.


She is seeking confirmation of a media-dictated story line and is fishing among the Guard families for any discontent. Note that she is not seeking truth in any larger sense; rather she has an agenda and she wants to get some help so she can run with it -- Mary Mapes all over again. 60 Minutes is the classic case of MSM propoganda in the service of the left, but that would not fit your worldview, so I doubt you will address this.

Explain again how the MSM is interested in real edification. I guess they did not get that memo at CBS.

As per our conversation, I am producing a 60 Minutes piece (with Kroft) which addresses the following:

In light of our recently passed 416 billion dollar defense appropriations bill, I am disturbed to hear stories of lack of the most basic supplies among the troops in Iraq.

These include out of date weapons, lack of radios, inadequate water supplies, problems with vests, humvees, troops forced to purchase their own equipment etc. I would like to hear from any family who knows of such problems. I am particularly interested in shortages within the last few months.

I am also interested in maintenance problems...backlogs of repairs on vehicles and helicopters that may put troops in danger.

In looking at the stories from the field, I am trying to determine whether the Guard is experiencing more difficulties than other forces and also whether these problems continue regardless of promises to fix them.

If any of the families have documentary evidence of problems, photos from the field , home videos and letters etc, I am of course interested.

My email is [email address and phone number omitted]; I am based in Washington DC.

Many thanks,


Posted by: Evor Glens at November 1, 2004 8:15 AM | Permalink

An amendment to that comment : "decade" there, at the top of my comment, should read "century".

so : "The field of modern journalism has largely failed to comprehend the implications of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, published nearly a century ago : "

Posted by: Troutfishing at November 1, 2004 10:21 AM | Permalink

Evor Glens - I have to assume then that you are unaware of what studies about the influence of the Christian Religious Right in the US Congress and in Federal government overall reveal :

Astonishing gains since the early 90's - when the Religious Right first took over the Republican Party of Texas.

Here is one entry point - a post I made on this at : or, go directly to 1) Theocracy Watch :

"The graphs and tables below tell a story. They portray a Congress that is highly polarized, and they dispel two important myths:

Myth 1) There isn't much difference between the two political parties.

Myth 2) The Religious Right has grown into obscurity.

According to ratings of key organizations of the Religious Right, members of Congress who support their agenda overwhelmingly dominate the Republican Party." (from Theocracy Watch)

2) The Yurica Report ( especially Conquering by Stealth and Deception. Kathleen Yurica has been covering the Religious Right in American steadily since, at least, the mid-1980's - when she was commissioned by Congress to write a report on possible violations of tax exempt status by Pat Robertson's 700 Club ) .

I've been covering the Religious Right recently, at length : Blog on the Religious Right, etc. and Daily Kos : Religious Right

Acknowledgement of the rise of this political bloc is crucial and also germane to this conversation :

For the fact that this political tendency has no use whatsoever for such notions or ideals as "truth" or "objectivity" - except insofar as those help to advance an overall theocratic agenda.

Posted by: Troutfishing at November 1, 2004 10:51 AM | Permalink

OK, gates are crashing down. Objectivity is going out of style, even as an ideal. And journalists are scared or excited or generally nervous that the earth is shaking beneath our feet...

But has that much really changed? I think we represent a very small percentage of people who pay a great deal of attention to the media, to politics, and to the Internet -- and especially to the intersections of those areas. Our perspectives are skewed: A little blip makes our heartbeats skip.

If anything comes out of this, and seeps beyond the media-politico-tech-savvy, I can only dream that it would be a renewal of the idea of participatory democracy. Democracy as conversation. Our tradition is based on the idea of citizens taking on the responsibility of talking politics with each other. Too bad our culture frowns on it.

In my little dream world, the next president actually challenges Americans to take on this responsibility, and start changing that culture. Not likely: Whenever politicians say stuff like that, it always comes out all wrong and uncool.

Posted by: Joe Stange at November 1, 2004 11:26 AM | Permalink


Thanks for the thoughtful response with links and all. I was not fully aware of these arguments and reports and will review them in more detail when time permits.

With respect to IRS investigations, I read somewhere that the NAACP was being investigated as well. Do you have an opinion about this?

Praying for a clean, quick result today...


Posted by: Evor Glens at November 2, 2004 6:58 AM | Permalink

From the Intro