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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 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