The ongoing debate about journalism, bias and objectivity erupted recently with the Washington Post’s release of new rules for social media. The rules themselves were mostly commonsensical, but the way they were written and promulgated suggested that Washington Post journalists employ social media such as Twitter and Facebook at their own peril – exactly the wrong message to be sending. If I were employed by the Post, how could I possibly be reassured by the prospect of “many, many discussions” with top editors about what I could and couldn’t say?
“Neutrality” of the kind sought by traditional media outlets such as the Post is supposed to emulate the scientific method – a cool elucidation of facts from a messy reality.
Here’s how the “neutral” stance theoretically works: There’s a political process between competing interests in society; journalists play an important role in that by explaining what’s happening, exposing wrongdoing, hypocrisy, etc. So far so good. The foundation of this approach is the civics-book idea that on some level, we’ll remember that we’re all in this crazy democratic experiment together, we share the same values, and thus will look for honest brokers – journalists – to help us understand what’s happening.
But it’s been clear for a while that this goal is illusory. The era of the media-as-honest broker is over. The Washington Post and other establishment organs just haven’t realized it yet.
To be an honest broker, people must view you as trustworthy. But the traditional media long ago lost the trust of large swaths of the public. Why? Well, that’s a whole Ph.D. thesis. But look at some of the events of the past 40 years – Watergate, Vietnam, 9/11, Katrina. Political institutions lost public trust. The media were and are part of the political ecosystem and played a role in that loss. They enabled massive screwups and trafficked in cynicism (see the runup to the Iraq war and all political coverage from 1988 on). Moreover, Tom Edsall argues in CJR that the increasingly educated and liberal demographics of media employees skewed coverage away from, and at times against, the concerns of conservative, working class Americans. And Steve Buttry writes about how the elevation of neutrality came at the expense of other important journalistic values.
Unlike the political system, which kicks people and parties out of office from time to time, the media didn’t self-correct. It doubled down on neutrality – not just as a journalism methodology but as a cocoon: we stand outside and above what’s going on, and thus don’t have to seriously examine our role in it.
Without trust, an honest broker is just a broker, with no privileged claim on the truth.
But this is actually a good thing. It means you have to compete in a vast, ever-growing marketplace with a lot of other “truths” – some of them lies. Contending in that marketplace is one of the basic functions of journalism. If media outlets insist on trying to be neutral arbiters between political interests – without examining who and what those interests represent or if their arguments are credible – they’ll continue to inch toward irrelevance.
But what does a post-neutral world look like? Edsall’s solution – “We’re liberal – but objective!” – doesn’t sound promising. Nor do I buy the “slippery slope” argument: that all journalists end up wearing their opinions on their sleeves, that their work devolves into advocacy, that we all end up screaming at each other (that is, more than we do already).
There is room for all kinds of journalism. Talking Points Memo seems to do well enough combining smart reporting with a liberal perspective. That said, I don’t think the Washington Post or New York Times should become TPM – or, to cite a more apt example, the Guardian. Such an abrupt change would be jarring and out of character.
Rather, it would help simply to back off and see what happens. You know, evolve. Stop loudly proclaiming and enforcing neutrality and let the work speak for itself. Allow more, not less, flexibility in how journalists can express themselves. As a journalist, I don’t think my opinions about political issues are particularly interesting – unless I have knowledge or have done research about a topic and actually have something material to say about it. In that case, being able to comment on it and engage the public makes for better journalism. And good journalism that asks and answers important questions should be able to withstand partisan or ideological criticism.