(cross-posted @ FreedomDemocrats.org)
There is much question recently about the current changes in journalism in response to outlets like Fox News and the Internet. And the questions are valid. Does the rise of opinion journalism—blogs, O’Reilly, Air America—do a disservice to our democracy? Is the loss of the presumption of objectivity in the media mean that voters and the populace at large will cease to trust the news that they get? Or, worse, will they be perpetually misinformed?
Opinion journalism is hardly new. It’s existed as long as the field of journalism itself has existed. But, the first seriously modern op-ed pages didn’t come around until September 21st, 1970 in the pages of the New York Times. And ever since, the op-ed page and the editorial have been sharing an awkward coexistence with the mantra of objectivity in journalism. Modern Journalism is typified by the idea that a reporters own personal beliefs should not in anyway influence his writing, nor should they ever be apparent to the audience.
It hasn’t always been this way. In the early days of our American Democracy, opinion journalism was the order of the day. Newspapers were nearly exclusively biased. Are we returning to the old way? I think we are in many respects. And I think this is good. The idea of any human being being truly objective is bunk, and we all know it. There are facts, and those facts are independent of the person who reports them, but the facts themselves are only part of the story. It is the interpretation of those facts that makes them relevant to a human audience. And humans can’t help but come to the table with a stance and an opinion, no matter how hard they try and hide from it. To pretend that a journalist can be objective is to lie to ourselves.
The death of your own father is not news to you unless you have a subjective reason for caring about his death. Would the death of a squirrel make the nightly news? Of course not. But, why not? It’s the death of a living being. The reason is that humans have no serious emotional attachment to squirrels (well, my grandmother does, but she’s an exception). We do have serious emotional attachments to our own fathers. We have a vested interest, a subjective one, in politics, world affairs, and local happenings. That is what makes news news—our subjective interest.
Science is mistakenly seen as a bastion of objectivity. It is a place where the facts speak, and the scientist reports, or so goes the thinking. But, it isn’t true. Science is worthless without analysis. Charles Darwin wrote, in response to critics who felt The Origin of Species was too theoretical, that “All Observation must be for or against some point of view if it is to be of any service.”
About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go in to a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!
Journalism, like science, is not the act of counting pebbles. It is the act of deciding what is and what is not important for all of us to know. And that is a personal decision on the part of the journalist, or on the part of the Paper that employs that journalist. As such, it cannot be objective—It would be a contradiction in terms.
Most blogs are not Journalism at all. Mine is certainly no such thing. But, they are certainly prone to opinion. And this “pronation” (is this a word?) coupled with true fact gathering may indeed produce the best kind of journalism—fact gathering with a purpose—and it will all be instant, searchable, and available to anyone with an Internet connection. Blogs (at least the best of them) have the potential to represent Darwin’s Philosophy of Science applied to Journalism.
I don’t think the shift has happened yet. The best true journalism out there is still occurring largely in traditional print media. And traditional print media is the least comfortable with what is happening in their field. But the shift is happening.
Of course, the criticism of the kind of journalism I’m proposing has teeth. The worst possible “journalism” is of the Bill O’Reilly variety. (In truth, Bill is NOT a journalist. But, his audience often confuses him as one. And to be fair, he confuses himself as one). The fear is that his version is exactly what journalism will devolve into if we aren’t careful. (I think we’ve already opened up that can of worms, and the worms ain’t going back in.)
The beauty of blogs is that they are transparent. You don’t have to ask the question, “what does the writer believe.” It’s all out in the open. I know that if I goto Andrew Sullivan’s Blog that I’m reading a blog by a British-Gay-Republican who once was a de facto attack dog for the administration but has, in last number of years, turned on them with a vengeance. It’s all there. In traditional media, we don’t know, or we aren’t supposed to know, what the writer thinks, where they are coming from, and as such we have a hard time seeing fact from opinion.
Whether we like it or not, there is change-a-brewin’. Journalism has been forever changed by blogs and by cable television. And, I for one, am optimistic.