The NewsHour News Debate

Is objectivity subjective?

Earlier this week, Jeffrey Brown, a Senior Correspondent for the NewsHour on PBS, anchored a segment on the blurring of news and opinion in American—particularly broadcast—journalism. Several years ago, media critics pointed to FOX News as the most visible example of this trend, but the promotion of commentary disguised as news is pervading the mainstream media like never before, though Brown does acknowledge the historic moments when journalists revealed their propensities: Murrow’s exposure of Joseph McCarthy and Cronkite’s criticism of Vietnam.

But, as Brown notes, this media shift to add more viewpoints extends far and beyond one network. The FOX revolution, a diversion from the ideal of objectivity in American journalism, “the dispassionate presentation of events and facts,” is leaking into more cable news programs like CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight” and MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.”

A self-proclaimed champion of the American middle-class, Dobbs has made his views on immigration and the recent comprehensive reform measures part of his reporting: “A stunning defeat for pro-amnesty senators, pro-amnesty lobbyists in Washington, and their efforts to ram amnesty through the U.S. Senate and impose their will on the American people.” His ramming of amnesty—and his opinion-—into the ears of viewers is equally imposing.

Competing with FOX’s top-rated “O’Reilly Factor” in the 8-9 evening slot, Olbermann has adopted a “comment” segment, unabashedly slamming the Bush Administration: “[An] upset stomach forcing Mr. Bush to skip out on some meetings at the G-8 summit in Germany today. Faced with an administration in perpetual crisis, you might be nauseous, too. In fact, chances are the Bush administration already has you sick to your stomach.”

For his segment, Brown assembled two professional journalists—media critics—to discuss the widening intersection of news and opinion. The contributors, Callie Crossley, an award-winning ABC producer and Jeff Jarvis, of Buzzmachine and the Guardian, reflected the two faces of the contemporary debate.

Crossley argued that, although “people can discern the difference between news and opinion,” shows that switch constantly from the two fail to offer sufficient context. Crossley’s point seems well-founded when one considers that in the view of most Americans, according to the polls, that Rush Limbaugh is a journalist.

Jarvis disagreed: “I think it’s terribly insulting to the public, whom we trust our democracy, not to think that they cannot tell the difference between fact and opinion. I believe that people do.” Jarvis argued that pure objectivity is unattainable, and journalists have just never admitted that this blurring—and biased reporting—is everywhere. From the outside, there is a need to get out “our perspectives, backgrounds, vantage points, and views”

Jarvis said he has learned “three ethics from blogs:” correction, link, and transparency. All are true: bloggers correct (but error) more quickly, provide their readers to links to back their assertions, and often openly tell you their leanings. But is that journalism, or even quasi-journalism as we know it? Not historically, but today maybe.

Crossley is right to correct Jarvis’ assumption of the hidden agendas of journalists. The objective (or agenda, if any) of the journalist, she observed, “is about trying to gather information and present it in a way that will allow you, the viewer or the reader, to come to a conclusion about events in their lives about which you can make an informed decision.”

If the journalist’s aim is to serve the public with credible news, he or she will necessarily bring to the job a sense of responsibility. This sense of responsibility—not a political ideology—would hopefully become the reporter’s moral compass, for better or worse.

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Alexander Heffner is an intern at CJR.