In his March 6 press conference, in which he laid out his reasons for the coming war, President Bush mentioned al Qaeda or the attacks of September 11 fourteen times in fifty-two minutes. No one challenged him on it, despite the fact that the CIA had questioned the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, and that there has never been solid evidence marshaled to support the idea that Iraq was involved in the attacks of 9/11.
When Bush proposed his $726 billion tax cut in January, his sales pitch on the plan’s centerpiece — undoing the “double-taxation” on dividend earnings — was that “It’s unfair to tax money twice.” In the next two months, the tax plan was picked over in hundreds of articles and broadcasts, yet a Nexis database search turned up few news stories — notably, one by Donald Barlett and James Steele in Time on January 27, and another by Daniel Altman in the business section of The New York Times on January 21 — that explained in detail what was misleading about the president’s pitch: that in fact there is plenty of income that is doubly, triply, or even quadruply taxed, and that those other taxes affect many more people than the sliver who would benefit from the dividend tax cut.
Before the fighting started in Iraq, in the dozens of articles and broadcasts that addressed the potential aftermath of a war, much was written and said about the maneuverings of the Iraqi exile community and the shape of a postwar government, about cost and duration and troop numbers. Important subjects all. But few of those stories, dating from late last summer, delved deeply into the numerous and plausible complications of the aftermath. That all changed on February 26, when President Bush spoke grandly of making Iraq a model for retooling the entire Middle East. After Bush’s speech “aftermath” articles began to flow like the waters of the Tigris — including cover stories in Time and The New York Times Magazine — culminating in The Wall Street Journal’s page-one story on March 17, just days before the first cruise missiles rained down on Baghdad, that revealed how the administration planned to hand the multibillion-dollar job of rebuilding Iraq to U.S. corporations. It was as if the subject of the war’s aftermath was more or less off the table until the president put it there himself.
There is no single explanation for these holes in the coverage, but I would argue that our devotion to what we call “objectivity” played a role. It’s true that the Bush administration is like a clenched fist with information, one that won’t hesitate to hit back when pressed. And that reporting on the possible aftermath of a war before the war occurs, in particular, was a difficult and speculative story.
Yet these three examples — which happen to involve the current White House, although every White House spins stories — provide a window into a particular failure of the press: allowing the principle of objectivity to make us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it. We all learned about objectivity in school or at our first job. Along with its twin sentries “fairness” and “balance,” it defined journalistic standards.
Or did it? Ask ten journalists what objectivity means and you’ll get ten different answers. Some, like The Washington Post’s editor, Leonard Downie, define it so strictly that they refuse to vote lest they be forced to take sides. My favorite definition was from Michael Bugeja, who teaches journalism at Iowa State: “Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were.” In 1996 the Society of Professional Journalists acknowledged this dilemma and dropped “objectivity” from its ethics code. It also changed “the truth” to simply “truth.”
Tripping Toward the Truth
As E.J. Dionne wrote in his 1996 book, They Only Look Dead, the press operates under a number of conflicting diktats: be neutral yet investigative; be disengaged but have an impact; be fair-minded but have an edge. Therein lies the nut of our tortured relationship with objectivity. Few would argue that complete objectivity is possible, yet we bristle when someone suggests we aren’t being objective — or fair, or balanced — as if everyone agrees on what they all mean.