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.
Over the last dozen years a cottage industry of bias police has sprung up to exploit this fissure in the journalistic psyche, with talk radio leading the way followed by Shout TV and books like Ann Coulter’s Slander and Bernard Goldberg’s Bias. Now the left has begun firing back, with Eric Alterman’s book What Liberal Media? (CJR, March/April) and a group of wealthy Democrats’ plans for a liberal radio network. James Carey, a journalism scholar at Columbia, points out that we are entering a new age of partisanship. One result is a hypersensitivity among the press to charges of bias, and it shows up everywhere: In October 2001, with the war in Afghanistan under way, then CNN chairman Walter Isaacson sent a memo to his foreign correspondents telling them to “balance” reports of Afghan “casualties or hardship” with reminders to viewers that this was, after all, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. More recently, a CJR intern, calling newspaper letters-page editors to learn whether reader letters were running for or against the looming war in Iraq, was told by the letters editor at The Tennessean that letters were running 70 percent against the war, but that the editors were trying to run as many prowar letters as possible lest they be accused of bias.
Objectivity has persisted for some valid reasons, the most important being that nothing better has replaced it. And plenty of good journalists believe in it, at least as a necessary goal. Objectivity, or the pursuit of it, separates us from the unbridled partisanship found in much of the European press. It helps us make decisions quickly — we are disinterested observers after all — and it protects us from the consequences of what we write. We’d like to think it buoys our embattled credibility, though the deafening silence of many victims of Jayson Blair’s fabrications would argue otherwise. And as we descend into this new age of partisanship, our readers need, more than ever, reliable reporting that tells them what is true when that is knowable, and pushes as close to truth as possible when it is not.
But our pursuit of objectivity can trip us up on the way to “truth.” Objectivity excuses lazy reporting. If you’re on deadline and all you have is “both sides of the story,” that’s often good enough. It’s not that such stories laying out the parameters of a debate have no value for readers, but too often, in our obsession with, as The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward puts it, “the latest,” we fail to push the story, incrementally, toward a deeper understanding of what is true and what is false. 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.”
It exacerbates our tendency to rely on official sources, which is the easiest, quickest way to get both the “he said” and the “she said,” and, thus, “balance.” According to numbers from the media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the 414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from last September to February, all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. So we end up with too much of the “official” truth.