More important, objectivity makes us wary of seeming to argue with the president — or the governor, or the CEO — and risk losing our access. Jonathan Weisman, an economics reporter for The Washington Post, says this about the fear of losing access: “If you are perceived as having a political bias, or a slant, you’re screwed.”

Finally, objectivity makes reporters hesitant to inject issues into the news that aren’t already out there. “News is driven by the zeitgeist,” says Jonathan Weisman, “and if an issue isn’t part of the current zeitgeist then it will be a tough sell to editors.” But who drives the zeitgeist, in Washington at least? The administration. In short, the press’s awkward embrace of an impossible ideal limits its ability to help set the agenda.

This is not a call to scrap objectivity, but rather a search for a better way of thinking about it, a way that is less restrictive and more grounded in reality. As Eric Black, a reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, says, “We need a way to both do our job and defend it.”

An Ideals’ Troubled Past

American journalism’s honeymoon with objectivity has been brief. The press began to embrace objectivity in the middle of the nineteenth century, as society turned away from religion and toward science and empiricism to explain the world. But in his 1998 book, Just the Facts, a history of the origins of objectivity in U.S. journalism, David Mindich argues that by the turn of the twentieth century, the flaws of objective journalism were beginning to show. Mindich shows how “objective” coverage of lynching in the 1890s by The New York Times and other papers created a false balance on the issue and failed “to recognize a truth, that African-Americans were being terrorized across the nation.”

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.