If objectivity’s philosophical hold on journalism has eased a bit since the 1960s, a number of other developments have bound us more tightly to the objective ideal and simultaneously exacerbated its shortcomings. Not only are journalists operating under conflicting orders, as E.J. Dionne argued, but their corporate owners don’t exactly trumpet the need to rankle the status quo. It is perhaps important to note that one of the original forces behind the shift to objectivity in the nineteenth century was economic. To appeal to as broad an audience as possible, first the penny press and later the new wire services gradually stripped news of “partisan” context. Today’s owners have squeezed the newshole, leaving less space for context and analysis.
If space is a problem, time is an even greater one. The nonstop news cycle leaves reporters less time to dig, and encourages reliance on official sources who can provide the information quickly and succinctly. “We are slaves to the incremental daily development,” says one White House correspondent, “but you are perceived as having a bias if you don’t cover it.” This lack of time makes a simpleminded and lazy version of objectivity all the more tempting. In The American Prospect of November 6, 2000, Chris Mooney wrote about how “e- spin,” a relentless diet of canned attacks and counterattacks e-mailed from the Bush and Gore campaigns to reporters, was winding up, virtually unedited, in news stories. “Lazy reporters may be seduced by the ease of readily provided research,” Mooney wrote. “That’s not a new problem, except that the prevalence of electronic communication has made it easier to be lazy.”
Meanwhile, the Internet and cable news’s Shout TV, which drive the nonstop news cycle, have also elevated the appeal of “attitude” in the news, making the balanced, measured report seem anachronistic. In the January/February issue of CJR, young journalists asked to create their dream newspaper wanted more point-of-view writing in news columns. They got a heavy dose of it during the second gulf war, with news “anchors” like Fox’s Neil Cavuto saying of those who opposed the war, “You were sickening then; you are sickening now.”
Perhaps most ominous of all, public relations, whose birth early in the twentieth century rattled the world of objective journalism, has matured into a spin monster so ubiquitous that nearly every word a reporter hears from an official source has been shaped and polished to proper effect. Consider the memo from the Republican strategist Frank Luntz, as described in a March 2 New York Times story, that urged the party — and President Bush — to soften their language on the environment to appeal to suburban voters. “Climate change” instead of “global warming,” “conservationist” rather than “environmentalist.” To the extent that the threat of being accused of bias inhibits reporters from cutting through this kind of manipulation, challenging it, and telling readers about it, then journalism’s dominant professional norm needs a new set of instructions.
Joan Didion got at this problem while taking Bob Woodward to task in a 1996 piece in The New York Review of Books for writing books that she argued were too credulous, that failed to counter the possibility that his sources were spinning him. She wrote:
The genuflection toward “fairness” is a familiar newsroom piety, in practice the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking but in theory a benign ideal. In Washington, however, a community in which the management of news has become the single overriding preoccupation of the core industry, what “fairness” has often come to mean is a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.
Asked about such criticism, Woodward says that for his books he has the time and the space and the sources to actually uncover what really happened, not some manufactured version of it. “The best testimony to that,” he says, “is that the critics never suggest how any of it is manufactured, that any of it is wrong.” Then, objectivity rears its head. “What they seem to be saying,” Woodward says of his critics, “is that I refuse to use the information I have to make a political argument, and they are right, I won’t.” Yet some of Woodward’s critics do suggest how his material is manufactured. Christopher Hitchens, reviewing Woodward’s latest book, Bush at War, in the June issue of The Atlantic Monthly, argues that, while reporting on a significant foreign-policy debate, Woodward fully presents the point of view of his cooperative sources, but fails to report deeply on the other sides of the argument. Thus he presents an incomplete picture. “Pseudo-objectivity in the nation’s capital,” Hitchens writes, “is now overripe for regime change.”
To Fill the Void