In the last two years, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been mentioned in more than 3,000 articles on the Nexis database, and at least 388 (11 percent) included in the same breath the fact that he was a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The same search criteria found that Yasser Arafat turned up in almost 96,000 articles, but only 177 (less than .2 percent) mentioned that he won the Nobel prize. When we move beyond stenography, reporters make a million choices, each one subjective. When, for example, is it relevant to point out, in a story about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, that the U.S. may have helped Saddam Hussein build those weapons in the 1980s? Every time? Never?
The rules of objectivity don’t help us answer such questions. But there are some steps we can take to clarify what we do and help us move forward with confidence. A couple of modest proposals:
Journalists (and journalism) must acknowledge, humbly and publicly, that what we do is far more subjective and far less detached than the aura of objectivity implies — and the public wants to believe. If we stop claiming to be mere objective observers, it will not end the charges of bias but will allow us to defend what we do from a more realistic, less hypocritical position.
Secondly, we need to free (and encourage) reporters to develop expertise and to use it to sort through competing claims, identify and explain the underlying assumptions of those claims, and make judgments about what readers and viewers need to know to understand what is happening. In short, we need them to be more willing to “adjudicate factual disputes,” as Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman argue in The Press Effect. Bill Marimow, the editor of the Baltimore Sun, talks of reporters “mastering” their beats. “We want our reporters to be analysts,” he told a class at Columbia in March. “Becoming an expert, and mastering the whole range of truth about issues will give you the ability to make independent judgments.”
Timothy Noah, writing in The Washington Monthly for a 1999 symposium on objectivity, put it this way: “A good reporter who is well-steeped in his subject matter and who isn’t out to prove his cleverness, but rather is sweating out a detailed understanding of a topic worth exploring, will probably develop intelligent opinions that will inform and perhaps be expressed in his journalism.” This happens every day in ways large and small, but it still happens too rarely. In a March 18 piece headlined “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq,” The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank laid out all of Bush’s “allegations” about Saddam Hussein “that have been challenged — and in some cases disproved — by the United Nations, European governments, and even U.S. intelligence.” It was noteworthy for its bluntness, and for its lack of an “analysis” tag. In commenting on that story, Steven Weisman of The New York Times illustrates how conflicted journalism is over whether such a piece belongs in the news columns: “It’s a very good piece, but it is very tendentious,” he says. “It’s interesting that the editors didn’t put it on page one, because it would look like they are calling Bush a liar. Maybe we should do more pieces like it, but you must be careful not to be argumentative.”
Some reporters work hard to get these same “argumentative” ideas into their stories in more subtle ways. Think of Jason Riley’s comment about “feeding information” to sources. Steven Weisman calls it making it part of the “tissue” of the story. For example, in a March 17 report on the diplomatic failures of the Bush administration, Weisman worked in the idea that the CIA was questioning the Iraq-al Qaeda connection by attributing it to European officials as one explanation for why the U.S. casus belli never took hold in the UN.
The test, though, should not be whether it is tendentious, but whether it is true.