What that commenter was getting at then—and what his successors, from the sharpest media critics to the dullest propagators of Media Bias™ arguments, get at today—was the paradox of authorship in news reporting: the disconnect between journalism’s traditional mandate (to aspire to universality, both in relevance and appeal) and journalism’s traditional limitation (the fact that it is produced by people whose people-ness itself prevents universality). News, in the sociologist Gaye Tuchman’s enduring phrase, is “a constructed reality”—and the construction in question is carried out by individuals, with all the idiosyncrasies and the biases that come with that distinction. As authors vary, the thinking goes, so must their stories—and so must, therefore, the truth of those stories. And truth that varies is, if we’re going to be purists about it, no kind of truth at all.
This attitude—which blends skepticism with cynicism, pitting reporting’s premises against its myriad promises—derives, overall, from a phenomenon that we might call “author awareness”: our sense, as we consume journalism, of the personhood of the producer of that journalism. Author awareness creates an implicit tension in traditional news reporting, which aims—‘according to officials,’ ‘sources say,’ ‘experts agree,’ etc.—to transcend, in its real-world impact, the fact of its own authorship.
Journalism’s much-agonized-over mandate toward objectivity, indeed, was initially a somewhat crude means of realizing that transcendence through the application of the scientific method to news reporting: By training the journalist out of his own subjectivity, the thinking went, the results of his investigations could be trusted—because, indeed, they weren’t his investigations at all, in this observatory-analytic framework, but rather investigations conducted, impartially, in the name of Public Information. The “reporter of ordinary events and speeches,” the English essayist Leslie Stephen wrote in 1881, is “a bit of mechanism instead of a man.” The person conducting the investigation didn’t much matter; it was the system that mattered—and the system, therefore, that was to be trusted.
As journalism shifted its focus to systemization in its narrative strategies—spurred most explicitly, the media scholar James Carey argued, by the terseness of telegraphy in the nineteenth century—the tension implicit in the author-text-audience relationship only increased. Radio, I’d argue, which brought, literally, a human voice to the news, increased it further. And television, with its talking-headed tendency to anthropomorphize even the most anodyne of news reports, increased it further still. To the extent that, now, the conflict between personality and commonality, and between medium and message, has strained journalism’s narrative authority to its trust-busting breaking point. Journalism that aims for universal relevance is often stymied in its ambition by reporting’s Rashomon realities.
The Web has complicated the matter even further, intertwining journalists’ personalities and their products even more inextricably than before. Journalists’ blogs—which often feature the ‘back stories’ of their work and/or their ‘real feelings’ about that work—are more and more common. On increasingly prevalent podcasts—The New York Times’s “Political Points,” The New Yorker’s “Political Scene,” Slate’s political Gabfest, etc., etc.—hard-news reporters similarly suggest journalism’s personality/product disconnect. More and more reporters are be-heading themselves, as it were, playing pundit and, often, partisan on increasingly influential cable news shows. And more and more reporters are participating in social media, which both blur their personal and professional identities…and broadcast the result of the blending.
More and more, as a result, audiences are aware not only of the journalism reporters produce, but also of the lives they lead: who their friends are, what music and movies and books they like, how they interact with acquaintances, etc., etc. And more and more, we journalists are selling ourselves by selling our selves—which is to say, our full identities. Not as incidental aspects to our journalism, but as central ones.
This isn’t a pervasive phenomenon, to be sure—the vast majority of the journalists that remain to toil in their craft do so under the traditional veil of effective anonymity—but it is increasingly common. To the extent that we can identify a trajectory. Increasingly, the ethos of celebrity—which entails a fixation on the personhood of the celebrity as well as the cultural products that won her fame in the first place—trickles down from the echelons of our opinion pages (‘Win a trip with Nick Kristof!’) and anchor chairs (Half an hour with Brian Williams!) and into journalism’s rank-and-file. Reporters, as producers of news, are increasingly branded not only in the macro sense—top-down, vertical, ephemeral—but also in the micro: personal likes and dislikes, political leanings, friends and associates, educational background. Increasingly, we are aware of reporters not merely as purveyors of narrative, but as people who purvey narrative.