It’s a tension that in some sense as old as text itself. Even in the earliest days post-Gutenberg, the print-culture scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein notes, the profusion of books that addressed the same topics likely contributed to readers’ awareness of discrepancies among their narratives—and, thus, skepticism about their veracity. As for journalism, “the rise of the news-sheet in the seventeenth century made the unreliability of reports of the ‘facts’ more obvious to more people than ever before, since rival and discrepant accounts of the same events, battles for example, arrived in major cities on the same day and could easily be compared and contrasted,” the historian Peter Burke observes. Indeed, according to one Englishman, commenting in 1569: “We have every day several news, and sometimes contraries, and yet all put out as true.”
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.