The toxicity of that tendency, as realized in our journalism, is hard to overstate. Because when the identity of the author eclipses in our judgment the text that author produces—the words on the page, the images on the screen, etc.—journalism cedes too much to the ephemera of authorial identity. It shifts focus from the text to the subtext. It removes journalism, essentially, from the realm of the analytical, placing it instead in the land of the fanciful: a place where bias charges and their many, many counterparts are allowed to fester, unanswered, for the simple reason that they are fundamentally unanswerable. Daniel Okrent, The New York Times’s first public editor, noted during a recent talk that even an anodyne sentence like “Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel” tended, during his tenure, to elicit floods of indignant responses from Times readers. Is there anything, really, that he could he have said to convince those readers of the basic veracity of the Times’s claim?
No, probably not. And therein lies the problem.
Our obsession with authorship ultimately enables one of the most troubling aspects of contemporary intellectual life: the fluidity of facts. “Political scientists have characterized our epoch as one of heightened polarization; now…the creeping partisanship has begun to distort of very perceptions about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t,” Farhad Manjoo writes. “Indeed, you can go as far as to say we’re now fighting over competing versions of reality. And it is more convenient than ever before for some of us to live in a world built out of our own facts.” As I noted in a previous essay, what we stand to lose in a fragmented media landscape is the notion of common knowledge itself. And an approach to news reporting that includes authorial motivation as a criterion in criticism allows for a kind of epistemological relativism—my authors, my facts; your authors, your facts. We see the reminders of that again and again: in our politics coverage (see: McCaugheyGate, versions 1994 and 2009), in our environmental news, and in pretty much every other facet of journalism. It is facts themselves—and, by extension, a core assumption of shared reality—that are ultimately at stake here.
Author awareness, at its most pernicious, creates a particularly cruel irony: The more trustworthy a report tries to be—systematically, mechanically—the more, in general, it is mistrusted. But an approach to journalism that insists upon knowingness of the author—that insists that knowingness is possible in the first place—is flawed at its foundations. It’s an approach that has no point precisely because it has no end point.
And journalism, fundamentally, needs an end point. It needs takeaways and conclusions and here-you-gos. What works in literature (endless context, and therefore endless interpretation and inference) simply does not work in journalism—which, as pragmatic narrative, must come to some resolution in order to achieve its ends. Our obsession, in other words, with authors—with writers’ personal identities, with outlets’ institutional biases, with brands’ political proclivities—has compromised the ability of journalism to be an actor in the world, to be a provider for democracy. It has made news reporting—which, at its best, holds a mirror to society so that we might act upon the image it reflects—into, instead, a hall of mirrors. Infinitely reflective. Infinitely refractive. And infinitely reductive.