June 28th, 2017

I graduated from Ohio University in 1984 with a B.S. degree in Journalism. (The double irony there is inescapable.) Unlike most of my peers I had the slight advantage of being a bit older than the norm and I think that maturity edge helped me resist the popular drive for objectivity.

Yes, journalists should attempt to be fair in much the same way that judges do, but we cannot escape our individual personal perspectives. Our emotional realities, the lens through which we process our experiences, are unique.

Reading Matt Taibbi’s piece, With CNN Flap, Media’s Trump-Era Identity Crisis Continues, in Rolling Stone this eveing had my head nodding in agreement. As always, the whole article is well worth the reading time, but these two bits struck the chord with me.

First, this:

Eventually, many reporters came to believe Trump was so bad that the press should step out of its normal “detached” role and do more to stop him. But that might have played right into Trump’s hands.

Not all the changes have been bad. Ditching some of the sillier old conventions of “objectivity” has been a good thing overall, as NYU professor Mitchell Stephens points out in a Politico article entitled, “Goodbye, Non-Partisan Journalism. And Good Riddance.”

As Stephens notes, a lot of the old “objective” format had its origins in a commercial strategy from the last century, as networks sought ways to attract wider audiences:

“[News organizations] picked up the habit of reflexively pairing a quote from the Republicans with one from the Democrats. This is a variety of what the sharp-eyed and sardonic press critic A. J. Liebling once dubbed, ‘on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that’ journalism.”

The parsing instinct became so ingrained that media organizations began to feel terror at the idea of having opinions about anything. This was symbolized by the ludicrous evolution of the house editorial at daily newspapers, which often involved nameless editors spinning 700 words in a rhetorical circle before dismounting in an ass-covering question: “Should we do X, or should we do Y? Only time will tell.”

Today, few serious journalists believe in “objectivity.” Every story is filled with editorial choices. Is the article on the front page, or buried inside? Is the headline alarmist, or are horrible things sanitized via a misleadingly academic tone? And are you using words like dissemble when you really mean lie?

For that I would sincerely like to say: Thank you President Trump. He may have rescued my chosen profession from the mire of fair and balanced.

Taibbi’s conclusion is equally important:

For all the flaws in the business, reporters used to have few existential concerns. It wasn’t our job to save democracy. We were taught that our only job was to get things right, and that it was up to others—politicians, activists, voters – to do the fixing. To be useful all we had to do was give people better information with which to make those decisions.

That’s all changed. Journalists for two years now have been trapped between two nefarious forces pushing them out of their natural roles—Trump, and their own profitability model. Both evils have pushed us into this horrid WWE stage of our existence, where reporters too often have been baited into becoming half of a very profitable clown act.

I agree with professor Stephens that we shouldn’t romanticize journalism’s past. But being on nobody’s side wasn’t such a bad thing, either. On top of everything else, Trump has ruined this job.

On this last point, however, I think Taibbi gets the story wrong. Trump has saved our job in much the same way the horrible wake-up call of a heart attack can save a person; providing that jolt to change our lifestyle and perhaps live a bit longer.

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