The Ideal of Objectivity
Information vs. Story
“It is in the Times that we can all worship the Idols of the Cave without being caught in our idolatry,” said Benjamin Stolberg in the Atlantic (1926).
Calling upon the badge of respectability that the Times endowed, Stolberg’s suggestion leaves us with the question of why the Times conferred respectability while the World did not. It is likely that the Times wrote for the rational person whose life was orderly, and under control. Its articles offered useful information, not revelations or sensational stories of revelry. Its readers were relatively independent and participant, often the “insiders”. While refined in their discourse, they might have aspired for more color. However, for many coming to the cities for the first time, life was a spectacle as never before, and the World spoke faithfully to the experience of these masses, who were relatively dependent and non-participant. In simply serving “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, the Times projected an air of objective detachment, which suited the educated and wealthy class well.
Meanwhile, Walter Lippman in Public Opinion (1922) had begun to demolish the fantasy of “public” supremacy that the rhetoric of democracy had built around it. In the Phantom Public (1925), he writes: “[Public affairs] are for the most part invisible. They are managed, if they are managed at all, at distant centers, from behind the scenes, by unnamed powers.” Lippmann argued that the fault was with the “unattainable ideal” of citizenship.
There is no special wisdom in the will of the majority. On the contrary, wisdom is more likely to lie with insiders, experts in the practice of governing. The people do not govern and should not govern,; at most, they support or oppose the ones who do rule. The public fails to see that the difference between rulers and the ruled is that between insiders and outsiders.
As doubt in democratic institutions and capitalism rose, public opinion became more detached from reason and rational understanding, of which there was little to go around. The professional classes, for their part, now took public opinion to be irrational, and therefore something to study, direct, and manipulate. The “educated” developed a elitist attitude towards ‘reason’ and the ‘public’.
When public relations first arrived on the scene, its impact was admirable. An accident had occurred on the main railroad line near Gap, Pennsylvania. Railroads had traditionally tried to suppress news of accidents. Ivy Lee, in contrast, invited reporters to the scene of the accident at the railroad’s expense. An accident on the New York Central soon thereafter was hushed up, as usual. But in light of the recent Pennsylvania policy, this invited anger and brought the New York Central bad press. This was the beginning of a new relationship between the railroads, the largest corporations in the country, the press, and the reading public.
Ivy Lee began as a reporter in 1899 in New York for the Journal, then the Times, and finally the World. He then established, Parker and Lee, whose motto was “Accuracy, Authenticity, Interest”. He argued that propaganda, which he defined as the effort to propagate ideas, was acceptable as long as the public knew who was responsible for it. He quoted Walter Lippman:
No one can present the whole of the facts on any subject. The effort to state an absolute fact is simply an attempt to achieve what is humanly impossible; all I can do is give you is my interpretation of the facts. We are very prone to look at everything through the glasses colored by our own interests and prejudices.
While this was a criticism of subjectivity of knowledge, for Lee it was a cynical defense of his business. Since all opinions are suspect, all are equally entitled to a place in the democratic forum.
While Lee stressed that opinion was self-interested, Edward Bernays argued that it was irrational. This led Bernays to a libertarian rationale for public relations:
In the struggle among ideas, the only test is … the power of thought to get itself accepted in the open competition of the market.
News appeared to rapidly become less about reporting, more about reprinting the framing of facts proposed by special interests who could afford to hire public relations experts. Reporters did not like publicity agents, but the ease with which agents were able to use printed lines for their purposes, free of cost, surprised the agents themselves. As Bernays said, “A public relations counsel is not merely the purveyor of news, he is more logically the creator of news.” This is exactly what journalists feared. Moreover, reporters who enjoyed getting the scoop were now stopped at the gates of PR. Newspapers that had once fought the “interests” now depended on them for the handouts.
Roosevelt was the first president to set up a press room in the White House. Woodrow Wilson initiated the regular press conference. Reporters gained a more secure though more formal relationship with the White House. It was clearly manipulated by the president and his office.
As Lippman put it:
The development of the publicity man is a clear sign that the facts of modern life do not spontaneously take shape as they can be known. They must be given a shape by somebody, and since in the daily routine, reporters cannot give shape to facts, and since there is little disinterested organization of intelligence, the need for some formulation is being met by interested parties.
World War I
“The astounding success of the propaganda around war opened the eyes of the intelligent few to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind,” Edward Bernays wrote.
While many American journalists suffered military censorship as war correspondents in Europe, others themselves served as agents of the American propaganda machine at home. President Wilson created a committee on Public Information in 1917, which employed many journalists to write, collect and distribute information favorable to the American war effort. It churned out 6000 press releases, and enlisted 75000 “Four Minute Men” to deliver short speeches in movie theaters and public places, and even enrolled Boy Scouts to deliver copies of Wilson’s speeches door to door. Historian Jack Roth has called the war “the first modern effort at systematic, nationwide manipulation of collective passions.” Nothing could have been more persuasive in convincing American journalists that facts themselves are not to be trusted.
The Ideal of Objectivity
Even as late as the 1920s, “objectivity” was not a term that journalists or critics of journalism used. Newspapers were criticized for failing to stick to the facts, and Times boasted that it presented “all the news”, by which it meant information. It was the body of knowledge that could be understood without context.
However, in Public Opinion, Lippman explained the emotional impulse behind the quest for objectivity:
“… men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the aggressor, and can only flourish where the audience is deprived of independent access to information. But where all news comes second-hand, where all testimony is uncertain, men cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions. The environment in which they act is not the reality, but the pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses. The whole reference of thought comes to be what somebody asserts, not what actually is.”
Lippmann believed that science held the solution. “There is but one kind of unity possible in the world as diverse as ours. It is unity of method, rather than of aim; the unity of disciplined experiment.” For him, journalism did not have to be rescued from the capitalists, but from itself:
Since human beings are poor witnesses, easily thrown off the scent, easily misled by a personal bias, profoundly influenced by social environment, does it not follow that a constant testing of the news and a growing self-consciousness about the main sources of error is a necessary part of democratic philosophy?
He believed that the scientific method and beliefs would make journalism not only more professional, but more liberal and more heroic. Liberalism meant openness, he wrote – remaining free in mind and action before changing circumstances without being paralyzed by skepticism.
Not long after, in the 60s, objectivity in journalism, regarded as an antidote to bias, came to be looked upon as the most insidious bias of all. “Objective” reporting reproduced a vision of social reality which refused to examine the basic structures of power and privilege.
When the Commission on the Freedom of the Press was established in 1944, Henry Luce, co-founder of the Time magazine, told the Editor and Publisher that the “freedom of the press” was no longer in evidence. His main concern was that “big government” controlled the press, not by censorship, but by flooding it with information. In many cases, the press was complicit in the information that was censored. In 1955, when Eisenhower was in a Denver hospital recovering from coronary thrombosis, members of his cabinet flew to Denver to ostensibly consult with him. In fact, they were in Denver only to present to the public misinformation that the president was still able to perform his duties. The press knew of the deception, but did not report it. Russell Baker, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote: “Because the tradition of the American newspaper compels it to report with straight face whatever is said by anyone in high office, it was unable to suggest any element of charade in the parade of the Cabinet officers to Denver. And so, in a sense, the press was seduced by its own morality.”
Daniel Boorstin in 1961 coined the term “pseudo-event” to refer to happenings that are planned for the immediate purpose of being reported. “While propaganda substitutes opinions for facts, pseudo-events are synthetic facts, providing a ‘factual’ basis for people to make up their minds.”
In the 1960s, after a series of small events including lies about the U2 flights over Soviet Union and the New York Times’ downplaying the impending invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the fourth estate was outraged by the statements of Arthur Sylvester, spokesman for the Pentagon under Kennedy, who defended news management in the Cuban missile crisis. On Oct 30, 1962, he argued:
In the kind of world we live in, the generation of news by actions taken by the government becomes a weapon in a strained situation. The results justify the methods we used. I think the inherent right of the government is to lie – to lie to save itself when faced with nuclear disaster – is basic, basic.
Until then, the press was used to cooperating with the government officials to suppress news. But Sylvester’s words threatened the role of the press as a conscientious upholder of democratic values. For the press, to cooperate with the government in keeping news from the public was one thing, for the government to keep information from the press was something else. It was perhaps bad for the government to keep information from the press by dodging; it was certainly bad for the government to lie outright. But it was worse still for the government to announce its right to lie. Earlier, if the press discovered the lie, it could embarrass the government. The Sylvester statement placed the government beyond embarrassment. From then on, reporters began to suspect that Sylvester’s crude philosophy had become everyday government practice. Vietnam finally drained the reservoir of trust between the government and the press.
American position in the war was unusually delicate. American support for Vietnam had never been popular, it violated the Geneva Agreement of 1954, and especially after the Bay of Pigs, there was fear of feeding anti-American propaganda. The attitude of the Diem regime towards newsmen did not help. All this made American officials defensive, wary, and hostile of reporters, well before there was any sentiment in the press against American involvement in Vietnam.
When reports from Vietnam flowed back, news of civilian casualties in Vietnam directly contradicted President Johnson’s announced policy. As such, every journalistic feat that evaded news management called attention to news management. Lippmann had felt that newspapers had no special access to truth – their responsibility was to print news, they would be able to print better news only if the government and independent agencies of intelligence could provide them with more reliable data. Now, when the credibility of the government and “independent” agencies was in doubt, if events themselves are constructed, then reporting the news was not just an incomplete approach to the truth, but a distorted one.
Reporting for Beginners by Curtis MacDougall, was revised and republished in 1938 as Interpretative Reporting. In it MacDougall writes, “The trend is unmistakably in the direction of combining the function of interpreter with that of reporter after about half a century during which journalistic ethics called for a strict differentiation between the narrator and commenter.” McDougall was interested in “giving substance” to the news. He argued that the United States had been unprepared to understand World War I because wire services and newspapers had reported only what happened, not an interpretation of why it was happening. In 1929, the beginning of the depression also found journalism unprepared, and reporters “utterly unqualified” to cope with a major news even in anything but a factual manner.
He held that interpretative reporting was not inconsistent with the aim of objectivity.
… the most successful newspaper men and women of the future will be those with wide educational backgrounds, a specialist’s knowledge in one or more fields, the ability to avoid emotionalism, and to remain objective, descriptive styles, the power of observation, and above all, the ability to comprehend the meaning of immediate news events in relation to broader social, economic, and political trends.
The Time magazine, founded in 1923 by Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, was forthright in advocating a blend of fact and opinion. “Show me a man who thinks he’s objective,” Luce said, “and I’ll show you a man who’s deceiving himself.” Luce recommended that newspapers drop the division between editorial and news desks, and put on the front page “intelligent, criticism, representation, and evaluation of the men who hold offices of public trust.”
The most important adaptation to the sense of subjectivity of facts was the introduction of the syndicated political columnist. By 1937, Walter Lippman’s column was syndicated in 155 papers. The New Republic observed in 1937 that “much of the influence once attached to the editorial has passed over to the columnists.”
Arguments against objectivity fall in three major categories. It is the combination of these objections that make the case for continued reflection around the limits of objectivity.
1. Reported content rests on a set of substantive political assumptions whose validity is never questioned. These assumptions are absorbed by reporters and readers through every day life and professional influence.
2. The form of the news story incorporates its own bias. A typical news story is not biased left or right, but towards statements of fact which are observable and unambiguous, towards events rather than processes. This format reinforces existing structures of power. It favors institutions which are most oriented to, and best able to control “events” or stage pseudo-events. Powerful institutions, particularly the government, are attuned to the “event-orientation” of reporters, and so can manipulate them, while social movements and reformers holding to an “issue-orientation” tend to be ignored by journalists, until they too can gain the power to stage “events”.
3. A news story is constrained by the routines of news gathering. The process of news gathering reinforces official viewpoints. “Objectivity” is not a conviction of journalists. It’s not even the belief in the scientific method that Lippman championed. Instead it’s a practice, a strategic ritual, which journalists use to defend themselves against mistakes and criticism. It is a set of conventions which persist because they can limit the extent to which reporters can be held responsible for the words they write, such as quoting speakers in positions of recognized authority.
The literary tradition has deep roots in journalism. A finely crafted story, not a safe story or an objective story, is powered by “feeling as well as intellect”. It has found expression in magazines like the Rolling Stone and The New Yorker.
Meanwhile, investigative reporting was evidenced in Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate scandal. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein denied that they did anything exceptional. For them, it was business as usual. It was not journalism of advocacy or personal passion, but a force of energy. Where they took liberties with the law, Woodward and Bernstein apologized. Where they followed the rules, like the guideline of confirming every important charge with the testimony of at least two informants – they were proud. They make a case for journalism true to a potential ideal of objectivity, and counter to the conventions justified in its name. Investigative reporting may have its traditions and rewards, but it will not have its handbooks.
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2 Responses to Evolution of News: Phase 3
I think the point about events being something that can be staged is interesting. It makes you wonder what kind of method can be used that is immune to manipulation. Perhaps there are certain kinds of facts that can be objectively classified as “facts of substance”?
I especially enjoyed reading this series of posts again after having read The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.