No, the former CNN host of “Reliable Sources” isn’t necessarily the most biased, hypocritical and unethical journalist I could use to illustrate Curmie’s Comment of the Day but he is the most ridiculous, as the hack whom mean wags on the right call “Potato” regularly flaunted his biases while he was allegedly examining the ethics of his profession, a task he was spectacularly unqualified to perform. His real job, as anyone could discern after about five minutes of listening to him, was to obfuscate regarding his employer’s manifest breaches of fair and objective journalism, and to impugn CNN’s competition, especially Fox News, regularly calling the kettle black in strong terms.
When I read Curmie’s typically adept commentary, I realized that a regular reader here might be able to program a computer to write a response to an Ethics Alarms post on rotting journalism ethics (and, to be honest, many other recurring themes here) that I would almost be certain to select as a Comment of the Day. That would be unethical, of course, and I can vouch for the fact that Curmie isn’t a computer, having had the pleasure of meeting him in person.
Here is real, live, human being Curmie’s Comment of the Day on objectivity, subjectivity, the nature of bias, and the post, “On The Plus Side, At Least There’s No Reason To Hold Any Illusions That American Journalists Will Even Try To Be Ethical Journalists In The Foreseeable Future…”
I dabbled in journalism as an undergrad. Admittedly, that wasn’t exactly last week: the newsroom was stocked with manual typewriters, if that gives you a rough idea. There was no journalism department, and, I believe, only a single introductory course–which virtually no one on the staff of the newspaper took. A bunch of my colleagues turned out okay, though: three that I worked with ended up in senior management positions: one with the Wall Street Journal, one with the International Herald Tribune, one with Newsweek.
I did some day editing, mostly on the arts page; I had a weekly column, and I did a little news reporting. I never sought an upper-level editorial position. It’s possible, perhaps even probable, I could have been arts editor if I’d really wanted the job; I didn’t.
But I did have a lot of conversations about journalism with some people who were subsequently to be very successful in that business. The consensus was that objectivity was a goal, but one it was impossible to achieve. The reasons for this were two-fold. First, you can’t entirely suppress your own life experience, perspectives, and (yes) prejudices. Second, you inevitably interpret the significance of events. If X happened and Y also happened, there are manifold ways of framing the story, using variations on the theme of “despite” or “therefore,” for example. Even saying “X and Y” instead of “Y and X” often betrays a bias.
The solution wasn’t to pretend to be objective, but rather to examine one’s own subjectivity. To use a hot topic in sports of late as an example: the winning field goal in the AFC championship game was set up by a personal foul penalty in the closing seconds. It was, depending on one’s personal perspective, either protecting the quarterback and a penalty that gets called virtually all the time, or a ticky tack foul that needn’t (shouldn’t) be called, especially under the circumstances. Both perspectives have some legitimacy, but even describing the call as “controversial” carries connotative meaning. Ultimately, though, ardent fans of either team are likely to view the events according to result rather than the event per se.
What we were told, all those many years ago, was to examine our own perspectives, then invert them, imagining what people who disagreed with us would think. Then, write the story about the points of agreement.
In other words, we were encouraged to examine our subjectivity as a means of counteracting it. Now, it appears, that paradigm has been completely inverted. Subjectivity is to be flaunted, while at the same time the claims to “truth” are bellowed louder than ever.
I did my MA in England. This was before the internet, and I didn’t have a TV, so my news sources were BBC radio and a local commercial station… and newspapers. I alternated back and forth between the Telegraph and the Guardian; the former leaned right and the latter leaned left. It became something of a game for me to guess what one would say about a story I’d read in the other. But both newspapers were reputable. Yes, there would be a little difference in the reporting, but if you only read one or the other, you’d be fine.
I don’t follow the English press enough to know if that’s still true, but it sure as hell isn’t on this side of the pond. Pat Moynihan’s famous line that “everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” seems quaint now. We can’t read the New York Times or the New York Post, can’t watch MSNBC or Fox: we’d never get the full picture that way. And few of us have the time or the energy to seek out all the available sources.
Journalism has let us down, and the primary reason for that is that journalists have let us down.