Most Journalists No Longer Aspire to Objectivity

(p. B1) In 1979, two journalists got into an argument. More than four decades later, they haven’t settled it.

The subject of their disagreement was journalistic “objectivity,” a notion that goes back at least to the 1920s, when some of the more high-minded newspapers and magazines were trying to distinguish themselves from the scandal sheets and publications led by partisan and sometimes warmongering publishers.

In one corner, Alan Berger. In 1979, he was a 41-year-old media columnist for the Real Paper, an alternative weekly that had emerged from a rift at its predecessor, Boston Phoenix. Before he started watch-dogging the press, Mr. Berger had grown up in the Bronx, attended Harvard University and taught a class at M.I.T., in French, on the poet Charles Baudelaire.

His target in the debate over objectivity — which has come roaring back to life in the political storminess of recent years — was Tom Palmer. Back then, Mr. Palmer was a 31-year-old assistant national editor of The Boston Globe, meaning he belonged to the establishment and was thus a ripe target for the Real Paper.

. . .

(p. B4) His former protégé, the national correspondent Wesley Lowery, argued in a widely circulated New York Times opinion essay that objectivity mirrored the worldview of white reporters and editors, whose “selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers.” Mr. Lowery, who ended up leaving The Post for CBS News, suggested that news organizations “abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard, and for reporters instead to focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts.”

That same argument has found an embrace at some of America’s leading journalism schools, as well.

“We focus on fairness and fact-checking and accuracy, and we don’t try to suggest to our students that opinions they have should be hidden,” said Sarah Bartlett, the dean of the City University of New York Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “We embrace transparency.”

. . .

Mr. Palmer also never quite let the argument go. He appointed himself a kind of genial in-house watchdog at The Globe, eventually known for his persistent emails to reporters and editors he thought had allowed their liberal views to infiltrate their copy.  . . .

Needless to say, he remains unpersuaded by the arguments against his cherished ideal. They “were dead wrong back then,” he emailed me, “and I believe are dead wrong even more so today.”

“Journalists are simply not smart enough and educated enough to change the world,” he continued. “They should damn well just inform the public to the best of their abilities and let the public decide.”

He also said, ruefully, that he believed his side was losing. The notion of objectivity “was declining before Trump, and that era removed it from the table completely,” he wrote. “I have doubts it will ever come back.”

For the full commentary, see:

Ben Smith. “A 1979 Fight Over Ideals Is Still Going.” The New York Times (Monday, October 11, 2021): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated October 11, 2021, and has the title “Two Journalists Started an Argument in Boston in 1979. It’s Not Over Yet.”)

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