January 30, 2004

Journalistic Objectivity

Posted by shonk at 12:30 AM in Politics, Words of Wisdom | TrackBack

I know that when I post quotes from whatever book I’m currently reading, the results aren’t exactly topical in many cases. This one, however, addresses pretty exactly the point Curt made in his last post when he talks about “the great failing of the journalistic philosophy of superficial objectivity” :

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.

G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

This is precisely the reason why journalism simply cannot be objective. Even were the newspapers written by computers totally deprogrammed of dogmatic bias, the simple fact of the matter is that what is “newsworthy” is not very reflective of life. Bill Hicks, as usual, is much funnier than I:

I don’t understand anything so there you go…you know what my problem is? I watch too much news, man, that’s my problem, that’s why I’m so depressed all the time, I figured it out. I watch too much CNN, man. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat around and watched CNN more than, I don’t know, 20 hours in one day…I don’t recommend that.

Watch CNN Headline News for 1 hour, it’s the most depressing thing you’ll ever fucking do: WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS, RECESSION, DEPRESSION. WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS…

Then, you look out your window……..“Where’s all this shit happening? Ted Turner’s making this shit up! Jane Fonda won’t sleep with him, he runs to a typewriter. ‘By 1992, we will all die of AIDS; read that on the air. I don’t get laid, no one gets laid!’ I’m writin’ Jane Fonda: ‘Will you fuck this guy so we can get some good news, please?’ “

I want to see a well-laid Ted Turner newscast: “Hey, it’s all going to work out. Here’s sports.”

The point is, what we call “the news” is both real and not real. It’s real in that, most of the time, whatever is on the news really did happen, or at least something relatively similar happened. It’s not real in that what makes the news is by definition unusual, out-of-the-ordinary, likely not reflective of what is happening or will happen in my life. The evening news is the most highly-rated reality show in history, all the more ingenious because of its subtlety. Shows like “Survivor” are just poor approximations, polynomial interpolations of the subtle genius of the evening news. Of course, the genius and naïve are often virtually indistinguishable, and the same holds true in this case. The evening news is genius because it convinces the viewing public that it is important and relevant, but naïve in that those who produce the news often don’t even recognize that what they make is, in a way, no more real than “Survivor”.

The final point I’d like to make on this issue is the following: what I’ve discussed above is, I think, a big reason why everybody thinks the media is biased against their political views. And I do mean everybody. I don’t think very many people recognize this fact. I’m not particularly enamored of the liberal/conservative dichotomy (especially because I quite simply don’t fit into either category), but virtually every “liberal” I know believes fervently that the media is pushing a conservative agenda and virtually every “conservative” I know is convinced of exactly the opposite. One of the reasons, I think, is precisely because the news simply does not cohere to reality very well. I’m convinced that if we could invent a perfectly objective news-gathering and -publishing computer, the majority of politically aware people would still be convinced there was a media bias against their position.

So what’s the solution? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure there is one, but it might be a good start to acknowledge that “journalistic objectivity” is not merely an unattainable goal, but actually a very harmful and oxymoronic conceit.

UPDATE: John Venlet comments with In the News


Of course most of the people watching the news aren't brooding epistemologists but rather paranoid soccer moms, i.e. people not concerned with a full and rich representation of reality but rather with an exposition of whatever sensational current fact will simultaneously stoke their hysteria and make it practical, manageable.

Posted by: Curt at January 30, 2004 05:39 PM

Right. Which is why the news is so highly-rated.

Posted by: shonk at January 30, 2004 06:19 PM

And of course the whole purpose of the news is to sell advertising slots.

Posted by: John Lopez at January 30, 2004 09:35 PM