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Giving Up the Ghost of Objective Journalism

'Fair and balanced' was a mid-20th century marketing tool and really, a confabulation of the times.
yellow journalism

What the Greatest, Silent, and Boomer generations always regarded as the ideal of “objective journalism” was actually the exception, not the rule. That was true from the time of Gutenberg until that of Franklin Roosevelt.

The great Joseph Pulitzer largely founded his namesake prize for the same motives as Alfred Nobel, when the latter tried to make up for the incalculable injuries and deaths caused by the explosives he invented by endowing a Peace Prize. Pulitzer was attempting to atone for the “yellow journalism” sins of his own papers—and even more, those of his arch rival, William Randolph “Citizen Kane” Hearst—when he launched the prize that bears his name.

And if Pulitzer repented of his past, Hearst never did—he went full speed ahead well into the 1920s and beyond, normalizing Nazi science, openly endorsing eugenics and white superiority, and promoting “Birth of a Nation”-like racism against African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. His dehumanizing attacks against so-called sneaking and treacherous “Japs” and “Chinks”—well before Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, and communist China—were even uglier.

To put it bluntly, as Frances McDormand’s professor-mother in Almost Famous might have said, “Objective Journalism” was as much a marketing tool as anything else. It took off not because news neutrality was always enshrined in American journalistic ethics, but because of how rare it actually was. High-minded notions of “fairness” and “objective journalism” came to the print media largely because the visionary first families of the papers that finally succeeded the Hearsts and Pulitzers in clout and cache—the Ochs-Sulzbergers of New York, the Meyer-Grahams of Washington, and the Chandlers of Los Angeles—made a conscious decision to brand their newspapers as being truly fair and balanced to differentiate them from the competition.

Meanwhile, the broadcast media (which didn’t exist until the rise of radio and “talking pictures” in the late 1920s, followed by TV after World War II) labored under the New Deal’s famed Fairness Doctrine.

And even then, “objectivity” only went as far as the eyes and ears of the beholder. The fairness flag was fraying when Spiro Agnew and Pat Buchanan took “liberal media elites” to task a generation ago during the Vietnam and civil rights era, while Tom Wolfe made good, unclean fun out of the “radical chic” conceits of Manhattan and Hollywood limousine liberals.

What today’s controversies illustrate is that a so-called “Fairness Doctrine” and “objective” newspaper reporting could only have existed in a conformist Mad Men world where societal norms of what was (and wasn’t) acceptable in the postwar Great Society operated by consensus. That is to say, an America where moderate, respectable, white male centrist Republicans like Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, and Gerald Ford “debated” moderate, respectable, white male centrist Democrats like Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and Jimmy Carter.

Now contrast that with today. On November 25, the New York Times made a now-notorious attempt tunderstand the Nazi next door, running a profile of young suburban white supremacist, Tony Hovater. Transgender social media superstar Charlotte Clymer spoke for her fellow liberals when she savagely satirized the Times with a tweet-storm that included things like:   

Bob is a vegan. He believes we should protect the environment. He likes “Big Bang Theory”. He pays taxes. He served in the military.

He’s a serial killer who has tortured and murdered 14 people. He dissolved their bodies in acid at a remote site. He made them beg for their lives as he tortured them.

He attends PTA meetings. He DVR’s episodes of his wife’s fave shows when she’s late at work.

The moral of the fable being (as Miss Clymer put it): “Bob is a mass-murdering f***head. STOP GIVING BOB NUANCE!”

When the Times followed their neo-Nazi profile by turning an entire op-ed column over to Donald Trump supporters in mid-January, the Resistance went to red alert. And after Ross Douthat penned a column in defense of (Jewish) anti-immigration hardliner Stephen Miller on Holocaust Memorial Day in January, they went full DEFCON.

“F*** you @nytimes for publishing this article on #HolocaustMemorialDay from me & from those in my family whose voices were silenced during the Holocaust. Shame on you!” said Nadine Vander Velde on Twitter. London left-wing journalist Sarah Kendzior agreed that “The NYT is now a white supremacist paper. The multiple Nazi puff pieces, constant pro-Trump PR, and praise for Miller on today of all days is not exceptional – it’s [now] the guiding ideology of the paper.”

And the current furor over The Atlantic’s hiring of National Review firebrand Kevin D. Williamson only underscores that it isn’t just campus leftists or Tea Partiers who are hitting the censor button.

But revealingly, it wasn’t just the usual left-wing snowflakes who have needed a trigger warning of late. Just six weeks into the new year, the Washington Post and CNN ran a series of tabloidy, Inside Edition-style stories glamorizing Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The Washington Post even went so far as to call Ms. Yo-jong North Korea’s answer to Ivanka Trump (just ignore the fact she is the DPRK’s assistant head of the Ministry of Propaganda and Agitation). That led Bethany Mandel of the New York Post to wonder what was up with all the “perverse fawning over brutal Kim Jong-un’s sister at the Olympics?”   

Additionally, some of the most provocative critiques of “journalistic objectivity” have come from liberal polemicists like Matt Taibbi and Sam Adler-Bell, who argue that before we go on blathering about untrammeled First Amendment freedom and “objectivity,” the first question that must be asked is who has the balance of power and whose hands are on deck in the editing room. (And they’re not wrong to ask that question—it was the same one that Pat Buchanan asked 50 years ago and Ann Coulter asked 20 years ago from the opposite side of the newsroom.)  

Whether it’s MSNBC on the left or Fox News on the right, the editorial decisions of how to spin a piece, where and how often to broadcast it, what kind of panelists you invite to “debate” a story, which anchors should be promoted and which ones will forever remain mere worker bees—all these decisions are anything but “objective” or “unbiased.”

Let’s face it: the supposedly more civilized, serious ecosystem of the pre-social media past would come across to identity-conscious Millennials today as nothing more than stale white bread dominated by stale white men. Even among the campus leftists who protest and violently riot to shut down and silence “hate speech,” most of them would probably rather live in a world where Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer anchored the nightly news on one channel—so long as there was a hijab-wearing Muslim or a transgendered man on another, equally highly-rated one.

What would be totally unacceptable to today’s young consumer is any kind of return to the mid-century world where “the news” was whatever Ben Bradlee, Johnny Apple, Robert Novak, and The Chancellor/Brinkley Nightly News said it was—in essence, the world where Punch Sulzberger, Otis Chandler, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw white-mansplained “facts” through their own elite establishment filters, de facto ignoring everyone else.

Meanwhile, the beat goes on. From the left, conservative Sinclair Media is accused of “forcing” its local anchors to read “pro-Trump propaganda.” The Nation stalwart Eric Alterman says that “When one side is fascist, there’s no need to show Both Sides.” As for the right—just ask your Fox-watching or Limbaugh-listening friends and families what they think of the “mainstream media,” the “Communist News Network,” or the “opinion cartel.”    

The great Joan Didion once said “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Maybe “objective journalism” was always just a little social white lie we in the media told ourselves to make ourselves feel better—fairer, kinder, gentler, more “professional.” But if there’s one lesson that Barack Obama, the Tea Party, Bernie Sanders, Antifa, Donald Trump, and the Great Recession have taught us over the past decade, it isn’t just that the mythical “center” will no longer hold. It’s that there may no longer be a center for any of us to hold on to.

Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture WarHow the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”