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The End Of Journalism — And Democracy?

The only thing that can save either or both is a return to objective standards, however flawed. We are going in the opposite direction
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Len Downie (pictured above), the retired executive editor of the Washington Post, is eager to abandon the old "objectivity" model of journalism. From a piece he recently published in the Post, with the incredibly self-deceiving headline, "Newsrooms that move beyond 'objectivity' can build trust'. Excerpts:

Amid all the profound challenges and changes roiling the American news media today, newsrooms are debating whether traditional objectivity should still be the standard for news reporting. “Objectivity” is defined by most dictionaries as expressing or using facts without distortion by personal beliefs, bias, feelings or prejudice. Journalistic objectivity has been generally understood to mean much the same thing.

But increasingly, reporters, editors and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality. They point out that the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world. They believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading “bothsidesism” in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects. And, in today’s diversifying newsrooms, they feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.


They may believe that, but surely Len Downie, an 80-year-old white man who had a storied journalism career, ending it at the pinnacle of the profession, will stand up for traditional standards. Right? Of course not. Downie seems to be one of those white liberals who have lost all confidence in themselves and what they built, and who are eager to throw open the doors to younger barbarians who would destroy it. He writes that he and a colleague at the journalism school where he now teaches did a survey of the industry to find out where people stood on the question of "objectivity" in journalism. Excerpt:

We interviewed more than 75 news leaders, journalists and other experts in mainstream print, broadcast and digital news media, many of whom also advocate such a change. This appears to be the beginning of another generational shift in American journalism.

Among the news leaders who told Heyward and me that they had rejected objectivity as a coverage standard was Kathleen Carroll, former executive editor of the Associated Press. “It’s objective by whose standard?” she asked. “That standard seems to be White, educated, fairly wealthy. … And when people don’t feel like they find themselves in news coverage, it’s because they don’t fit that definition.”

I could not find Kathleen Carroll's age in an Internet search, but she's a white woman who retired from the AP in 2016. She appears from photos to be an older Boomer. I've worked with people like her in the newspaper biz. They always, always see themselves as Champions of the Marginalized. To them, what's wrong with journalism is educated well-off white people. This, of course, is why you never read, see, or hear in our national media any stories about transgenders, illegal immigrants, sexual and racial minorities, and suchlike. Seriously, I am 100 percent certain that Kathleen Carroll believes this. My first big exposure to the bubble that Baby Boomer liberal journalists dwell in came at a national convention I attended in 2003. These were smart and accomplished men and women, but they had no apparent clue about how biased they were in their judgment, and how contemptuous they came across to people who didn't share their biases. That's when I first recall having conversations with white liberal journalists who defended their own hostility to poor and working-class white conservatives by saying that yeah, so those people are economically and culturally marginalized, but they benefit from white privilege, so screw 'em. OK, it wasn't quite that blunt, but that was absolutely the feeling.

More Downie:

More and more journalists of color and younger White reporters, including LGBTQ+ people, in increasingly diverse newsrooms believe that the concept of objectivity has prevented truly accurate reporting informed by their own backgrounds, experiences and points of view.

“There is some confusion about the value of good reporting versus point of view,” said current Post executive editor Sally Buzbee, who noted that many journalists want to make a difference on such issues as climate change, immigration and education. “We stress the value of reporting,” she said, “what you are able to dig up — so you (the reader) can make up your own mind.”

“The consensus among younger journalists is that we got it all wrong,” Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor in chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, told us. “Objectivity has got to go.”


Well, gosh, if the young people say it's so, then it must be true. They're so impressive in their dedication to truth, and to respect for dissenting points of view, as we can see from the experience of campus life these past twenty years.


Some local television stations owned by broadcast networks are trying to increase their coverage of real life in their communities. ABC-owned stations have, for example, sent journalists from recently created “race and culture content” teams into local neighborhoods. “We have to be able to use the voices of people whose neighborhoods we don’t normally go into and tell these stories from their vantage point,” Maxine Crooks, a vice president of ABC-owned stations, told us.

I don't live in the US now, so I don't see these "race and culture content" teams' work. But I would be gobsmacked if it were anything but one-sided race-baiting agitprop. Besides, we live in a society right now in which people who dared to criticize the dominant progressive racial narrative would make themselves targets of violence or other forms of retaliation. You'd have to be a fool to talk to a journalist from the "race and culture" team, if you held a view critical of the woke line. Does this problem ever come up in newsrooms, talking about reporting?

The thing is, nobody believes that pure objectivity is ever attainable. But the definition Downie gives in the first paragraph of his op-ed is a good one, and a defensible practice. A journalist should try his best to get to the clearest account of what happened, or whatever the phenomenon he's reporting on, because in so doing the public who reads his work can use that information to make their own minds up. Journalists are not omniscient. The story usually changes as more information comes to light. This is normal. But what the younger generation of journalists are trying to do is throw the standard out because they don't want to have to talk to the kind of people they hate -- and the older gatekeepers are giving way, just as 1960s-era college presidents let the students occupy their offices.

I was told a couple of years ago by a Millennial journalist who worked at the time for a top media outlet that their newsroom gave up on "objectivity" when Trump was elected. The feeling there was that if trying to be objective ends up with Trump being elected, then screw objectivity.

Downie goes on:

Newsroom staff diversity should reflect the communities being covered — not just gender and ethnic diversity but also diversity of economic, educational, geographic and social backgrounds. Inclusive newsrooms should encourage their journalists to speak up and be heard by their colleagues and leaders in making decisions about coverage.

This. Rarely. Happens. And if it did, journalists who hold religious, moral, or political views that run counter to what the newsroom mob believes know damn well that they had better keep their mouths shut. This is the thing that makes me want to yell at Len Downie and all the senior journalism executives he quotes in this piece: they have no idea about how their own biases condition the kind of reporting their organizations do, and the culture of the newsrooms. If "objectivity" is no longer a guiding principle of American journalism, then it's easy to predict what will happen to dissident minority voices within newsrooms. Downie's op-ed says nothing at all about the kind of ideological bullying we saw in leading newsrooms during the Summer of Floyd -- the kind of thing that caused Bari Weiss to quit the Times, and that drove veteran journalists like the prize-winning health reporter Donald McNeil Jr. into retirement, because the newsroom was under mob control. All the people Downie quotes seem to believe that American journalism is on a path of virtue by surrendering the "objectivity" goal to radical subjectivity. As we all know, some subjectivities are more worthwhile than others.

I saw it all coming as far back as 2005 when I argued with a Millennial colleague at The Dallas Morning News about our paper's indefensible bias on covering the gay marriage issue, rarely if ever quoting anybody who opposed it, unless it was to hold them up to contempt. He agreed, and said this was the right thing to do, for the same reason that the paper ought not to have concerned itself during the Civil Rights Movement with giving the KKK's side of the story. This young journalist sincerely believed that local priests, pastors, and others in our heavily conservative, religiously observant city, were the contemporary equivalent of Grand Dragons and Kleagles, and were therefore rightly erased from our coverage.

Downie ends like this:

One essential value for all Americans is the survival of democratic institutions, which are under attack on multiple fronts. Trustworthy journalism by a new generation of journalists and newsroom leaders can ensure that the news media continues to do its part to protect democracy.

I imagine he typed that with a straight face. Liberal Boomer journalists are always the last to know.

If you want to get an even stronger sense of the bullshit aroma coming off that Downie piece, compare it to Jeff Gerth's fantastic four-part Columbia Journalism Review autopsy of the media's abject failure in the Trump-Russiagate matter. It's quite long, but it's a must-read. It reveals our elite media to have been arrogant, eager to believe its preferred narrative, and to fit the facts around the story it wanted to believe, and, incredibly, unwilling even now to examine its own mistakes. Gerth, a veteran investigative reporter who, in his career, was regarded as one of the very best in the business, ends his series like this:

My final concern, and frustration, was the lack of transparency by media organizations in responding to my questions. I reached out to more than sixty journalists; only about half responded. Of those who did, more than a dozen agreed to be interviewed on the record. However, not a single major news organization made available a newsroom leader to talk about their coverage.

My reporting has been criticized by journalists, from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, in the 1980s, to Harper’s magazine in the 1990s and the Daily Beast in the 2000s. When I’ve had the opportunity to respond, which hasn’t always been the case, I’ve tried to engage. On a few occasions, I concluded the inquiring reporter wasn’t really open to what I had to say, so l let my story speak for itself.

But during this time, when the media is under extraordinary attack and widely distrusted, a transparent, unbiased, and accountable media is more needed than ever. It’s one of a journalist’s best tools to distinguish themselves from all the misinformation, gossip, and rumor that proliferates on the Web and then gets legitimized on occasion by politicians of all stripes, including Trump.

Most Americans (60 percent) say they want unbiased news sources. Yet 86 percent think the media is biased. The consequences of this mismatch are all too obvious: 83 percent of the audience for Fox News leans Republican while 91 percent of the readers of the New York Times lean Democratic.

Jennifer Kavanagh, senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me of her concerns about news silos.

“If you are only getting your news from one source, you are getting a skewed view,” which, she said, “increases polarization” and “crowds out the room for compromise, because people base their views on these siloed news sources.” She added: “People don’t have time to deal with nuance, so they settle on a position and everything else tends to become unacceptable.”

Walter Lippmann wrote about these dangers in his 1920 book Liberty and the News. Lippmann worried then that when journalists “arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable.”

Read again: When journalists "arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable."

Compare this to Downie's column, and the survey of journalism leaders on which it is based. They are all now cheerleading for a journalism standard set not by an outside standard, but by the subjectivity of the reporters -- especially of a generation that has come to believe that ideas that challenge what they wish to believe are intolerable attacks on their identity. Downie's piece and what it represents, when put side by side Gerth's piece, occasions pitch-black humor.

The only thing that could begin to rebuild the trust of most Americans in journalism would be a forceful re-dedication to the values of objectivity -- again, even while recognizing that it's an unattainable goal, but worth pursuing as a professional discipline, to make sure journalists are pushing up against their own biases. But the journalism profession is going in the opposite direction. Similarly, the only thing that can save democracy in a wildly diverse and contentious country like the contemporary United States is a forceful return to the old liberal standards of fairness, and judging people by their character and competence, not sex, race, or anything like that. But we are going in exactly the other direction. It doesn't take a prophet to guess what's coming, and coming soon. And when it does, the media mandarins will blame anybody but themselves and their sacred cows.

Last note, just for fun. This is what Kansas City public radio station KCUR thinks is an actual story:

"Some local fans"? The headline writer must have only glossed over the story, which reports:

But, as the city at-large celebrates their third Super Bowl appearance in four seasons, many fans feel conflicted. Some feel outright alienated every time they see that arrowhead-shaped logo or the so-called “tomahawk chop.”

Many fans! Now, look: how many fans in the KCUR newsroom, or in the social circles of KCUR journalists, think that the tomahawk chop is no big deal? More to the point: how many of them think it's no big deal, but would have the courage to say so in front of their colleagues?