By Neal Gabler
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who revealed National Security Agency surveillance leaks from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, dueled this week with former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller over objectivity in journalism. Keller argued that impartiality forces a journalist to test all assumptions. Greenwald, however, countered that impartiality didn't test assumptions as much as confer authority to each of them. He explained that his new reporting venture, a website funded by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar, would treat official pronouncements with skepticism.
But while this argument has been taking up a lot of the journalistic oxygen, Paul Thornton, head of the Los Angeles Times letters to the editor section, weighed in recently with a potentially more significant position. Thornton held brief for neither impartiality nor skepticism, but rather for a belief that facts matter — that they can lead to conclusions whether you happen to like those conclusions or not.
Thornton admitted that in his section, he does not run letters claiming there is no human source to global climate warming. Why don't they run? Because, according to Thornton, "Saying ‘There's no sign humans have caused climate change' is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy."
It should have been the journalistic shot heard ‘round the world, except not many people seem to have heard it. Get this: An editor at a major American newspaper had the temerity to say that on some issues there is such a thing as scientifically verifiable truth. In doing so, he challenged what may be the dominant force in American journalism over the past 30 years — not bias, but that standby of certain university English departments, deconstructionism, which insists there is no such thing as an immutable fact.
An editor championing truth over opinions shouldn't be an earthquake. But it is. Journalistic extremes have long disregarded fact for ideology. However the bulwarks of American journalism — our mainstream newspapers, websites, magazines, and network news broadcasts — have opted for another principle: Every opinion, no matter how uninformed, deserves equal weight — and journalists dare not come down on one side or the other. It makes balance the new objectivity.
This careful balancing act is now so commonplace that we hardly recognize it. Most anyone watching the evening network news during the government shutdown, for example, saw man-on-the-street interviews of first one person blaming the Republicans for the fiasco (for which they did bear the greatest responsibility), followed by another person blaming the Democrats, followed by a third blaming everyone in government. That has become standard journalistic practice in mainstream media outlets.
A large reason for the "on-the-one-hand," "on-the-other" reporting has been the success of conservatives in creating the shibboleth of a "liberal" media and then working the refs in that media to bend over backward to prove it isn't true. No one, not least of all liberal editors, wants to be considered one-sided.
But the roots for this go back more than a century, when the journalistic extremists of the yellow press era, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, controlled American newspapers. Progressives decided to fight back against these press lords' sensationalistic, propagandistic papers that traded in scandal and used their pages to promote pet causes — most famously, Hearst's desire to provoke a Spanish-American war. The Progressives called for a new, professionalized journalism, in which reporters wouldn't be advocates who took sides so much as observers who collected facts.
In theory, it was a great idea to upgrade our reporting and hoist it from the muck. But it came with a flaw. Fact and neutrality do not always cohabitate comfortably. In fact, they seldom do — especially in a highly-charged political environment. Facts have consequences, and they can undermine opinions that have no factual basis. That's why some journalists ignore them in the first place.
Climate change is a perfect example. You can say that humans aren't responsible for climate change, as most conservatives do — but you would be factually wrong.
You can say, again as many conservatives have, that Obamacare is a gigantic failure. But you would again be factually wrong too, since it hasn't been implemented yet. (This isn't to say that it might not be a failure, only that there are no facts to support its being a failure now.) You could also say that the minimum wage costs jobs, but you would be factually wrong since most major economists have proven otherwise.
As it turned out, it was a very short distance from so-called objectivity, in which one might be forced to take sides by the facts, to balance, in which one avoided taking sides by presenting the arguments for each.
But there was another force at play here, a deep cultural force that wasn't conservative. In fact, it was left-wing. And it wasn't denying bias — in fact, it denied that there could be anything that wasn't tainted with bias.
That force was deconstructionism, and it connected with conservatism and with the old progressive principle of objectivity to create the toothless, spineless journalism we now have.
Deconstructionism is a philosophical idea that denies fact or truth has an absolute meaning. Instead, these draw their meaning from the social and cultural context. Take any book: What does it mean? A deconstructionist might say that the answer is entirely dependent on when it is read, where it is read and who is reading it — which would make the idea of meaning irrelevant. There is no central essence, no hierarchy of value. To put it bluntly: We just made everything up.
This theory became all the rage in university English departments back in the 1970s and 1980s — when the ideas of objective fact and verifiable truth in texts were themselves under left-wing siege as handmaidens of the prevailing bourgeois order.
But whatever impact deconstructionism may have had on university literature departments, its deepest influence may have been on journalism. That is where the idea of "no truth" meshed with the idea of "no advocacy."
In a world where everything was biased, there was no possible way to pull apart fact from fiction or truth from lie — so journalists just decided to report everything so long as there was no ascribed value to anything. It was a hyper form of democracy — a democracy in which every statement is just as good as any other statement.
So when an editor says that there are facts and there is such a thing as truth, he is pushing back against at least 30 years of journalism and as many years of critical theory. In effect, he is taking on the culture. No one yet seems to have followed Thornton's lead, but if the news media did, it would reshape our journalistic environment into one in which expertise matters, facts are verifiable, and opinions must be supported in order to be aired. It is easy to blame politics for all our woes. But the blame should rest equally on media outlets that are too afraid to state what the facts make obvious.
We have Thornton to thank for pointing that out.
(Neal Gabler is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own)
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