George Packer recently sent out a newsletter hawking subscriptions to the Atlantic. I’ve been a subscriber for many years, so I was preparing to delete the email, but it contained a description of genuine journalism that was so apt and timely–especially in the era of Fox and its clones–that I decided to share it.
Packer, as many of you know, is a highly respected political scientist, and author of several well-received books. He also writes for the Atlantic. He began his newsletter as follows:
When I went to Ukraine last May to report the story that appears in The Atlantic’s October issue, I didn’t go as a neutral observer. I very much wanted Ukraine to win the war, and I was happy to bring a suitcase full of medical supplies to Ukrainian doctors who would make sure the equipment reached soldiers at the front. If I’d been asked to do the same for doctors on the Russian side, I would have had no trouble refusing. Intellectually and morally, none of this was complicated. Ukraine is the victim of Russia’s unprovoked aggression, it is a smaller country bullied by a larger one, and it is a democratic society threatened by an imperial dictatorship. The stakes of the war were as clear and high as those of any event in living memory.
For all the high-minded, public-spirited justifications that journalists offer for what we do, at the bottom lies a fundamentally selfish motive. Some stories attract us for their novelty, others for their scale, or their complexity, or their sheer excitement. Ukraine attracted me because I wanted to see a cause in which I’d come to believe—because I’d chosen sides.
Isn’t “choosing sides” exactly what we don’t want journalists to do? Packer weighs in with an explanation of why that is the wrong way to think about the nature and necessity of objectivity.
Should this partisanship have given me ethical qualms? Should it bother readers of the article? Journalists are not licensed according to a professional code of ethics, but there’s a long-standing sense that we shouldn’t take sides—at least not openly. A reporter covering a presidential election is not supposed to announce which candidate he or she supports, and some reporters even abstain from voting at all to remain above suspicion. At an extreme, the idea of neutrality leads to an absurd pursuit of balance in which a lie on one side of a political divide is given equal status with the truth. At the opposite pole, journalists with a strong bias might hide important facts and shade their storytelling in intellectually dishonest ways to manipulate the reader to a prefixed conclusion. In one famous example, The New York Times’ Walter Duranty, a Stalin sympathizer, denied the existence of the Soviet-engineered famine in the early 1930s that killed several million Ukrainians.
Welcome to the Fox proclamation that its news coverage is “fair and balanced.”
As I used to tell the students in my Media and Public Policy classes, “balance” is most definitely not the same thing as “factual” or “objective.” The emphasis on balance has given us what observers call “stenography journalism”–he said/she said, we report, you decide. (For years, that approach undercut efforts to explain the gravity of climate change; it gave equal time and emphasis to the 97% of scientists who were issuing warnings and the 3% of outliers and outright cranks who denied it.)
Packer addressed the danger–and dishonesty–of that false emphasis.
There’s a great deal of space between both-sides-ism and Duranty-ism, between spurious balance and outright deception. In that space, journalists are bound to take sides. But choosing sides requires objectivity, which is very different from neutrality. Objectivity is the pursuit of truth regardless of subjective impulses or political commitments. It’s what makes it possible to choose sides and remain credible. Partisanship imposes an extra burden to keeping our minds open to whatever might challenge our biases, to being on guard for any impulse to suppress or self-censor. As Bob Dylan put it: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” (Emphasis mine.)
Journalists are human, and they will get things wrong. As with all humans, they can see only through their own eyes. What we have the right to demand is not a”balance” that abdicates responsibility for truth-telling– the stenography approach. Instead, we have a right to expect journalists to do as Packer counsels–keep their minds open to information that challenges their biases.
As we have all seen in discussions that accompany this blog, that’s not easy. When people are convinced that their understandings are more accurate and trustworthy than the perceptions or reports of others, they will cherry-pick sources and evidence.
Objectivity is beyond them, so passion substitutes.