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Objecting to Objectivity and Other Journalistic Canards

Jeff Jarvis

I’m surprised the GOP isn’t spitting and fuming over this segment on Talk of the Nation at National Public Radio. It deals with the idea of objective journalism and whether, as a professional ideal, it is now outmoded. It begins with host Neal Conan interviewing Ted Koppel, who gave the pot a vigorous stirring with a Washington Post op-ed, “The Case Against the News We Choose,” which hopped on the media bandwagon following MSNBC’s brief suspension of Keith Olbermann for giving donations to Democratic candidates. Koppel characterized the Olbermann’s suspension as a “whimsical, arcane holdover from a long-gone era of television journalism, when the networks considered the collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news to be a public trust.” (This all preceded MSNBC’s equivalency-induced suspension of Joe Scarborough for giving donations to Republicans.) No wonder Chris Battle, in a poison-dart U.S. News and World Report op-ed, suggested it’s actually MSNBC President Phil Griffin who should be suspended, not the on-air commentariat.

How nervy was it of Conan to air a program on objectivity at a time when NPR remains the target of the right wing? For the radical-right’s drumbeat toward NPR’s extermination continues apace. Here, for example, is the latest assault from a conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby, at the Boston Globe. Yes, we’re a one-Fox-fits-all nation now, with paranoia and fear our supreme ruler. Why else would Tina Fey’s acceptance speech of the Mark Twain Prize, in which she cited Sarah Palin’s “influence” on American women, be edited by PBS? (They attributed the snip to “time constraints.”)

Even Koppel admits that objectivity is a lost art:

…today, when Olbermann draws more than 1 million like-minded viewers to his program every night precisely because he is avowedly, unabashedly and monotonously partisan, it is not clear what misdemeanor his donations constituted. Consistency?

And that loss, Koppel argues, will cost us:

….Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.

One can agree or disagree, or see some gray between the lines. Slot me in the third category.

The reason is because the role of the heavy on NPR fell to journalistic eminence and Web media guru Jeff Jarvis, who oversees the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York (and who I interviewed back in 2009). Jarvis may have been too eager to interrupt the staid but solid Koppel, but you can’t accuse the man of being anything but passionate about what he believes, or able to summon a cogent argument in order to back it up.

In a Nov. 5 blog post, Jarvis turned the controversy over Olbermann’s suspension on its head, calling for a new kind of journalistic ethic, one suited for a new-media era in which transparency is paramount:

…the problem with MSNBC’s policy that makes contributing to candidates a suspendable offense is that it prevents journalists from acting as citizens of the communities they are to serve.

It’s not as if Olbermann was objective. It was his job not to be. We all know where he stood. I say he should put his money where is mouth is. He just shouldn’t have hidden it or be made to do so.

…We have the ethic of journalism exactly reversed from what it should be: Journalists should be the most open, the most transparent, a model of honesty.

…They do this because they want to stand above Fox News as objective. What they do instead is stand apart from their communities as – what? – sterile, gutless, distant.

This is a strong condemnation of the old guard. No doubt part of the resistance is financial: advertisers still want and still need to reach the widest possible audience, and the more demographically sliced and diced the viewership is, the tougher it becomes to deliver (and control) a blanket message.

Then again, Fox News is not for liberals and, I would argue, not even palatable to the center, or whatever passes for the center in contemporary American politics. After all, this is the same network that celebrated Glenn Beck calling George Soros a Nazi collaborator and a threat to the U.S. government and all kinds of other deliberate and smearing lies. I hate to break it to Koppel — and, I suppose, to Conan and to Jarvis — but in the face of the Orwellian propaganda with which Fox News President Roger Ailes is doping the nation, the question has moved beyond whether there is still, or whether there should be, objectivity in journalism.

That NPR is even debating Fox News’ effect on the game tells us how little the non-Fox players know about playing it.

Yes, there’s danger in the same voices preaching to the same voices, with alternative choirs anathema. It seems to me, however, that the quicker American journalism stop pining for the past, the better off the future of journalism may be.


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