John Buell

Journalism, Objectivity, and Godliness

In addition to stirring up quite a controversy about government surveillance, Glenn Greenwald’s interviews coupled with his robust defense of Edward Snowden has sparked a debate as to the legitimacy of so called “advocacy journalism.”

Greenwald and his defenders maintain that the dichotomy between “objective” and “advocacy” journalism is a false one. As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi puts it:” to pretend there’s such a thing as journalism without advocacy is just silly; nobody in this business really takes that concept seriously. “Objectivity” is a fairy tale invented purely for the consumption of the credulous public, sort of like the Santa Claus myth. Obviously, journalists can strive to be balanced and objective, but that’s all it is, striving. Try as hard as you want, a point of view will come forward in your story. Open any newspaper from the Thirties or Forties, check the sports page; the guy who wrote up the box score, did he have a political point of view? He probably didn’t think so. But viewed with 70 or 80 years of hindsight, covering a baseball game where blacks weren’t allowed to play without mentioning the fact, that’s apology and advocacy.”

Taibbi’s choice of the Santa Claus metaphor is especially provocative. Santa Claus promises comfort, redemption, and certainty in a world of injustice and flux. So called objective journalism can make its claim seem plausible to some merely because it reaffirms subtly or even directly the reigning understanding of how the world does and should work. The claim of objectivity is the modern day claim of divine inspiration and one that conventional journalism seldom surrenders.

Taibbi’s example of sports reporting in the thirties and forties could easily be replicated today. The coverage of “immigration reform” grows out of some sentiments and perspectives shared widely across the bi-partisan political perspective. A path to citizenship is premised on calls for more “border security,” but few ask about the status of this border, as though God drew the line there. What of its shifting position or the routine movements of many over the years back and forth across this shifting line? Or what of the concern noted by many ecologists that the current border corresponds to no bioregion. Articles mentioning these themes would surely be advocacy journalism, but so is the untested assumption of the sanctity of the current border. That high tech surveillance, walls, and a virtual army are needed to secure it — if at all — should force us to ask other questions.

Consider (mainstream or corporate?) business reporting. I hesitate as to what adjective to use because these terms point the reader in different directions. I choose the term corporate to highlight what I take to be the ever closer, incestuous conjunction of communication media and their corporate sponsors/owners. And underlying my choice of terms is at least for some an assumption that more decentralized, non- state alternatives are possible.

A topic now widely discussed in the corporate media, pensions and aging Americans readiness for retirement, is a frequent example of advocacy. WNBC, the crown jewel of the NBC network, recently did a story on how most Americans are unprepared for retirement. The reporter explained that they have not saved enough, that they should put paychecks in the bank and then pay their bills. And most important, they should realize that they may lose their jobs and if so their new job may well not pay as much as their current job. Perhaps this is good advice — for that segment of the middle class not living paycheck to paycheck. But like most of what passes for business reporting today it assumes that an individual’s economic fate depends primarily on personal character. These feature stories seldom present any discussion of the role that a vigorous union movement in the forties and fifties had in securing defined benefit pensions from major corporate employers. And the inability to secure new high paying jobs is often presented as a mere fact of nature.

Joblessness itself is generally treated in a politically tendentious way. The very term “labor market” implies a politically contestable conception of the world whereby multiple job seekers and multiple owners meet on an even playing field and each is equally able to reject the overtures of the other. If there are any flaws in this labor market, the problem lies with “labor bosses.” When declining middle class wages or unemployment are treated at all, markets, supply, and demand hold near iconic status. Corporate media, themselves beneficiaries of government subsidy, give little consideration to the possibility that many prices are administered by oligopolies.

Information about unemployment rates is equally caught up in underlying theories about markets and social and economic values. Much corporate commentary suggests that there is a non- accelerating inflationary rate of unemployment — expressed by conventional economists with the God- awful acronym NAIRU. Once unemployment drops below that point the rate of inflation will begin dangerous acceleration. Once again labor is implicitly blamed for any problems in the macro economy. The reigning discourse disregards the possibility that in a full employment economy workers might develop an interest in qualitatively better jobs or worker ownership programs rather than simply escalating wages.

Wouldn’t good “objective journalism” simply insist on tests of these market theories? The problem here is that social theory, unlike weather models and forecasts, does not merely describe an independent reality. Our descriptions are anchored in and help sustain perspectives on how the world works and should work. Journalists, pundits, politicians all may see themselves as “just the facts” men and women but all are assessing those facts from some vantage point. These assessments in turn shape behavior. Portraying workers as responsible for their own failed retirement and jobs as merely a source of income can shape behavior and expectations. Alternative perspectives can and do emerge. Wishing, even by the most established conventional pundits and theorists, does not always make it so but their ideas and practices hang on—especially absent determined counter theories and practices.

From my perspective the best journalism is the most honest, both to itself and its opponents. It acknowledges that it starts from somewhere. That place often includes not only a left/right dimension but also understandings of how orderly or disorderly the world is and the limits of human understanding. And the best journalists can combine open advocacy with sensitivity to the gaps and limits in their own perspectives. No journalist writing one simple piece can or should be expected to cover all that territory, but general acknowledgment of an advocacy dimension in all journalism would aid not only the profession but our politics as well.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2013

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2013 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652