Objectivity isn’t truthful — it’s pathological

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Objectivity is dead, maaan” club since 2002*, when Jonathan Chait’s TNR essay about Bernard Goldberg’s Bias and “liberal bias” blew my young mind. Since then, I’ve read many more arguments for why objectivity is outdated, including a spate of 2009 posts. (Obligatory caveat: Good intentions and common sense underpin the objectivity enterprise. The problem is rigid adherence to a specific, previously unquestioned strain of objectivity.)

But I’ve never read a rethink-objectivity argument quite like Steve Buttry’s recent post on the subject. The language he uses is unexpected — and gets at the heart of why objectivity-at-all-costs is ultimately misguided.

Buttry’s post is a response to a Society of Professional Journalists memo urging journalists in Haiti “to avoid blurring the lines between being a participant and being an objective observer.” On balance I agree with his view on the SPJ memo, but leave the Haiti specifics aside for a moment. Read what Buttry says about objectivity in general (bolded emphases mine; italics are my blog template’s blockquote style):

[T]he notion of objectivity is a fig leaf for journalists who don’t want to deal honestly with our own humanity and don’t want to take personal responsibility for the human impact of our journalism. We’re just doing our jobs. We’re just being objective. Objects can’t be responsible.

Journalism is practiced by flesh-and-blood people with families and pulses. We can and should uphold professional standards such as fairness and accuracy and verification. But when we deny our humanity, we lie to our readers. And sometimes we miss the story.

You don’t often see objectivity described in these terms, but he’s right.

Denying one’s humanity. Lying. Avoiding personal responsibility for the sake of said lies: This is the language of pathology.

From this perspective, objectivity’s insidiousness becomes clearer. The pathology manifests itself not just in stories that might engage a journalist emotionally, but also and far more commonly in stories that engage (or should engage) a journalist intellectually.

Here’s Chait in that touchstone 2002 piece about Bias (same emphasis explanation as above):

[F]or the mainstream media, being even-handed usually means treating respectfully the reigning view in each party. … One consequence of this bias, as I’ve written in these pages before, is that the press feels obliged to take seriously even those policy claims that are empirically false.

That is, political journalists often know a statement is false or misleading but print it without qualification — knowingly participating in a lie to readers — for the sake of notions of objectivity.

When the good-intentioned pursuit of truth leads the truth-seekers to lie (to themselves, to readers; by inclusion or omission) rather than break their code, there’s probably something wrong with the code.

This pathological objectivity has become so harmful to civic life that President Obama made it a key part of Wednesday’s State of the Union address. (Though to be fair, his comments about the media apply equally or moreso to Fox News’ and various pundits’ plain old, not-even-ostensibly-objective pathological lies). Indeed, Obama’s Q&A session with Republicans on Friday was so riveting because we’re not used to seeing politicians’ empirically false claims get refuted publicly in real time.

The alternative, as many have pointed out, isn’t for journalists to say exactly what they think about everything they write or edit. Part of being a socialized adult, after all, is knowing when it’s appropriate to offer your opinion or keep it to yourself (there’s that common sense again).

Rather, a healthy journalism and healthy public discourse — not to mention healthy journalists — are better served by a professional-intellectual framework of honesty, transparency, and expertise (or, in Dan Gillmor’s formulation, thoroughness/accuracy/fairness/transparency) than by one ultimately built on lies and extreme cognitive dissonance.


* It was before blogs so there’s no online record, but I have a college newspaper column proving I was on the rethink-objectivity bandwagon back in 2002!