i want to write about some quotes that Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and the Guardian US (GUS) collected from US journalism movers and shakers. The quotes are supposed to be about what the media did wrong in their 2016 election (especially presidential election) coverage. In practice, most of them aren’t about that. It’s sad, really, that communication professionals can’t even stick to the topic. Yet other aspects of what they said was far worse than merely undisciplined topic-wandering.
As I was writing about the larger series of quotes, I found myself writing a huge amount about just one. It’s far too much for a piece that analyzes trends throughout the quotes – it would bias the feel of the piece, making it feel less a piece about trends and more a piece about that one guy and some peripheral junk. So I’m dropping this preview of the other piece where I’m just shoving everything I wrote about that one guy: Steve Adler, the Editor In Chief of Reuters. Allow this to whet your appetite for the later piece.
So let’s hear from Steve Adler and get this thing started:
There’s a critique—a pretty serious critique—of trying to be objective and trying to be dispassionate, and that critique essentially says that in reality— if you’re on the right or the left—then the other side is destroying the country, and that to take any other position is wishy washy and non-courageous. We take the opposite position. We exercise a craft, and our craft is digging out information when the average person doesn’t have the skill to do that, and sorting accurate from inaccurate information, then providing the background and the context and the knowledge base that helps people figure out where they stand. We don’t take the position that somebody’s definitely, absolutely, for sure right, and the other side is definitely, absolutely, for sure wrong. We are not just doing “he said, she said”—we’re trying to provide accurate information with context.*2
First, let’s remind ourselves that this is Reuters’ head saying this. Reuters, as a wire service, permeates the coverage of every outlet. The NYT has its own journalists on overlapping beats, and yet they still reprint Reuters every single day. So if Reuters is fucked up, that shit’s gonna get everywhere. The best we can do is pray that they’re –
There’s a critique—a pretty serious critique—of trying to be objective and trying to be dispassionate, and that critique essentially says that in reality— if you’re on the right or the left—then the other side is destroying the country, and that to take any other position is wishy washy and non-courageous.
What? No. No to the power of pirate regalia. Just NO.
This is not starting well, what with hanging up a regular Ray Bolger in the fertile field of Adler’s first damn sentence. Pro-tip, Steve: It’s supposed to be the straw man that has no brains.
Look, the critique of journalistic objectivism is not that one side is trying to destroy the country. If one side is destroying the country, then objective reporting should report that. That would be fine enough. The critique of journalistic objectivism is that human beings are not objective creatures. While trying to be dispassionate might be a fine thing in many contexts, humans actually do have passions. We don’t logic all day like good little Vulcans.
Reporters pursue the stories that interest them, and those interests are formed by many things, the desire to gain money or promotion or fame. The desire to have a paid business trip to a particular location they’ve been wanting to visit. The desire to get to know someone who wouldn’t speak to the reporter if not for the excuse of writing about something important to that subject. And, of course, the desire to be seen as a good person, doing Good And Right Things™.
The critique of journalistic objectivism, then, is that since we aren’t actually objective, if we tell ourselves that we are, we are lying to ourselves. If we tell our journalists that you can’t have passions, they’re going to either quit journalism or they’re going to lie to themselves about having passions, because no one is actually going to stop having passions. If we make this journalistic objectivism an ongoing project, then journalists will lie to themselves in an ongoing way. If they lie to themselves in an ongoing way over a significant period, they very much run the risk of making a habit of lying to ourselves, of lying reflexively. And, finally, if they’re in the habit of lying to themselves, if their lies are reflex and not under conscious control, it is inevitable that they will then share some of those lies with the public. Since lying to the public is the opposite of journalism, we find that the end result of journalistic objectivism is bad, and so we find that journalistic objectivism is bad.
It has nothing to do with whether or not one side is destroying the country. The argument is that objectivism is bad because humans aren’t Vulcans and can’t be non-human 40 hours a week, week after week. Humans don’t human that way. Not even pirates.
When people are saying that you shouldn’t represent yourselves as objective, what they are saying is, “Don’t lie to us.” One can have a point of view and still present facts, but it’s important to let your audience know your point of view and that you realize you aren’t a Vulcan. If journalists can’t admit their non-Vulcanness (and if the audience can’t witness them admitting this), then the audience can’t trust journalists, can they? And by they I mean we.
But here’s what’s worse: the straw man case against journalistic objectivism isn’t something that Adler made up out of whole alfalfa. What he presents as a case against journalistic objectivism is actually the case against journalistic bothsiderism. And understood as a case against bothsiderism, the case is correct! If one side really is doing something harmful that the other side isn’t, we need reporters to actually say so. Reflexive equivalency inevitably generates many false equivalencies. False equivalencies are lies, because they’re, y’know, false.
So if the media reflexively bothsides an issue (or bothsides nearly every fucking issue, as many outlets do), journalists will inevitably lie to the public. Since lying to the public is the opposite of … wait, haven’t we just been here? Oh, yeah. We have. Lying to the public is the opposite of journalism. So, in the hallowed words of Columbia Journalism School 140% Full Professor and winner of 4 score lifetime achievement awards for excellence in occasionally managing not be stupid, Crip Dyke, the Right Reverend Feminist Fucktoy of Death and Her Handmaiden, reporters and editors should cut it the fuck out.
My FSM, you just want a great and noodly appendage to shake this guy awake, don’t you?
Does Adler learn anything from this “pretty serious critique” of bothsiderism? Well, let’s see! How does he describe the problem again?
if you’re on the right or the left—then the other side is destroying the country
Ah, right. That’ll show those anti-bothsiders that they have no anti-objectivity case, because bothsides, amirite?
There’s actually some reasonable stuff in his answer after this point, for instance:
our craft is digging out information when the average person doesn’t have the skill to do that, and sorting accurate from inaccurate information, then providing the background and the context
I mean, okay, that’s great. I don’t really trust it coming from a guy who can’t understand the difference between an argument against a journalistic objectivism which pretends that all reporters are Vulcans and one against a journalistic bothsiderism which is resolutely and overtly subjective. Still, whether he actually understands what he’s advocating or not, it’s a nice statement so that gives us hope going forwa –
We don’t take the position that somebody’s definitely, absolutely, for sure right, and the other side is definitely, absolutely, for sure wrong.
WHAT THE EVERFUCKING PUTTANESCA?
YES. YES YOU DO TAKE THAT POSITION EACH AND EVERY TIME SOMEBODY IS FOR SURE RIGHT OR WRONG.
Gathering facts does us no good if you’re afraid to present them honestly. Sometimes someone is right. Sometimes someone is wrong. And if you’re a journalist, and if your subject is important enough to make it into a story, you should absolutely tell people when those times are.
We are not just doing “he said, she said”—we’re trying to provide accurate information with context
You don’t just say,
Rich Orange Politician denied paying a porn star to keep quiet about their sexual liaison, but there is a canceled check that drew funds from his account and paid them out to the porn star and a contract that spells out some complicated legal stuff that sure seems to indicate ROP’ll pay that exact amount in exchange for silence about sex.
Rich Orange Politician denied paying a porn star for silence about their sexual liaison, but he lied. We know he lied because [insert facts here].
Otherwise you inevitably miss the mountain for the tree.
Still and all, it’s only the head of Reuters speaking at the beginning of a presidential election cycle.
Did I mention that we are doomed?