The Myth of Objectivity….
Since 1721, when James Franklin (Ben’s brother) launched The New England Courant, newspapers have been an integral part of the American landscape. The colonial press and its successors all the way into the 20th century hardly fit into the mold of the modern newspaper. Yesterday’s papers were chock full of crusades, fiction and – before the word was invented – advertorials. The concept of objective journalism is a relatively recent development in the world of newspapers.
After decades of wild and woolly sensationalism, publishers began in the late 19th century to realize that outwardly neutralized information would allow for increased advertising as less people were likely to become offended. This change was stimulated by the growth of big cities and literacy, allowing increases in circulation that made publishing newspapers a virtual license to print money. American journalists were expected to eliminate overt opinions from their coverage, except for the safest and most stereotyped suppositions about society.
“Objectivity”, in the view of 20th century publishers, demanded that every item would be attributed to some authority. It chose to ignore the fundamentally subjective nature of the craft. Objective journalism ignored the value laden decisions that get made at each step of the reporting process: What facts are to be included? Where will the story be placed in the newspaper? Are the observations of a police captain really more reliable than those of a striking worker?
This journalistic canon created the false aura of a science, thus giving almost a century of American journalism an illusion of unassailable correctness. By mid-twentieth century “objectivity” had achieved the status of an acknowledged truth. But pesky facts kept popping up that steadily eroded that illusion, starting in the McCarthy era, where allegations of subversive associations by an alcoholic U.S. Senator were reported as fact, even after many reporters and editors knew otherwise. The Bush administration’s successful salesmanship in misleading the press (and the media’s unquestioning acceptance) during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was the proverbial “last straw” for the era of the objectivity.
Going into the 21st century, more Americans believe in UFOs and 9/11 conspiracy theories than accept as true the idea of an even handed or objective news media. A study published by Sacred Heart University found fewer than twenty per cent of Americans saying they could believe “all or most” media reporting. Given that the reading public no longer accepts the premise of objectivity, it’s not surprising that the old media has been losing traction and market share of late.
The monetary needs of major media operations to keep readership/advertising bases as large as possible would seem to dictate that some premise of neutrality would still be a good idea. Some of the new media/old media-based web sites are trying to address this concern with a tit-for-tat approach, making sure that each appearance of opinion is balanced with an opposition viewpoint. The difficulty is that this approach does not appease partisans (particularly in the realm of politics) or create the kind of buzz that builds readership.
The thousands of contributors to on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia are attempting an approach to coverage that stresses neutrality. They are learning, in the process, that one man’s neutrality can always be interpreted as another man’s advocacy. (For some insight on this, try reading the discussion pages relating to the Wikipedia Ocean Beach entries. It’s an eye opener.)
The overtly partisan press (both old and new) may generate enough of a readership to be deemed worthy of some financial support by (usually sympathetic) commercial entities. But, historically speaking, they are usually unable or unwilling to create a large enough base to sustain long-term success. And, as we have seen repeatedly in the not so distant past, when partisan media are seen as too threatening by political or business interests, pressure can be brought to bear that will dry up their sources of advertising/financial support.
The Nixon administration’s not so subtle pressure on the entertainment industry in the early 1970’s encouraged the record companies that supported the “underground” press to withdraw advertising and promotional dollars. Closer to home, the fledgling (and more apolitical) San Diego Reader received noteworthy support in its early years from local business interests concerned about the muckraking ways of the San Diego Door.
To be truthful, the Door’s business model (or lack thereof) doomed it to oblivion. And there is no evidence that the Reader knowingly did anything more than strive for commercial success. But the companies who directed that support did know what they were doing.
As the new media blogs have matured, the “transparency” path is emerging as an alternative that may prove to meet the desires of the publishers of the future to satisfy the needs, curiosities and passions of the 21st Century user. The concept of a collaborative relationship between reporters and readers goes against the grain of old school journalism, which often times identified more with the authority figures used for persuasive quotes than the readership. None-the-less, it’s an idea whose time is coming.
The relationship of the commenter with the readership in the development of content stems from the ability of readers to remark upon and contribute to the discussion of within blogs. Talking Points Memo’s Joshua Marshall is credited with this technique in exposing the US Attorney scandal, among others. This collaborative aspect came about entirely by accident, according to an account published in the New Yorker. His intent was merely to offer his readers “transparency,” so that his “strong viewpoint” would be distinguishable from the facts that he presented. However, he found that the enormous response to his work stimulated readers to offer up valuable information that was not always available to old school media.
For now, much of the new media survives by virtue of parasitical relationships with the old media. This will adjust over time (and is already changing) as the social and business model of the bloggosphere matures, just as the printed word displaced town criers and evolved into the newspaper format. The all-mighty daily newspaper now finds itself under fire from a bewildering array of would-be competitors that are more focused, faster and more connected with the consumer. Sentenced to damnation by virtue of their failure to uphold the public trust, and scorned by the political forces that once sought to control its influence, the press has no choice but to change. It’s quite likely in the coming months that we’ll see at least one large metropolitan market in the southwestern United States start learning to live without a daily newspaper. Others will follow, lost to a world that no longer seems to need them.
Next Up: Part Four– The Post-Newspaper Era.