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The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News

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Posted on Feb 1, 2010
AP / Elaine Thompson

By Chris Hedges

Reporters who witness the worst of human suffering and return to newsrooms angry see their compassion washed out or severely muted by the layers of editors who stand between the reporter and the reader. The creed of objectivity and balance, formulated at the beginning of the 19th century by newspaper owners to generate greater profits from advertisers, disarms and cripples the press.

And the creed of objectivity becomes a convenient and profitable vehicle to avoid confronting unpleasant truths or angering a power structure on which news organizations depend for access and profits. This creed transforms reporters into neutral observers or voyeurs. It banishes empathy, passion and a quest for justice. Reporters are permitted to watch but not to feel or to speak in their own voices. They function as “professionals” and see themselves as dispassionate and disinterested social scientists. This vaunted lack of bias, enforced by bloodless hierarchies of bureaucrats, is the disease of American journalism. 

“The very notion that on any given story all you have to do is report what both sides say and you’ve done a fine job of objective journalism debilitates the press,” the late columnist Molly Ivins once wrote. “There is no such thing as objectivity, and the truth, that slippery little bugger, has the oddest habit of being way to hell off on one side or the other: it seldom nestles neatly halfway between any two opposing points of view. The smug complacency of much of the press—I have heard many an editor say, ‘Well, we’re being attacked by both sides so we must be right’—stems from the curious notion that if you get a quote from both sides, preferably in an official position, you’ve done the job. In the first place, most stories aren’t two-sided, they’re 17-sided at least. In the second place, it’s of no help to either the readers or the truth to quote one side saying, ‘Cat,’ and the other side saying ‘Dog,’ while the truth is there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes.”

Ivins went on to write that “the press’s most serious failures are not its sins of commission, but its sins of omission—the stories we miss, the stories we don’t see, the stories that don’t hold press conferences, the stories that don’t come from ‘reliable sources.’ ”

This abject moral failing has left the growing numbers of Americans shunted aside by our corporate state without a voice. It has also, with the rise of a ruthless American oligarchy, left the traditional press on the wrong side of our growing class divide. The elitism, distrust and lack of credibility of the press—and here I speak of the dwindling institutions that attempt to report news—come directly from this steady and willful disintegration of the media’s moral core.

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This moral void has been effectively exploited by the 24-hour cable news shows and trash talk radio programs. The failure of the fact-based press to express empathy or outrage for our growing underclass has permitted the disastrous rise of “faith-based” reporting. The bloodless and soulless journalism of the traditional media has bolstered the popularity of partisan outlets that present a view of the world that often has no relation to the real, but responds very effectively to the emotional needs of viewers. Fox News is, in some sense, no more objective than The New York Times, but there is one crucial and vital difference. Fox News and most of the other cable outlets do not feel constrained by verifiable facts. Within the traditional news establishment, facts may have been self-selected or skillfully stage-managed by public relations specialists, but what was not verifiable was not publishable. 

The cable news channels have cleverly seized on the creed of objectivity and redefined it in populist terms. They attack news based on verifiable fact for its liberal bias, for, in essence, failing to be objective, and promise a return to “genuine” objectivity. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly argues, “If Fox News is a conservative channel—and I’m going to use the word ‘if’—so what? … You’ve got 50 other media that are blatantly left. Now, I don’t think Fox is a conservative channel. I think it’s a traditional channel. There’s a difference. We are willing to hear points of view that you’ll never hear on ABC, CBS or NBC.”

O’Reilly is not wrong in suggesting that the objectivity of the traditional media has an inherent political bias. But it is a bias that caters to the power elite and it is a bias that is confined by fact. The traditional quest for “objectivity” is, as James Carey wrote, also based on an ethnocentric conceit: “It pretended to discover Universal Truth, to proclaim Universal Laws, and to describe a Universal Man. Upon inspection it appeared, however, that its Universal Man resembled a type found around Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Cambridge, England; its Universal Laws resembled those felt to be useful by Congress and Parliament; and its Universal Truth bore English and American accents.”

Objectivity creates the formula of quoting Establishment specialists or experts within the narrow confines of the power elite who debate policy nuance like medieval theologians. As long as one viewpoint is balanced by another, usually no more than what Sigmund Freud would term “the narcissism of minor difference,” the job of a reporter is deemed complete. But this is more often a way to obscure rather than expose truth.


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Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, February 1, 2010 at 6:12 am Link to this comment

ardee, February 1 at 9:35 am
It was good to read the Molly Ivins citings as well.
Damn I miss that Texas terror.
============================================
Ardee, thanks for the chuckle and a spot on post.
Molly wielded her words like a scalpel; cutting to the
cancer with such grace and humor while savaging so
gently and the target felt no pain. Long live Molly
Ivans who as yet, sadly, has no peer. wink

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By luling, February 1, 2010 at 6:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The Press is not, nor has it ever been, objective or impartial. It has always had a pov.  But, long ago, the pov of a particular organ was well known.  Now, it is not so much.  Today, it is mostly entertainment; with some propaganda thrown in.
It is difficult to find news; it always has been.  But, something close to it can be found.
We must keep in mind that serious people in the political arena have always known how to get their pov across.  They also know what to keep quiet about.

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By elwoodpdowd, February 1, 2010 at 6:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Of course so-called objectivity is just an excuse for the media to remain uncontroversial, while maintaining the myth of being part of a free American press. The truth is that the consolidation of the media , which had begun in the 1920s and ended with the final nail in the coffin- Clinton’s signing of the Telecommunications Act in 1996- is what has really ended a free press in this country. In 1900 there were 95 daily newspapers in New York City alone ( and many were owned independently by publishers with vast differences of political views from conservative Republicanism to leftist socialism) There are now three; and they are also just parts of media congomerates that also operate radio and television operations. Jefferson and Madison understood that without a free press a real democracy is an impossibility- so guess where that leaves us?

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By al, February 1, 2010 at 5:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hey Chris, leftgatekeeper, you don’t think the government checks signed by Goebels have anything to do with it?

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By Bronwen Rowlands, February 1, 2010 at 5:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Boy, do I miss Molly Ivins.  It’s good to see her quoted here.  Look up Jim Hightower’s “Hightower Lowdown” for some very Molly-like straight-talk and wit.

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By ardee, February 1, 2010 at 5:35 am Link to this comment

I think this powerful, prophetic and above all accurate rendering of the demise of our free press shows why Hedges receives so0 much criticism here on this forum. Reading his words is like exposing a nerve, too painful to consider the truth contained within it.

It was good to read the Molly Ivins citings as well. Damn I miss that Texas terror.

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By Bill, February 1, 2010 at 5:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m a fan of Chris Hedges but this article totally misses the point. The point is that six corporations now control 96 percent of the global media. If you want to know the bias and agenda, just look up the people behind the news at the six corporations who control it all, and their lust for power and control which they achieve by shaping the reality of 300 million americans.

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By johannes, February 1, 2010 at 5:09 am Link to this comment

The journalists and all public media should be an institution of objective newsbringing, to the public.

Its become an daily source of indoctrination, full of lies, and unmeaning and worthless stories.

They have become the accomplice of the highest payer.

So simplistic is it, well thats my opinion

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By ofersince72, February 1, 2010 at 5:08 am Link to this comment

The Times may feel constrained by “verifiable facts”
That is because they don’t report the news…

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By thebeerdoctor, February 1, 2010 at 4:11 am Link to this comment

In one sense, I think Hedges throws a softball to his former employer, The New York Times, comparing it favourably over Fox News. When actually, as Gore Vidal has pointed out, The New York Times is a very bad newspaper. Two words immediately come to mind: Judith Miller.

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By mitchell Nusbaum, February 1, 2010 at 4:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks for addressing what is behind the uncertain fiscal sustainability of
American newspapers, the tilt to the corporate viewpoint with cynical sops thrown
in. I mean terming terrorists militants.

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Ouroborus's avatar

By Ouroborus, February 1, 2010 at 3:57 am Link to this comment

Hedges once again is operating from position of
knowledge of his subject (war correspondent many
places and a reporter for more than 20 years). He’s
earned his credentials like few others.
And I love that he quoted Molly Ivans; a total babe
for telling it like it is (I miss her columns).
As sorry a state as “news” reporting is, and I use
the term carefully, there are some sites that do a
good job of really reporting the news; Democracy Now,
Link TV, Al Jezeera, and The Real News Network.
Forget NPR and the rest of their ilk, IMO. And the
networks? Surely one jests; they just suck, IMO.
It’s the Hedges, Ritters, and Goodmans who keep
Truthdig interesting.

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By truedigger3, February 1, 2010 at 3:20 am Link to this comment

Mr. Hedges beats around the bushes and dances round and round in circles.
The problem with the news media is that it degenerated into becoming a propoganda and distraction organ working for the moneyed corporations and the governments that are now only represent them.
And that is a logical result, because those moneyed corporations own and control the news media.
You might find some honest articles or honest reporting are allowed to give the impression of objectivity, but these are just tokens and are very few, and are far between, and are buried in the back pages and are drowned by the continuous waves of the “regular” bullshit news&articles;, and those tokens are totally ignored.

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