By Christopher Ketcham
In this rotten business of freelance magazine writing there’s almost no assignment in which the issue of objectivity fails to rise up like the miasma it is. Any writer who puts his mind on the matter knows that no human being is objective, which is the reason writers sit down at the page in the first place. The writer, an inherently subjective force, will not be divorced from the writing, though God knows there are quacks in the news business who are trying. Computers might achieve this end. Also, certain types of house cats are objective: They know exactly what the truth is, and it is them.
So whence the delusional obsession with “objectivity” in the journalism schools and the pages of the Gray Lady et al.? The pretense and veneer of objectivity is the goal. This renders idiot mistakes and outright falsities so much easier to sell to the public. After all, the marketer of the junk is presented as the all-seeing eye, an authority no less unerring than the babblers at Delphi, no less the product of superstition. Whether we like it or not—whether we recognize it or not—the culture credits “objectivity” in the journalistic establishment as the product of powers greater than known. The news-clown jabbers on screen, says this or that is so ... and, lo, it is so. More likely it’s “All the News That’s Shit to Print.”
Let’s not forget that this sleight of hand gets innocent people killed and maimed—see The New York Times’ “objective coverage” of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that whenever you hear of governments and organizations fomenting, preparing for or making war, be prejudiced on the side of peace; this is un-American, I know. Whenever you hear a government spokesman speak, your objective assessment should be that he’s lying—this is only logical consistency. Be prejudiced, in fact, against persons associated with organizations large or small, be they members of government, private industry or a block association. Be biased in favor of the lone man against whatever or whoever colludes against men acting alone. For my part, I’ll take the word of the skankiest street hustler over the police commissioner, the buzzing of the gnat over the scream of the 10 gorillas.
Perhaps the most poisonous delusion that today blinds the magazine business in particular is the notion of the so-called news peg, which is the Trojan horse for beating out the competitors and selling ads while attempting to inform the public (this last not a necessity, perhaps even an afterthought). Ron Rosenbaum, in his collection of magazine work “The Secret Parts of Fortune,” sums up the problem. “The peg—for those blessedly unfamiliar with this innocent looking but insidious little magazine-jargon word—is shorthand for the topical rationale for assigning or running a piece,” writes Rosenbaum. “Most often, lately anyway, shorthand for what about-to-be released movie does this story tie into, and can we get the piece before the movie’s release date because we won’t care about it afterward. The peg is, I believe, the bane, the self-destruction of magazine journalism.” Why? Because magazine articles, like good books, are supposed to make news, bring out into the open the unheard of, the strange, the new. Rosenbaum continues: “I’m just against the doctrine [that] defines topical in the most obvious way—the way most attached to the timetables of the publicity-industrial complex. I prefer things that become topical because some obsessed writer cares about it enough to compel attention to it.”
Not possible these days, Ron. More than ever, the marketplace is skewed against, conspires against, crushes and spits out this sort of creativity and seriousness in aspiration for the new. The glossy-magazine industry, with few exceptions, is designed to run as a front for the tired old travesties of the admen, they who determine the page count and the “feature well” and thus the space that can be dedicated to things of substance (or things mostly inane but pretending toward substance—the glossies are especially adept at this).
In this regard, John Swinton, who worked at The New York Times and The New York Sun and in various writing gigs from the 1860s to the eve of the 20th century, reminds us that it’s always been about selling copies, that this business of news is just that. Swinton, on a night of drinking with his colleagues in 1880, was asked to make a toast to the “independent press.” He stood up and famously answered: “There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, in America, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”
Christopher Ketcham, a freelance journalist in New York City, writes for Harper’s, Vanity Fair, GQ and many other magazines. Find more of his work at www.christopherketcham.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.