Objectivity, scmobjectivity. We’re done with you, disinterested observance! Pay your tab, and HIT THE BRICKS. There’s a new standard on America’s Fleet Street, also known as the lumpy couch and fritzing MacBook. And its acolytes say, you aren’t welcome.
That’s the message New York Magazine correspondent Olivia Nuzzi relayed in a recent tweet stream. Nuzzi attests that journalism is broken. Here, here! *Clinks glass.* A hundred Pew polls couldn’t agree more. But the problem isn’t the media itself, which sloppily toggles between shouting fire for clicks and projecting Cronkitian gravitas in interpreting the times. It’s the reader, the clicker, the peruser, the curious, the intrigued, and the—*groan*—consumer. Basically, it’s the average coffee-slurping, monitor-transfixed, beer-gulping American, e.g., you. You’re the problem with the media, and you make it harder for people like Nuzzi to do her job. Aren’t you just ashamed of yourself?
“Nobody is served by news organizations promoting the myth that reporters are a special class of people who either don’t have, or are capable of totally suppressing, feelings and thoughts about the world in which they live,” Nuzzi begins, erecting a strawman (or, strawperson, as bien-pensant liberals prefer) with ultra-inflammable wheat. Not one American regards newshounds as cold robots merely transcribing history. We get it: journalists have dendrites. Some events warm their cockles, others chill them to zero degrees Kelvin. People are people isn’t news, nor an argument.
Then comes Nuzzi’s nut line: “To set the standard at objectivity rather than fairness denies the reality of what it is to be a person.” There you have it: from mild media criticism to the ontology of man and the intensional purpose of news coverage. Credit to Nuzzi for sublimating her whinging! May we all be as bold as to link our trifling concerns to the nature of reality. Unfortunately, Nuzzi’s brief rise in philosophical profundity is cut short by her own short-sighted commercialism: she calls the normative standard of objectivity in journalism “silly and naive and insulting to news consumers.” First she insults the “consumers,” then she portrays them as pathétique. Make up your mind, Olivia!
Before tackling Nuzzi’s exposition, I’ll point out her first misstep: passing off her thoughts as her own. Last year, a month after the epochal slaying of George Floyd, journalist Wesley Lowery decided to rewrite the paradigms of modern journalism. Not since his deliberate booking in a Ferguson McDonald’s had Lowery been willing to break so sacred a glass as retooling how the press delivers the news. From WaPo to Edward Murrow in six short years—nobody can accuse Mr. Lowery of not being a jeune ambitieux.
After Floyd’s death, and the throngs of outraged Americans who teemed the street unwittingly chanting a Marxist activist group’s name, Lowery, who identities as black(ish), propounded on his view of proper reporting in the New York Times. “Neutral objectivity” would not do in constructing a realistic framing of events. What’s needed, Lowery argued, is “moral clarity.” And who could disagree with that? It turns out anyone whose own moral worldview doesn’t comport exactly along the leftists lines of Lowery’s.
Well, OK. “Police shot someone” has a clearer ting than “officer-involved shooting.” But both are uncontextual phrasings that leave the reader hanging about what truly transpired. What Lowery really meant by invoking “moral clarity” was making judgements and asserting them as unimpeachable, beyond question. “Moral clarity would insist that politicians who traffic in racist stereotypes and tropes—however cleverly—be labeled such with clear language and unburied evidence,” he explained, using the laziest, most ubiquitous example of repellant behavior: racism.
A politician casually drops the N-word while pressing the flesh? Then reporters in the scrum should call him or her a racist in the copy. But if a certain populist erstwhile president decries “Mexicans” illegally crossing the southern border? Does moral clarity dictate that such a president is “racist,” despite his claim’s obvious probity? Does the question even need to be asked because we already know reporters are itching to stamp any Republican with the “BIG BAD RACIST” stamp?
The moral-clarity approach to news reportage can easily—with the slightest whit of partial wind—devolve into the sensationalist gutter press that was prevalent during America’s early days, with party heelers handing out gazettes speculating on the gender deformities of public-office seekers. Or, to bring it up to the modern era, about a newly sworn-in president’s urolagnia. Nuzzi and Lowery don’t likely want A1 of the Times to be indistinguishable from the opinion page. But they want room for subjective views within straight news copy because nobody is a complete objective automaton.
This rejection of objectivity is of a piece of the larger, more trendy rebellion against meritocracy, and hard knowledge in general.
From standardized testing to corporate-board composition to the idea of industriousness itself, practices that measure concrete skills and success are being dismissed as malevolent oppressions against those left behind, e.g. racial minorities, the cognitively deficient, the white precariat. The performance metrics all have one thing in common: they’re attempts to objectively determine talent, thus creating winners and losers. They’re egalitarian in the sense that competition is open, but inegalitarian because they produce an ordinal hierarchy. The failure to place, writes Patrick Deneen, makes the non-winners “prone to internalize their failure even as they resent the status and advantages of the ‘meritorious.’”
You can’t dispute the results of an algebra test, or the end tally of a sales contest, provided it’s all in fair play. And you can’t prevent a newspaper subscriber from taking away a certain conclusion from an unbiased sequencing of events. But you can interfere with outcomes by pushing down on the scale of neutrality with your own prejudice, whether by awarding a point handicap or interjecting your personal takeaway within an event chronicle. This conscious skewing can then be spun as to be more fair and “equitable,” in that blurringly leveling phrase.
Just as the standardized test was created as an indiscriminate trowel to level the playing field of success, objective journalism arose not just as a marketing gimmick, but with the purpose of informing the concerned citizen of liberal democracy. Both are not perfect means; nobody ever claimed they’re infallible. But to dismiss them in favor of liquidity relativism leaves no agreed-upon point from which to compare both ourselves and those around us. No set standard means everything is free-floating, or in the words of Heraclitus, “all is flux.”
Where Nuzzi, Lowery, and moral-clarity purveyors get their epistemological lines crossed is in the mistaken distinction between objectivity and ethics. In journalism, objectivity is an ethical imperative, because the assumption of neutrality is rooted in fairness. No reporter is unbiased, yes; all the more reason to strive towards a no-stakes summarization of both—yes, both!—sides.
Clarity in your own imperfection is the most moral clarity of all. Humility isn’t a first-order value taught in J-school, and it shows, from every major newspaper’s front page to the Twitter feeds of the presserati.