The twilight of objectivity

March 31, 2006|By MICHAEL KINSLEY

CNN says it is just thrilled by the transformation of Lou Dobbs - formerly a mild-mannered news anchor noted for his palsy-walsy interviews with corporate CEOs - into a raving populist xenophobe. Ratings are up.

According to The New York Times, this demonstrates that "what works in cable television is not an objective analysis of the day's events" but "a specific point of view on a sizzling-hot topic."

Consider Anderson Cooper, CNN's rising star. His career was made when he exploded in self-righteous anger while interviewing Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu after Hurricane Katrina, and gave her an emotional tongue-lashing over the inadequacy of the relief effort.

Jonathan Klein, the head of CNN in the United States, said Mr. Cooper has "that magical something ... a refreshing way of being the anti-anchor ... getting involved the way you might." In short, he's acting like a human being, albeit a somewhat overwrought one.

Mr. Klein goes with the flow. Only five months before anointing Mr. Cooper as CNN's new messiah, he killed CNN's long-running debate show, Crossfire, on the grounds that viewers wanted information and not opinions. He said he agreed "wholeheartedly" with Jon Stewart's widely discussed and uncharacteristically stuffy remark that Crossfire and similar shows were "hurting America" with their occasionally raucous displays of emotional commitment to a political point of view.

Mr. Klein is right in sensing that objectivity is not a horse to bet the network on. Or the newspaper either. The newspaper industry is in the midst of a psychic meltdown over the threat posed by the Internet. Internet panic is a rolling contagion among the established media.

No one seriously doubts that the Internet will fundamentally change the news business. The uncertainty is whether it will change only the method of delivering the product or whether it will also change the nature of the product.

Will people want, in any form - and will they pay for - a collection of articles written by professional journalists from a detached and purportedly objective point of view? Will anyone sit through a half-hour newscast invented back when everyone had to watch the same thing at the same time? Or are blogs and podcasts the cutting edge of a new model - more personalized, more interactive, more opinionated, more communal, less objective?

Objectivity - the faith professed by American journalism and by its critics - is less an ideal than a conceit. It's not that all journalists are secretly biased. In fact, most reporters work hard to be objective, and the best come very close. The trouble is that objectivity is a muddled concept. And so is its opposite: bias, which implies that it is wrong for reporters to have opinions about what they cover. Journalists who claim to have developed no opinions about what they cover are either lying or deeply incurious and unreflective about the world around them.

Most of the world's newspapers, in fact, already make no pretense of anything close to objectivity in the American sense. But readers of the good ones come away as well-informed as the readers of any "objective" American newspaper. Another model, right here in America, is the newsmagazines - all of them produce outstanding journalism with little pretense to objectivity.

Opinion journalism can be more honest than objective-style journalism because it doesn't have to hide its point of view. It doesn't have to follow a trail of evidence or line of reasoning until one step before the conclusion, then slam on the brakes for fear of falling into the gulch of subjectivity. All observations are subjective.

Abandoning the pretense of objectivity sounds like the lifting of a burden, which it is. But the fundamental journalist's obligation of factual accuracy remains. And opinion journalism, done right, brings new ethical obligations as well.

These can be summarized as intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counterarguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

If opinion journalism became the norm, rather than a somewhat discredited exception to the norm, things would be different. Unless, of course, I am completely wrong.

Michael Kinsley is a social commentator who lives in Seattle.

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