3 November 2020

Objectivity is under attack in America: the truth is up for grabs

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Objectivity is a central tenet of American journalism, a matter debated more, and more influentially, than in any other media culture. But its a principle that’s under attack – and the results are of worldwide significance.

Social responsibility has been the lodestar for US reporters, commentators and editors since the second world war, a duty conferred on them by a report of the Commission on the Freedom of the Press. Its 1948 report recognised that media – then dominated by newspapers – was central to society’s evolution and should serve citizens by discovering and telling the truth.

This was a high bar for what was usually a low trade. Look at the way it was represented in the movies: from His Girl Friday to Ace in the Hole, reporters were usually depicted as comically or tragically corrupt. The Commission’s judgement was adopted, however, by most of the press. Reporters and editors became more wedded to facts than Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind. The handbook, The Elements of Journalism,(2003) by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, has as its first commandment: “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth”.

America’s media sailed into the 21st century with these standards more or less still intact. For serious journalists, Britain’s tabloid culture dragged all others down, while French reporting infused with opinion made it useless as a citizen’s guide. But a series of movements, large and powerful, separate though linked, have shaken that previously serene confidence.

The vast use of social media is a continuing shock. Facebook and Twitter are where most young people get their news. These wealthy and powerful corporations have only a fleeting relationship with journalism’s ethical commandments. An investigation by the US magazine Mother Jones published last week revealed that Facebook’s owner Mark Zuckerberg had, in 2017, told his engineers to adjust its algorithms to soften any adverse attacks on conservative media and cease to show favour to liberal sites. This was, the Mother Jones article claimed, in order to “get Trump off our backs”. This move, and the reason for it, would be anathema to ethical journalism.

Woke culture, in which close attention is paid to perceived injustice and prejudice, has moved into mainstream journalism.  The comment pages of the New York Times, whose old nickname – ‘the Grey Lady’ – conjured up a decorous collection of lengthy, carefully explained and balanced articles, have become a battlefield in the culture war. Opinion editor James Benet (tipped as the possible next editor) was fired after he published an editorial by a Republican senator, Tom Cotton, which called for the use of troops in US cities which had seen large Black Lives Matter protests, and subsequent riots and looting. Columnist Bari Weiss also resigned, writing in her parting letter that in The Times now,  “truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else”. The Executive Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stan Wischnowski, felt obliged to resign after protests over the publication of a headline which read “Buildings Matter Too”.

One of the stars of the new consciousness in newsrooms, the former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery (now at CBS), who won a Pulitzer prize for investigating fatal shootings of African Americans by the police, believes that news organisations’ “core value needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity”. For him the two are now in conflict.

The largest shock to journalism in the US – and globally – has been Donald Trump. In November 2017, the Fox News presenter Chris Wallace, known for his informed style of interviewing, gave a speech in which he said Trump’s attacks on the media were a threat to democracy – but that  the President “has a point” on bias. Giving some examples – such as a CBS news introduction which described Trump as “divorced from reality” and a New York Times’ reporter’s tweet which claimed Trump had failed to condemn “virulent racists, anti-Semites and white supremacists,” Wallace appealed to the trade’s commandments: journalists should be “umpires…objective witnesses to what is going on”.

Yet as he knows, when former Presidents lied, as they sometimes did, it was comparatively rare, discovered with difficulty and announced with something of a fanfare. Whereas with Trump, truth is accidental rather than normal; fanfares for a common lie would require hourly deployment. Leaders of the journalism trade initially tried to stick to straight reporting: Marty Baron, the Washington Post Executive Editor, said, “we’re not at war, we’re at work”, repeatedly stressing that nothing had changed. CNN promised “facts first”. Both are now strong opponents of Trump, with nearly all stories and comments slanted against him. All journalists worry that balance gives the President more time for lies; a commentary in the Columbia Journalism Review notes that the impartiality “view of journalism has never looked creakier, or more deficient”.

Trump may be nearing the end of his presidency. It’s fairly certain that Biden, marinated in Washington protocol, will normalise press relations. But the Trump era has fostered a taste a more emotive, personal, often outraged style of journalism.

This, together with the effects of social media and a new generation of journalists who place their duty to pursuing ‘woke’ concerns above objectivity, calls Kovach and Rosenstiel’s first commandment – an ‘obligation to the truth’ – into question. Now the truth is up for grabs: and democracy shakes.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.