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What's Fit to Print? The Mainstream Media's Misguided Obsession With "Objectivity"

Our only media options these days are dry, manufactured consensus and unenlightening, screaming idiocy.

The battle lines couldn't appear more sharply drawn: Fox News versus "real journalism." That's the way former New York Times editor Howell Raines framed the conflict in a Washington Post column last year. He implored honest reporters to take on Roger Ailes' network, lamenting that:

Through clever use of the Fox News Channel and its cadre of raucous commentators, Ailes has overturned standards of fairness and objectivity that have guided American print and broadcast journalists since World War II. Yet, many members of my profession seem to stand by in silence as Ailes tears up the rulebook that served this country well as we covered the major stories of the past three generations, from the civil rights revolution to Watergate to the Wall Street scandals.

I might have found this argument about the Times' superiority more convincing a month ago. Around then, Jacobin, the small magazine I edit, hosted a discussion in lower Manhattan on Occupy Wall Street. The event was well-attended -- standing room only and dozens turned back at the door. However, though the Occupy movement is inspiring, we haven't yet gotten to the point where debates on political strategy and tactics are anything but a family affair for committed leftists. We fully expected the tranquility that obscurity affords.

And, for a little bit at least, we got obscurity. Then came the firestorm. Andrew Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and members of the right-wing b-team launched a fatwa of sorts at us, denouncing the participation of Natasha Lennard, a Times freelancer, in our panel. The newspaper's response was swift and uninspiring. Lennard, Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy assured, would be not be used for future Occupy Wall Street coverage. She added, "All our journalists, staff or freelance, are expected to adhere to our ethical rules and journalistic standards and to avoid doing anything that could call into question the impartiality of their work for the Times." The fact that someone could be fired for discussing a left-wing movement on a panel hosted by a left-wing publication caused me to reflect a bit on objectivity and the narrow ideological terrain on which it rests.

Modern notions of objectivity haven't been with us forever. The nineteenth century press was unapologetically partisan. Newspapers editorialized at every turn and often openly declared their allegiance to a political party. The shift away from this model was a product of the Progressive Era. It was a mixed blessing. The reformed publications were able to take on corruption and entrenched political machines like never before. But the shunning of overt bias was tied in with hostility towards mass participation in debate and the formation of public policy. It was insisted that professional journalists and technocratic politicians, untainted by popular passion, could best illuminate and solve the problems of the day. The media revolution was by nature an elite project.

But during the long era that followed, the heyday of CBS News and the New York Times , this elite character was obscured by a cult of objectivity. Tropes like "we let you decide" notwithstanding, these outlets didn't present all views; instead, the offered a limited spectrum of debate, selected from what publishers and journalists deemed "acceptable." "All the news that's fit to print ," the Times' slogan reads. A material basis fueled this self-consciously sterile and detached journalistic character. There were few national television channels and many prominent local newspapers had monopolies in their home markets. Journalism was, in a sense, isolated from competition, reinforcing a sense of being somehow above political conflict, despite the fact that local papers were key agents in urban power structures and national outlets had significant influence over political debate.