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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.
 
 
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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.

Enter Roger Ailes' ugly mug and the "Foxification" of modern news. "Foxification" represents an edging back to the model of the nineteenth-century press. There's a lot more yelling. But this yelling doesn't often represent real political debate. The different points of view offered by talking heads on Fox News are partisan ones, but not ideologically rooted. So what appears as the substantive airing out of differences between political opponents is actually glib "partisanship," what Peter Frase describes as, "adopting positions or taking actions based purely on what is immediately advantageous to your 'side,' party, or faction."

The Fox News turn would seem to be a universally negative one. Rampant partisanship may mean that many Republican commentators, for instance, support a health care plan when Mitt Romney proposes it in Massachusetts, but denounce it a few years later when President Obama implements it nationwide, but it also opens space for more genuine debate. Political parties, after all, are permeable to popular interests.

The biased voices at Fox News file adoring coverage on the Tea Party. No surprise there, since the Republican Party apparatus sees the movement as being useful to its own purposes. This in itself makes the journalistic elite nervous, as do the somewhat more unfounded critiques of partisanship at MSNBC. News networks' perceived partisan ties to Republican and Democratic brands threatens a century-long project to eliminate “ideology” and messy democratic politics from popular discourse.

Yet, in its own way, the post-partisan media old guard is pretty damn ideological itself. Consider the "debate" over social security. It's one issue, unlike unemployment, health care, or student debt, that doesn't rage contentiously over American dinner tables. It is, however, disproportionately represented in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and in the Beltway cocktail circuit. I'm no conspiracist, but I've spent enough years dealing with think-tank types in DC to know this is where elite ideology shines. A crisis is presented and strawmen responses from the "just cut taxes" Right and the "just raise taxes" Left are put forth. Who else are we to turn to, but our even-minded legion of columnists and experts, ready to assure us that we need to make "painful cuts, while at the same time raising revenue?" It's a case study in the construction of a reasonable "vital center" and it's every bit as manipulative as Fox News' distortions.

We seem to be presented with the choice between two unsatisfying alternatives -- dry, manufactured consensus or unenlightening, screaming idiocy. Perhaps we can conceive of something better. Instead of forcing our journalists to pretend like they are de-politicized beings in a de-politicized world, we should be fostering honest and open debate presented by people who can both qualitatively assess, while at the same time fairly representing the other side. In the end, truth is rarely ever impartial.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the editor of Jacobin.