Objectively navel gazing about objectivity


Om*pha*lo*skep*sis (om-ful-lo-SKEP-sis) n. from omphalos, Greek for navel, and skepsis, examination: contemplation of one's navel as an aid to meditation.

Objectivity. What a concept.

I am inclined to believe objectivity, as attempted by the American media, is not an outgrowth of altruism but merely an economic model, born of the penny press when maximizing circulation meant maximizing advertising revenue. So it made no sense to alienate half of your potential audience by being partisan in politics or anything else.

It is thus amusing navel gazing to contemplate the navel gazing over the dismissal of Juan Williams at NPR for expressing a personal angst and the brief suspension of Keith Olbermann at MSNBC for contributing to Democratic politicians.

It doesn’t get any more navel gazing than when New York University professor Jay Rosen interviews himself on what he calls the view-from-nowhere journalism.

Rosen asks himself why he disdains this bid for objectivity and replies thusly:

Because it has unearned authority in the American press. If in doing the serious work of journalism — digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat — you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it. The View from Nowhere doesn’t know from this. It also encourages journalists to develop bad habits. Like: criticism from both sides is a sign that you’re doing something right, when you could be doing everything wrong.
 
When MSNBC suspends Keith Olbermann for donating without company permission to candidates he supports — that’s dumb. When NPR forbids its “news analysts” from expressing a view on matters they are empowered to analyze — that’s dumb. When reporters have to “launder” their views by putting them in the mouths of think tank experts: dumb. When editors at the Washington Post decline even to investigate whether the size of rallies on the Mall can be reliably estimated because they want to avoid charges of  “leaning one way or the other,” as one of them recently put it, that is dumb. When CNN thinks that, because it’s not MSNBC and it’s not Fox, it’s the only the “real news network” on cable, CNN is being dumb about itself.

Decent point. Good criticism.

But then Rosen offers some interesting suggestions for practicing journalists:

For example, if objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, I agree. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense. Don’t you? If it means trying to see things in that fuller perspective Thomas Nagel talked about — pulling the camera back, revealing our previous position as only one of many — I second the motion. If it means the struggle to get beyond the limited perspective that our experience and upbringing afford us … yeah, we need more of that, not less. I think there is value in acts of description that do not attempt to say whether the thing described is good or bad. Is that objectivity? If so, I’m all for it, and I do that myself sometimes.

It is hard to suspend judgment. Try it sometime.

I know reporters who will not vote in a race they are covering though they may have the best knowledge of who is the better candidate. They are trying to suspend judgment. Do they succeed? That is unimportant. Is the reader well served? I hope so.