Transcript: David Greenberg
My interview with the Rutgers historian and journalism professor
One of the big debates in journalism right now is over the role of objectivity. Is this an ideal worth upholding — or should we be moving on to other models, like the “moral clarity” ideal recently proposed in the New York Times?
This debate resurfaced last week at a panel discussion hosted by the Columbia Journalism School, “The Objectivity Wars.” My guest on the program today was on that panel.
David Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He’s also a columnist at Politico. He recently published a longform piece titled “The War on Objectivity in American Journalism” in the Liberties journal.
This edited transcript is for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: David, welcome to Lean Out.
DG: My pleasure to be here, thanks.
TH: So nice to have you on. The Liberties piece that we’re going to talk about today is a really powerful piece. I also want to talk about the Columbia Journalism panel that happened. But first, let’s start with the context for this conversation. For people who are not familiar, can you give a bit of history on the ideal of objectivity in journalism?
DG: Sure. This is now an ideal that’s coming under a lot of criticism and pressure. So it’s enjoying a renewed discussion about its value. But, you know, when we talk about objectivity in journalism, we’re talking mainly about reporting — about news gathering — and an approach to gathering, and writing, and presenting the news that really became mainstream, 100, 120 years ago. One way to think about it is that the press in America in the 19th century — before this ideal of objectivity became mainstream — was extremely partisan. Newspapers openly and unabashedly represented a political program. And the reporting was often quite skewed toward that orientation. So it wasn’t just that you had editorials and opinion pieces, that was the whole way the news was framed. Of course we have always had that. In some ways, it’s become again stronger today, as we have Fox and MSNBC on television.
But in the late 19th century and early 20th century, you saw a trend toward professionalization, toward objectivity. In lots of fields. In law, in the social sciences. The idea was that the best way to get at truth would be to try to account for one’s own subjective biases, to identify them, to try to neutralize them. And to develop methods and procedures that would allow anyone to try to get at the same truth — to try to get a story fairly. So, in law, it would be about how you adjudicate a case. In the social sciences, it would be about how you analyze and understand society or economics. And in journalism, the idea was to report stories in ways that would give an account that would be accepted, and ring true, to people no matter what their political leanings. This rather quickly became the norm, the standard in what mainstream newspaper journalism was all about. You still had some newspapers that were openly right wing or openly left wing. But for the most part, this is the style that we see in The New York Times or The Washington Post. Certainly in the wire services, because the wire service stories had to be adopted by a wide range of newspapers. They really wanted their copy to be acceptable to all kinds of readers, and to be appreciated and trusted.
I think, by and large, we still deep down share these values objectivity. We still know it to be a good thing. The alternative is a competing arena of wildly subjective claims, in which readers are left just to pick and choose according to their own ideology or political leanings. Yet, we know if you want to know what’s happening in Ukraine, or what’s happening in India, or in any part of the world, you are going to turn to those sources that you trust to give you an uninflected and — as much as possible — an unpoliticized account.
TH: Before we get into the downsides of challenging these norms of objectivity, let’s talk for a moment about how the sausage gets made. What are some of the policies and practices that are associated with the aspiration of objectivity?
DG: Right. And calling in an aspiration is, I think, appropriate. No journalist, I think, imagines that he or she is always able to give a perfectly objective account — is always free of biases. The whole reason biases are treacherous is because we’re often unaware of them, and they creep in in ways we don’t see. Objectivity really was developed as a method. What do journalists do to make sure that they’re not letting their biases get the better of them? Well, part of it is you talk to multiple sources. You don’t just rely on one person’s account — whether it’s an official government account or someone who’s an advocate. You get people on both sides, or many sides, of an issue.
Even things like attribution, which seems fairly basic, journalism 101. If someone gives you a statement, that statement may be true or false. But if you attribute the statement to a person, the journalist is going to be making a true statement.
We had, as you mentioned, the other day — if I can jump ahead — a Columbia Journalism School panel on this subject. My friend Masha Gessen, who writes for The New Yorker, said that Masha didn’t want to put into a New Yorker story a denial of atrocities that was offered by the Russian government. Because it would be contaminating the story with a lie. I pointed out: It’s not a lie if you say a Russian government spokesman said X, or Putin claimed X. That’s a way of actually making the story true. And the reader will then know this is a claim coming from a source. So, by sourcing your claims, attributing your claims, that’s also a method to help the reader understand what’s true, where certain claims are coming from.
So all kinds of things, from trying to avoid being opinionated, editorializing, commentary in your news columns. I mean, there’s a place for that on the opinion pages and columns. But when you’re giving the news, the attempt is to tell it straight. And there’s a whole welter of procedures and practices that have evolved over the last century that have tried to help us attain this goal of giving an account of the news that everybody — or almost everybody — can agree upon. It’s accuracy and fairness.
TH: The moment that you just referenced with Masha was quite a remarkable moment. I do want to get into a few of the claims that were made at that panel in a moment. But first, in the Liberties essay, you note that the war on objectivity began years ago. You write that it is one of the distinguishing features of the cultural and intellectual history of our time. Can you unpack that?
DG: Sure. So when we talk about objectivity in journalism, as I said, everybody knows that we fall short of the ideal all the time. And I would say, to simplify, there’s two ways that you can misfire. One is to editorialize too much — so that too much opinion comes into a news story, and you feel like you’re getting a partial account, a special pleading, a puff piece, a hatchet job, a slanted story. The other way, which is much maligned today, is a kind of false equivalency. Where, in the effort to give multiple accounts, you give equal weight. As Eric Sevareid said in the 50s about some of the journalism around McCarthyism, you give as equal weight to the truth as to the lie. This is a critique that was made in the 40s and the 50s and the 60s. It’s not new today, even though a lot of people, or younger journalists, think they’re clever to have discovered this. It’s a longstanding pitfall.
Now, in the 60s, I think objectivity came under fire in a new, more foundational way. Instead of saying, “Hey, we’re not living up to this ideal” — a lot of younger journalists partaking of the counterculture and the new radicalism of the era, began to say the whole ideal is a mystification. That it’s a way of tricking us into thinking we’re doing good journalism. When in fact, from the left, the claim was this shores up a conservative establishment power structure. And from the right, this shores up a liberal power structure. Both the left and the right, interestingly, made similar critiques. And so, in the last 50 years, we’ve seen professional journalists in print, but also in broadcast and other media, try to acknowledge the elements of truth in those critiques and accommodate. And find ways to allow it into newspaper reporting. Sometimes there needs to be a little bit more voice, a little bit more analysis, a little more clarity about which claims are true and which claims are false.
We’ve seen a proliferation of different modes of journalism. But still, I think, holding onto those essential tenets. There’s a scholar of journalism at Columbia, Michael Schudson — one of the leaders in the field — who calls this Objectivity 2.0. It incorporated these criticisms and yet survived. I think now even that Objectivity 2.0 is coming under criticism again. There’s a renewed assault, along much the same lines. Although, I think, with some new elements. And the question again is: Can we return to, or can we hold on to, an understanding that it’s still important to have a core of accuracy, of reliability of methods that try to identify and correct for the subjectivities that are part of human nature, that creep into reporting?
TH: There’s another standard that’s being talked about now, this idea of moral certainty or moral clarity. Wesley Lowery, who was on the panel, has advocated for that in The New York Times. Lewis Wallace, also on the panel, has said the old way has to go. You write in the Liberties piece, “Those newly fashionable phrases should make us pause. Not only because they were first popularized by Bush during the war on terrorism, but also because determining the correct moral posture on a political or policy issue is almost always difficult. And certainly beyond the capacity of a daily journalist working at digital speed.” Let’s talk about this idea of moral clarity.
DG: Yeah. I find it somewhat worrying, disturbing, that it’s so easily latched onto. It’s a sign of our times. People feel such a sense of threat — whether it’s coming from Trump on the right … But, you know, people on the right also feel a threat from the left. That may be misplaced, or what have you. But we’re living in times where everything is overblown and dire and an emergency. In that context, there’s a sense of desperation. That we need to assert moral truths, unambiguously. People often go back to comparisons to Weimar, Germany, on the eve of the Nazi takeover.
First of all, as bad and worrying as things are, we’re not at that moment. So it’s a different situation. But even if it were not, wouldn’t we still need to determine the facts? Wouldn’t we still need to determine what truly happened in this situation — before we make our moral judgements about it?
There have been a lot of incidents recently where there’s been a rush to moral judgment without knowing the facts. One that somebody in the audience the other night reminded me about was a story of some kids on the mall in Washington, DC. Who, according to a video, looked like they were harassing a group of Native Americans. But, in fact, the situation was quite different. There had been — we can call it a journalism of moral judgment or moral certainty — that had been condemning these kids. Basically trying them in the media, without all the facts being in. That turned out to be quite wrong. Both The Washington Post and CNN, and maybe one other outlet, ended up having to settle lawsuits because of their irresponsible reporting.
So, you know, having one’s moral anchor is important, in any field. In any pursuit. But part of what journalism demands is ferreting out the facts first. And there’s kind of a putting the cart before the horse going on. Where if we lead with our moral convictions before we really know what happened, we can often get into trouble. One thing I’ll say further on this point: Several years ago, even starting during the Bush administration, it became common on the right to just dismiss out of hand, and not even pay attention to, Liberal opinion. Even to mainstream reporting that contradicted the convictions on the right.
Somebody came up with this unfortunate term that I’ve taken to using — “epistemic closure.” The knowledge base closing up and being impervious to outside information. There was a famous moment in the 2012 election night coverage on Fox, where the Fox anchors, or it might have been Karl Rove, just couldn’t believe that Mitt Romney was going to lose according to Fox’s own projections, which were being done in an objective fashion by data analysts. And they went back into the back room to talk to the number crunchers. To attest that, yes, Romney was projected to lose these particular States. And there were many other examples on the right.
I think we still have that on the right. Clearly, as you see with COVID and election denialism. But we’re also now seeing that on the left. So, certain stories — whether it was about the possibility that the COVID origins might not have been in the wet market, but in a laboratory; the notion that there might have been something to the stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop, which, when The New York Post reported it, was kicked off Twitter.
So, the left is getting in its own form of epistemic closure, where they are not even willing to entertain ideas that may seem threatening, or anathema. And then sometimes those ideas turn out to be either true, or partly true, or worth considering. So, only a journalism that is open and is empirical and is objective … And, of course, objective is a complicated term. People mean different things by it. But that — as opposed to a journalism of moral clarity or moral certainty, where you know where you are going to end up before you start — that’s the only way, I think, we can really learn the truth about things. Because we’re always going to be wrong, no matter how virtuous or politic. Even if we believe that our own worldview is fundamentally sound, sometimes the other side has a point.
TH: I want to ask you about something that Wesley Lowry said during the panel. He called newsrooms “apartheid institutions,” and claimed that every single day mistakes get made because the newsroom leadership lacks racial diversity. He’s written elsewhere — as you quoted in your piece — that “the views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral.” How do you think through those arguments?
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