Weekend reads: Big Journalism's big mistake
Maybe try listening to the public
With Canadians’ trust in the media hitting a new low this past year, the industry is now scrambling to explain why. And the reasons it comes up with confound me.
CBC head Catherine Tait has been on a cross-country tour, talking to Canadians about this very subject, and this past week she blamed Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre for the network’s low popularity. “There’s a lot of CBC bashing going on — somewhat stoked by the Leader of the Opposition,” she told The Globe and Mail, thus leaving the public broadcaster open to criticism that it is engaging in partisan politics.
And unfortunately this was not Tait’s only head-scratcher moment of late.
A recent TV appearance in Vancouver has also been widely knocked. “Why is there this decline in trust?” the CBC president asked last month, speaking on the CBC. “Not just for CBC/Radio-Canada, or the media in general, but for public institutions, for politics, for government. What is happening here? And I say — and I think people would agree — that social media is what’s happened.”
The problem, Tait maintained, is the flood of “disinformation” online, and the solution “is more good, high-quality, credible journalism.” So, “I just say keep doing the good work.”
This line of thinking, unfortunately, demonstrates how out of touch our media leadership class is. The problem is not that the public is not aware of the excellent work journalists are doing. The problem is that the public is well aware of journalists’ work, and they don’t think it’s excellent at all. They think it’s inaccurate and ideologically-driven.
I take no pleasure in criticizing the CBC. But as someone who publicly quit the network, I obviously get a lot of mail on the topic of media distrust. And the mail that I get suggests that a considerable number of Canadians believe journalists have subscribed, en masse, to a very specific, progressive political project.
They think that this is hindering our news judgement, causing us to abandon objectivity, and making us behave more like activists than journalists.
As a result, they no longer trust us to do what they would most like us to. Which is to determine the facts, to the best of our ability, and then reflect that reality, in all its complexity, back to the public. So that citizens may then decide for themselves how to act — whether that’s voting someone out of office, applying public pressure through protests or advocacy, engaging in policy debates, or doing nothing at all.
In other words, they believe that it’s not our job to influence their behaviour.
“Getting things right is hard enough,” the American reporter Matt Taibbi said at a recent Munk Debate on trust in the mainstream media. “The minute we try to do anything else in this job, the wheels come off. Until we get back to the basics, we don’t deserve to be trusted. And we won’t be.”
Now, if a portion of the Canadian public thinks our newsrooms have been captured by an unpopular and counterproductive identitarian ideology, and that this is hampering our ability to perform our job, one has to ask: Is it wise to tour the country, singing our own praises, and blaming social media and politicians for the fact that our audience no longer trusts us? Perhaps not.
Our fellow Canadians are telling us, loud and clear: Just stick to the facts, we’ll decide what to think about them.
But we, as a profession, are not listening.
South of the border, we’re seeing similar dynamics play out in the debate over journalistic objectivity.
The latest development in this ongoing saga sees a former executive editor at The Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr., arguing it’s time to retire the antiquated notion.
For the record, the alternate standard that Downie proposes — “accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth” — is basically what the public understands objectivity to be anyway. And it’s a standard I would gladly accept.
I would endorse, too, many of the practices outlined in this piece: widening the definition of newsroom diversity to include factors other than identity, including economic and educational background; visiting neighbourhoods reporters don’t usually visit; continuing to prohibit news-gathering journalists from commenting publicly on controversial topics or taking part in protests. (Downie himself even stopped voting in order to remain as neutral as possible.)
But unfortunately Downie’s own journalism here functions to undermine his argument, packed as it is with highly-politicized progressive preoccupations, language and talking points. And lacking, as it is, in any other viewpoints.
Downie interviewed 75 news leaders, journalists, and experts for this piece, and yet not one is quoted giving a full-throated defence of objectivity. The report proceeds, instead, as if there is no other legitimate way to think about this issue.
What exactly is accurate, fair or non-partisan about that?
Surely a reasonable person — like, say, Rutgers University journalism professor David Greenberg — could support the aspiration of journalistic objectivity. Surely it is only right that we hear from someone like that too.
Such perspectives don’t seem to be in short supply, even within pockets of the left-leaning media.
Take Bret Stephens, for instance, and his response to Downie, “How to Destroy (What’s Left of) the Mainstream Media’s Credibility,” in The New York Times:
… the fact that objectivity is hard to put into practice does nothing to invalidate it as a desirable goal. On the contrary, the standard of objectivity is of immense help to editors trying to keep reporters from putting their own spin on things or excluding people and arguments they dislike from coverage. What Downie and Heyward dismiss in their report as “both-sides-ism” is, in reality, a crucial way to build trust with audiences, particularly in a country as diverse as America. It gives a platform to multiple views. And it shows faith that people can come to intelligent conclusions of their own.
Or take another recent piece on distrust in the media, “When Americans Lost Faith in the News,” in The New Yorker. I can find much to disagree with in Louis Menand’s essay, but he rightly highlights a crucial piece of context here — that we live in an extremely polarized society and that “one of the features of polarization is that there is no such thing as objectivity or impartiality anymore.”
The conclusion that Menand ultimately comes to is, I think, the right one:
The power of the press, such as it is, is like the power of academic scholars, scientific researchers, and Supreme Court Justices. It is not backed by force. It rests on faith: the belief that these are groups of people dedicated to pursuing the truth without fear or favor. Once they disclaim that function, they will be perceived in the way everyone else is now perceived, as spinning for gain or status.
How can we in the media not grasp this? How can we fail to heed Menand’s warning?
It is truly mind-boggling to watch journalists decide that the solution to our profession’s credibility crisis — in which a distrustful public accuses us of bias — is to abandon any pretence of pursuing the very thing that the public is calling for more of.
Unsurprisingly, our audience sees this more clearly than we do. And one need only scroll down to the comments under the Post piece to confirm it.
Indeed, the first comment I read contained more clarity than Downie’s entire essay:
“Objectivity” is a value or telos. Observing that people have been and are imperfect in reaching the goal of objectivity no more undermines the idea as a telos than losing a game undermines victory as the goal of games. The correct answer is to acknowledge failures and endeavor to do better, not to scuttle the whole project.
Another reader pointed out that “sometimes readers just want you to report what you saw and heard, not what you feel” and asked that the media please “respect the value of giving readers that much and no more.”
Yet another commenter wondered if the Post had considered that cultivating a reputation for objectivity could increase subscriptions. “If we wanted biased opinions disguised as news or care to be lectured on how to think, we would watch MSNBC or FOX News,” they went on to write. “Where now are we to turn for objective presentations of all the facts?”
“A reporter’s point of view and her political passions can lead her to a story,” one reader noted, “but if she doesn’t practice good journalistic standards once there, she’s in risk of being an activist who writes — not a journalist. We need fewer activists in our newsrooms, and more journalists.”
Here’s the thing: In order for the public to trust us in media, we have to trust the public. That starts with listening to people’s critiques — and taking them seriously.
Speaking of progressive political projects that are unpopular with the public, the Great Awokening’s days may be numbered.
This week one of my favourite American thinkers, Musa al-Gharbi — writing in one of my favourite American outlets, Compact Magazine — predicted the demise of identitarian moralism. Indeed, his essay, “Woke-ism is Winding Down,” lays out a robust argument that its power and influence is waning.
Let’s hope he’s right.
Lean Out with Tara Henley is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.