On the Role of Journalism

Below you will find a link to a recent piece by New York Times Columnist Bret Stephens.  In his essay, Mr. Stephens takes issue with a position recently asserted in the Washington Post by former Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr., whom Mr. Stephens quotes as declaring that a new generation of journalists “‘believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading ‘both-sides-ism,’” and that these young journalists “‘feel it [presumably, pursuing objectivity] negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.’”

Mr. Stephens also refers to a report co-authored by Mr. Downie, “Beyond Objectivity,” which Mr. Stephens indicates includes a contention by a quoted editor that Objectivity “is news ‘through the lens of largely white, straight men.’”  (The report – wait for it; this is the best part:  was issued by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.  Those of us old enough to remember Mr. Cronkite’s straightforward reporting as longtime anchor of the CBS Evening News – at the end of every broadcast, he told us, “That’s the way it is,” and indeed, we knew, that was the way it was — can be confident that the report’s publication under his name has him rolling in his grave.)

I am not sure whether all reading this note will be able to reach Mr. Stephens’ column behind the Times’ paywall; what follows are a few of his comments that I am pretty confident that he wouldn’t mind me sharing if he were aware:

“[News outlets] are not in the ‘truth’ business, at least not the sort with a capital ‘T.’ Our job is to collect and present relevant facts and good evidence. Beyond that, truth quickly becomes a matter of personal interpretation, ‘lived experience,’ moral judgments and other subjective considerations that affect all journalists but that should not frame their coverage. …

The core business of journalism is collecting and distributing information. Doing this requires virtues of inquisitiveness, independence, open-mindedness, critical thinking and doggedness in the service of factual accuracy, timeliness and comprehensiveness. It also serves the vital interests of democracy by providing the public with the raw materials it needs to shape intelligent opinion and effective policy. This may be less romantic than the pursuit of ‘truth,’ but we could regain a lot of trust by paring down our mission to simple facts.”

It seems that journalists may still be grappling with the challenges of 1950s McCarthyism, when the press (as it was then known) felt trapped by its perceived obligation to continue to report unfounded allegations of Communism by an elected Senator from … er … Wisconsin, even after it realized that Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s accusations were without basis.  I don’t consider the profession’s responsibility to objectively collect and disseminate facts to require ignoring reality.  When former President Donald Trump took office, the Wall Street Journal Newsroom (as contrasted with its Opinion desk) made the point of informing its readers that while it did not intend to specifically point out all of Mr. Trump’s seeming falsehoods, it would juxtapose what its reporters uncovered with Mr. Trump’s declarations, and let the reader decide.  (An old example:  given Mr. Trump’s assertion that his inauguration had drawn the most attendees in history, the Journal posted pictures of the crowds at the inaugurations of former President Barack Obama and Mr. Trump next to Mr. Trump’s claim, and let the reader form his/her own conclusion as to its veracity.)  I was, and remain, very comfortable with such an approach.

As for the notion that “objectivity” somehow reflects a bias of white, straight males:  while one’s being and background will obviously influence the way one perceives the import of a fact pattern, I entirely reject the notion that the standard of objectivity for collection and dissemination of facts should in any way vary according to a reporter’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, or other attribute.

What makes journalism a noble calling isn’t those who shout from talk shows or opinion pages [or blogs  😉 ].  Although TLOML and I watch MSNBC’s decidedly-liberal Morning Joe and I frequently agree with and occasionally cite its panelists’ observations, I would never post anything in these pages based upon such observations unless I found confirmation either with my own eyes (via video) or in the news pages of a reputable newspaper.  We spouters can have our views; what is vital is that journalists, as Mr. Stephens put it, “provid[e] the public with the raw materials it needs to shape intelligent opinion and effective policy.”  That’s all, and that’s enough.  After journalists have fulfilled their responsibility – a sacred one in a democracy — it is thereafter up to our people, for good or ill, to form their own conclusions.

Obviously, I associate myself with the entirety of Mr. Stephens’ remarks, and encourage you to read his entire column – if not accessible to you via the link below, through other means.


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