Tag Archives: objectivity

What You Can Say While Being Objective

What would an objective article on waterboarding have looked like during the Bush administration? A history of the practice would have to state that the US government considered it torture for several decades and that this status was essentially unquestioned until after September 11th. It would also record that the US had hanged Japanese soldiers for waterboarding US POWs, and perhaps that as Governor of Texas, Bush had imprisoned a sheriff for waterboarding a prisoner. It would describe the experience of being waterboarded as essentially like the experience of being drowned, and record that there were often lingering psychological effects. Against that, such an article would have to report that legal memoranda had argued that waterboarding was not torture and was legal. It might also report that some people responded to the September 11th attacks by arguing that even torture should be justified as a response to terrorism.

That article would have been objective in even the restrictive sense that the American media uses. Every claim is not only true, but unambiguous and part of the public record.

And I don’t recall seeing anything like that during the Bush era. Individual claims might appear in an article about the waterboarding debate, but I never remember seeing a single article that would give the  full picture. 

Journalists are sometimes criticized for treating both sides of any disagreement as equally respectable, even if the facts are squarely on one side. But we can see that it’s not just that–the media won’t even collect and report facts that aren’t in dispute, if the net effect would be to undermine the claims of one side.


It’s as if the major news organizations have been listening to criticism. In a New York Times article on McCain’s claims that Obama would be soft on Hamas, we get a clear verdict:

But important nuances appear to have been lost in the partisan salvos, particularly on Mr. McCain’s side. An examination of Mr. Obama’s numerous public statements on the subjects indicates that he has consistently condemned Hamas as a “terrorist organization,” has not sought the group’s support and does not advocate immediate, direct or unconditional negotiations with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.

First there was the gas tax, where you had talking heads saying that there was a consensus among economists that it was a bad idea, now this. Bitch PhD notes an even more awesome headline.

I was wondering about how objective (in the good way!) this characterization was, but the article is well-written. Instead of just relying on Obama’s statements, it included a bit of legislative history that I hadn’t known about:

That is not a new position for Mr. Obama. In 2006, he, like Mr. McCain, was a co-sponsor of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which called on “members of the international community to avoid contact with and refrain from financially supporting the terrorist organization Hamas” until it met all of the same requirements that Mr. Obama enumerated again on Thursday.

Objectivity and Competition

Matthew Yglesias considers the idea that everyone complains about the conventions of journalistic objectivity, but no one does anything. His suggestion is that when competition and the tubes join forces, something will get done. I’m sceptical. At least I’m skeptical that anything good will get done.

Let’s note that the problem of journalistic objectivity has already been solved by one major news organization: Fox News has clearly gotten away from the ‘he said, she said’ style of political reporting, in favor of the ‘he said, she said, but we know that the democrats are liars’ brand. Fox News is very popular, and its imitators on the internet will continue to avoid journalistic objectivity. Eventually we’ll get liberal versions of Fox News, but it’s only for contingent reasons that a liberal Fox News would be a great place to get your news right now.

Nor is competition going to change anything–Fox News clones have an important place in the market. Most people won’t go there, because the partisanship will turn them off, but the mainstream news sources they gravitate to will have every incentive to be bland and inoffensive. The internet creates a space for thoughtful news sources, but it doesn’t produce the people who are interested in them. Matt says “managers and reporters who manage to consistently cover the news in a way that people find useful will prosper, while those who fail to do so will suffer.” This is true, but it only matters if people find traditional ‘objective’ journalism less useful than the alternatives. Frankly, I think that people only find traditional journalism frustrating when they take the time to educate themselves and start to see its limitations. This process takes time, some intelligence, and an interest in politics, so it’s likely to lead to a niche market, with or without the internet.

In short, the internet has done and will do great things to make quality political coverage available to people who want it and can recognize it for what it is. But unless the internet changes the people who consume the news, it won’t change the news that they consume.