Objectivity and Its Opposite, ‘Objectivity’

Whigs vs. Tories

Whigs vs. Tories

One of the most confusing terms in the media discussion is “objectivity.” In philosophy, it refers to a belief in a reality independent of the conscious mind, generally one that can more or less be known and meaningfully discussed.

In journalism, on the other hand, it means “don’t scare away any potential customers.”

“Objective” journalism emerged as newspapers realized that they were alienating potential readers by positioning themselves as a paper that saw the world through the lens of a particular party. Why be a Whig paper or a Tory paper, in other words, when you could be an independent paper read by both Whigs and Tories? Particularly when your main source of revenues–commercial advertisers–were hoping to sell to Whigs and Tories alike.

In practice, this meant that if the parties were disagreeing about something, you were supposed to report what both were saying without taking sides–even if, as it happened, it seemed like one side or the other had the truth on their side. Note that not only is this not the same as philosophical objectivity, it’s pretty much the opposite: Journalistic objectivity means that you can’t report what really happened, you can only report what both sides said happened.

Barack Obama (photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls)

(photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls)

You can see how this plays out in coverage of Barack Obama’s latest “gaffe.” Obama had said in Roanoke, Virginia (7/13/12):

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business–you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The words that were singled out, of course, were, “If you’ve got a business–you didn’t build that.” Now, if you’ve got a basic understanding of the English language, you can see that the word “that” there doesn’t refer to “business”–it refers to “roads and bridges” in the previous sentence. If you can’t see that, you really shouldn’t be in the word business, and you might have difficulty understanding ordinary conversations with your friends.

But the Romney campaign did claim to believe that Obama was telling businesspeople that they hadn’t built their businesses, and ran an ad to that effect. And media people claimed that they took this claim seriously. Here’s Peter Baker in the New York Times (7/19/12):

It took only a few days for it to become a favorite Republican talking point. President Obama told an audience that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen.”

Suddenly his critics had proof that he does not believe in individual success or the free market. Mitt Romney scrapped much of his stump speech on Wednesday to focus on the line and sent surrogates to reinforce the point. Mr. Obama’s aides said he was taken out of context, that he was referring to the value of public structures like bridges and roads in the nation’s commerce.

Either way, putting aside the predictable partisan cross-fire and the inevitable Internet-fueled distortions, even in proper context the president’s remarks crystallize a profound disagreement that defines this year’s campaign.

“Either way”–we don’t take sides here between the Whigs and the Tories!

Mitt Romney at the RNC

(Photo by Mallory Benedict/PBS NewsHour)

The other way to maintain your “objectivity,” aside from believing both sides, is to disbelieve both sides. Thus Chicago Tribune blogger Eric Zorn (7/20/12) cited the Romney ad as an example of how campaigns “seize on their opponents’ unfortunate snippets of verbiage and loop them into attack ads”:

Did Obama mean to say that if a person has a business, he didn’t build the business, someone else did?

No. A fair reading of the transcript shows he was saying, in an admittedly unartful way, that business is built on and maintained by infrastructures provided by government, and that even the “self-made” man or woman owes a lot to the social compact sustained by taxes.

But Zorn had to preface this by suggesting that the Obama campaign had earlier been unfair to Romney and his statement, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.” Zorn again:

Did the mega-wealthy Romney mean to say he’s not concerned with the plight of the poor?

No. A fair reading of the transcript shows he was saying, in an admittedly unartful way, that he has confidence in the social safety net and is focusing his policies on alleviating the problems of middle-income earners.

Really? It’s unfair to take Romney’s statement that he’s not concerned about the very poor as indicating that he’s not concerned about the very poor? The fact that he explains that the reason for his lack of concern is the existence of a safety net–one that does not, of course, eliminate widespread hunger, homelessness and death by medical neglect, and one that his policy proposals would virtually eliminate–doesn’t mean that he’s not actually saying that compared to the problems of the middle class, the problems of the poor are not worth bothering about.

But because Zorn has stuck up for Romney against the Obama campaign and for Obama against the Romney campaign–no one can accuse him of not being “objective.”

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.