The Myth of Objectivity

Recently, a Portland television station ran their traditional 11 o’clock news tease during the commercial break of one of my favorite shows. The lead story made me laugh, cry and gasp all at the same time: "Kitten Thrown From Moving Car."

Of everything that happened that day in the Portland-area, in Oregon, the United States and the world, the unfortunate fate of a tiny kitten was the lead story. Someone – probably a

group of people – sat around a table at the television station and made the decision that the kitten should be the top story that night.

The fact is that someone had to make that decision, and they had to base it on some set of values. In this case apparently a combination of the old media adage "If it bleeds it leads" and the general love of any story animal-related won out.

But what it illustrates on a more absurd level is that decisions made by the news media are inherently subjective. With time constraints in broadcast media, and space constraints in print media, editors and reporters have to be subjective. They must decide what stories to run, how much time and space each story will take, and what order to present those stories in. They decide who to interview, what info to present, and how the story is structured.

So what bothers me the most is the mainstream media’s insistence that their highest value is objectivity, when there is an inherent need for subjetivity. Editors and reporters must be subjective when pursuing a story, and that is why bias will always be a relevant issue to discuss.

Historically, the ideal of "objectivity" isn’t even one hundred years old. And the ideal wasn’t promoted for some altruistic reason. Following on the heels of the partisan press (We can thank the Whig Party for The Oregonian here in our great state. Some of us probably long for it to return to its historical roots in many ways!) and "Yellow Journalism", in the early 1900’s publishers realized that by being partisan they eliminated half their potential audience. So what was a good capitalist newspaper to do? Ah, yes, try to appeal more broadly to all segments of the public. Promote that your paper is "objective" when it comes to reporting the news.

So it came to pass that objectivity was established as a journalistic ideal, not for some high-minded reason, but because it sold more papers.

Today, however, journalists insist on hanging their hat on objectivity as their defense against charges of bias. They claim they are serving this higher master, when in fact the master is the bottom line.

And this is not a bad thing. I’m as capitalist as they come, papers should maximize profits, sell more advertising and make as much money as they can. But perhaps a return to the good old days of the partisan press wouldn’t be so bad. Then at least media outlets could admit their bias and let the market decide who succeeds and who fails. Don’t you think it would be freeing for CNN to finally say "Yes, we are a liberal media outlet"? I think admitted liberal Ted Turner might sleep better at night. And Fox News could avoid having to answer criticism that it is "conservative" if it were simply able to say "Yep, we lean right." That sigh of relief you hear is from Roger Ailes.

But the American public has been fed a steady diet of arguments that the media is and must be objective, when the reality is that such an ideal is impossible.

If all our media outlets admitted their bias, though, where would Americans get news that isn’t promoting a particular position? A discussion for another blog entry…so stay tuned.