The Twilight of Objectivity

How opinion journalism could change the face of the news.

CNN says it is just thrilled by the transformation of Lou Dobbs—formerly a mild-mannered news anchor noted for his palsy-walsy interviews with corporate CEOs—into a raving populist xenophobe. Ratings are up. It’s like watching one of those “makeover” shows that turn nerds into fops or bathrooms into ballrooms. According to the New York Times, this demonstrates “that what works in cable television news is not an objective analysis of the day’s events,” but “a specific point of view on a sizzling-hot topic.” Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia Journalism School, made the same point in a recent New Yorker profile of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. Cable, Lemann wrote, “is increasingly a medium of outsize, super-opinionated franchise personalities.”

The head of CNN/US, Jonathan Klein, told the Times that Lou Dobbs’ license to emote is “sui generis” among CNN anchors, but that is obviously not true. Consider Anderson Cooper, CNN’s rising star. His career was made when he exploded in self-righteous anger while interviewing Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu after Hurricane Katrina and gave her an emotional tongue-lashing over the inadequacy of the relief effort. Klein said Cooper has “that magical something … a refreshing way of being the anti-anchor … getting involved the way you might.” In short, he’s acting like a human being, albeit a somewhat overwrought one. And now on CNN and elsewhere you can see other anchors struggling to act like human beings, with varying degrees of success.

Klein is a man who goes with the flow. Only five months before anointing Cooper CNN’s new messiah (nothing human is alien to Anderson Cooper; nothing alien is human to Lou Dobbs), he killed CNN’s long-running debate show Crossfire, on the grounds that viewers wanted information and not opinions. He said he agreed “wholeheartedly” with Jon Stewart’s widely discussed and uncharacteristically stuffy remark that Crossfire and similar shows were “hurting America” with their occasionally raucous displays of emotional commitment to a political point of view.

But that’s just a personal gripe (I worked at Crossfire for six years), easily resolved by a slavish apology. More important is that Klein is right in sensing, on second thought, that objectivity is not a horse to bet the network on. Or the newspaper, either. The newspaper industry is in the midst of a psychic meltdown over the threat posed by the Internet. Internet panic is a rolling contagion among the established media. It started with newspapers, now it’s spreading to magazines, and within a year book publishers will be in one of their recurring solipsistic frenzies.

No one seriously doubts anymore that the Internet will fundamentally change the news business. The uncertainty is whether it will only change the method of delivering the product, or whether it will change the nature of the product as well. Will people want, in any form—and will they pay for—a collection of articles, written by professional journalists from a detached and purportedly objective point of view? The television industry is panicky as well. Will anyone sit through a half-hour newscast invented back when everyone had to watch the same thing at the same time? Or are blogs and podcasts the cutting edge of a new model for both print and video—more personalized, more interactive, more opinionated, more communal, less objective?

Objectivity—the faith professed by American journalism and by its critics—is less an ideal than a conceit. It’s not that all journalists are secretly biased, or even that perfect objectivity is an admirable but unachievable goal. In fact, most reporters work hard to be objective and the best come very close. The trouble is that objectivity is a muddled concept. Many of the world’s most highly opinionated people believe with a passion that it is wrong for reporters to have any opinions at all about what they cover. These critics are people who could shed their own skins more easily than they could shed their opinions. But they expect it of journalists. It can’t be done. Journalists who claim to have developed no opinions about what they cover are either lying or deeply incurious and unreflective about the world around them. In either case, they might be happier in another line of work.

Or perhaps objectivity is supposed to be a shimmering, unreachable destination, but the journey itself is purifying, as you mentally pick up your biases and put them aside, one-by-one. Is that the idea? It has a pleasing, Buddhist flavor. But that’s no substitute for sense. Nobody believes in objectivity, if that means neutrality on any question about which two people somewhere on the planet might disagree. May a reporter take as a given that two plus two is four? Should a newspaper strive to be open-minded about Osama Bin Laden? To reveal—to have!—no preference between the United States and Iran? Is it permissible for a news story to take as a given that the Holocaust not only happened, but was a bad thing—or is that an expression of opinion that belongs on the op-ed page? Even those who think objectivity can be turned on and off like a light switch don’t want it switched on all the time. But short of that, there is no objective answer to when the switch needs to be on and when it can safely be turned off.

Would it be the end of the world if American newspapers abandoned the cult of objectivity? In intellectual fields other than journalism, the notion of an objective reality that words are capable of describing has been going ever more deeply out of fashion for decades. Maybe it doesn’t matter what linguists think. But even within journalism, there are reassuring models of what a post-objective press might look like.

Most of the world’s newspapers, in fact, already make no pretense of anything close to objectivity in the American sense. But readers of the good ones (such as the Guardian or Financial Times of London, to name the most obvious English-language examples) come away as well-informed as the readers of any “objective” American newspaper. Another model, right here in America, is the newsmagazine. Time long ago abandoned the extreme partisanship and arch style of its founder, Henry Luce, but all the newsmags produce outstanding journalism with little pretense to objectivity.

Opinion journalism can be more honest than objective-style journalism because it doesn’t have to hide its point of view. It doesn’t have to follow a trail of evidence or line of reasoning until one step before the conclusion and then slam on the brakes for fear of falling into the gulch of subjectivity. All observations are subjective. Writers freed of artificial objectivity can try to determine the whole truth about their subject and then tell it whole to the world. Their “objective” counterparts have to sort their subjective observations into two arbitrary piles: truths that are objective as well, and truths that are just an opinion. That second pile of truths then gets tossed out, or perhaps put in quotes and attributed to someone else. That is a common trick used by objective-style journalists in order to tell their readers what they believe to be true without inciting the wrath of the Objectivity cops.

Abandoning the pretense of objectivity does not mean abandoning the journalist’s most important obligation, which is factual accuracy. In fact, the practice of opinion journalism brings additional ethical obligations. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counterarguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

Much of today’s opinion journalism, especially on TV, is not a great advertisement for the notion that American journalism could be improved by more opinion and less effort at objectivity. But that’s because the conditions under which much opinion journalism is practiced today make honesty harder and doubt practically impossible. Like the mopey vicar in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, who loses a cushy parish when struck by a case of “Doubts,” TV pundits need to radiate certainty for the sake of their careers. As Lou Dobbs has demonstrated, this doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind, as long as you are as certain in your opinion today as you were of the opposite opinion a couple of days ago.

But if opinion journalism became the norm, rather than a somewhat discredited exception to the norm, it might not be so often reduced to a parody of itself. Unless, of course, I am completely wrong.