Ode to Objectivity

My category of J-Movers and Shakers is filling up these days.

Juan Williams, Keith Olbermann, Ted Koppel.  Plenty of big voices are attempting to fill the void known as “the future of journalism.”  Aside from Williams, whose comments were as ill-planned as they were offensive, the Olbermann-Koppel debate is compelling.

We’ve been reading a classic for G.K. this week, The Elements of Journalism. Kennedy seems particularly enthralled with the book’s definition of “objectivity,” a principle at the heart of this latest public scuffle.

Koppel called out both the right and left in his Washington Post editorial, lamenting the bygone Cronkite era and decrying the rise of opinion in cable news.  He even derisively called the news divisions of the three major networks “profit centers.”

Excuse me?  News has been a business since its inception, albeit not a well-run ship in recent decades.  The corporations who own major newspapers aren’t looking for fuzzy news and policy changes.  They exist to please stockholders. Even news start-ups who are creating ventures to take up the slack of these dying titans aren’t looking to operate at a monetary loss.

Profit is a good thing, as Esther Thorson would tell you.  It gives us the ability to produce the best content possible to inform a free and self-governing citizenry.  Too much profit is evil.  Too much profit leads to staff cuts and undermines the principles inherent to great journalism.

It is Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach who provide the best sense of direction in this rising debate of finger pointing over money constraints and partisan journalism.  Their most important Element concerns objectivity.

Specificity is stressed as a crucial component of good writing – the little details make a scene real and colorful.  Yet journalism is surrounded by vague abstract verbiage such as “accuracy,” “objectivity,” “fairness,” and “balance.”

“The method is objective, not the journalist,” write Rosenstiel and Kovach.

Time.com blogger James Poniewozik is a believer. “You can have subjective beliefs—because we all do—and yet subordinate them to objective evidence.”

Even the crowd members at the Stewart/Colbert rallies were informed, as one sign read, “I support reasonable conclusions based on supported facts.”

For reasons – some good, some thoughtless – opinion has been maligned as keystone of journalism’s downfall as an institution.  It is held as the cause of our trust gap with the American people and thrust forth as the progeny of a dark lord, whether Satan or Voldemort, meant only to corrupt the good tradition that is “objectivity.”

“Objectivity” is going the way of the one-sided “conversation” that used to be called news, and it’s not all bad.  Like most of the industry, we have a rare opportunity to build a better system among the wreckage of past failures and bloated profit lines.  Call it what you want, but objectivity is not in the eye of the observer, it is in the pen of beholder.

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