To a friend who says I’ve abandoned ‘responsible journalism’
In an online discussion of the Trump presidency, a Facebook friend yesterday echoed what a few others have suggested: That because I dared criticize the president or his followers, I “threw unbiased journalism out with the bathwater.”
“I was still under the impression,” she continued, “that you were giving the idea of responsible journalism a shot.”
I owe my critical friend a debt. Because she sent me waaaay back into the archives, more than 40 years ago, to explore the roots of my journalistic principles, forged in the era of Watergate—when I concluded “objectivity” was a chimera.
Here’s the wrap-up paper for my 1976 class with then-University of Illinois Journalism Department head Jay Jensen (highlights added here in the 21st Century):
The Nixon administration accused the news media of coloring the news. … That criticism, however, was off the mark. If the media were guilty of anything, it was not so much “coloring the news” as refusing to mention even that any colors existed. …
Objectivity is a myth. … The journalist who best serves his audience is one who interviews as many persons as possible, listens to and reads as much as he can, organizing it all coherently. Just as important, though, is that he make clear his own biases and judgments. Only after knowing where the journalist is “coming from” can the audience decide where it will go on the basis of his story. …
Surely, the nation faces the greater threat not from this bunch of reporters brandishing studied biases up front but from those who carry the concealed weapons of half-truth, deception and lies.
If that last sentence brings to mind a “fair and balanced” cable TV channel that was to launch 20 years later, you’re not alone.
The criticism that journalists aren’t “objective” is as old as—older than—Watergate. And as Will Oremus noted Jan. 12 in Slate: “Traditional media outlets’ intense desire to be perceived as sober and objective [was] … a business imperative that has been transmuted into an ethical injunction.”
Here’s my July 1976 review of the book All the President’s Men—a reminder that what’s old is new:
Criticism leveled at the media by the Nixon administration cast journalists as the villains. … But the best part of All the President’s Men is that it’s removed most of the dirt dumped on the Fourth Estate during the Nixon years. Journalism schools are overcrowded, journalists are celebrities and aspiring reporters all over the country are asking questions, eyes peeled for future abuses of power.
Optimist that I am, I expect that aspect of history to repeat itself, too.
Meanwhile, to all who believe my cynicism toward government and political leaders and my willingness to discuss it openly is something new—something that somehow compromises my reputation as a responsible journalist—please know I’m still right where I was in 1976.