Bennet, Cotton, and Objective Media

Today James Bennet (brother of U.S. Senator from Colorado Michael Bennet) resigned as the editorial editor of the New York Times. At issue is an op-ed the paper ran by Senator Tom Cotton. Cotton, meanwhile, pointed out that the Times ran an op-ed by a literal terrorist, so double standards seem at play. What did the op-ed actually say? As Rich Lowry summarizes, it advocates “using federal troops to quell riots.” I agree that’s ghastly policy.

But I also see nothing wrong with considering points of view by prominent political and cultural leaders. Indeed, I think it is extremely important to try to understand what different people think. Of course, that doesn’t mean a newspaper should open its gates to all comers. I guess a newspaper has to decide whether the purpose of its opinion pages is to promote the newspaper’s ideology and agenda or to air representative views from the broader community. I have no ready answer for how newspapers should approach this. One possibility is for newspapers simply to drop their opinion sections, or else to run only in-house commentary.

A Times article by Ben Smith discusses the op-ed, the background of journalist Wesley Lowery, and the ways that newspapers are trying to approach their subject matter.

Smith writes, “Now, as America[‘s] biggest newsrooms are trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls.”

Lowery told Smith that newspapers’ “core value needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity.”

Smith quotes Lowery, “American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”

Smith writes, “That argument is gathering momentum in key American newsrooms.”

What should we make of this? Again, Lowery simply misunderstands what objectivity means. It does not mean having a “view from nowhere.” It does not mean relentlessly representing “both sides,” in part because often there are more than two sides, in part because often one “side” obviously is wrong. Journalists don’t have to quote flat-earthers and lunar-landing conspiracy nuts every time they discuss NASA; indeed; they hardly ever should quote those “sides.” Objectivity does not mean being “neutral” on all issues nor abandoning a moral perspective.

Objectivity certainly does not mean abandoning the truth; truth in its full context is essential to objectivity.

Objectivity does entail continually checking one’s premises and biases, seeking out alternate points of view, and welcoming potentially disconfirming data. The opposite of an objective person is not a moral truth seeker but a fact-averse ideologue.

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