Woke Journalism and Objectivity

Damon Linker writes, “No newsroom is politically neutral and no editorial page ideologically unbiased. Every community, every organization, and certainly every journalistic enterprise makes decisions about what’s acceptable and what isn’t, where lines should be drawn, and what kinds of statements belong on which sides of those lines. Reporters and editors make judgments every day about what’s worth thinking about, taking seriously, and engaging with. The rebels want to move the lines and impose new standards.”

I object to the seeming equation of “biased” with “selective.” It is not an ideological “bias” to hold that slavery is evil, for example. Slavery is, objectively, evil. The fact that certain newspapers of an earlier era ran pro-slavery opinions does not change that fact. Today, Overton’s Window has moved so far away from slavery that normally we don’t even need to consider a pro-slavery perspective (if anyone dared articulate one). Of course today we debate many other issues that are not nearly as clear-cut. But this much is clear-cut: Police hurting people for no good reason is wrong.

Linker is more concerned with that which is not so clear-cut: “No one [among the revolutionary journalists] acknowledges the difficulty of achieving moral clarity. No one notes that there are precious few ‘clear moral calls’ in life. No one demonstrates awareness that ‘the truth,’ like justice, is something our country is deeply divided about.” Linker recommends “a little humility and willingness to suspend judgment for a time.” Linker worries that the new brand of activist journalism will lead to demonization and to the sacrifice of facts and context on the altar of (perceived) “justice.” He also worries that the new trends will exacerbate “the hollowing out of the nation’s public life, as individuals and institutions burrow ever-deeper into ideological enclaves.” He fears a trend toward “narrowness and dogmatism, . . . unearned certainty and facile simplifications.” It’s a warning we should take seriously.

Corey Hutchins is a Colorado journalist who has been covering the debate over “objectivity” in newsrooms. He readily lumps objectivity in with “both-sides-ism” and ” a view-from-nowhere approach,” even though genuine objectivity has nothing to do with those other things. (An objective person does consider different relevant points of view but does not presume that all “sides” deserve equal attention.)

Hutchins quotes an article by Ben Smith, which I also discuss. Hutchins quotes a line from New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger, “We don’t pretend to be objective about things like human rights and racism.” That indicates a complete misunderstanding of objectivity. Objectively, people’s rights should be respected and protected; objectively, racism is morally wrong. So to be objective about human rights and racism is to recognize those moral truths (and to be non-objective is to fail to recognize those truths). So what Sulzberger seems to mean here is that we should care about human rights and racism. Of course. Objectivity does not imply being uncaring or detached from values or morality.

Hutchins also quotes from a letter from Colorado Public Radio president Stewart Vanderwilt: “Implicit bias is everywhere. . . . [W]e are committing to equity, access and social justice as a pillar of coverage by CPR News and all our services.” I believe it is factually false that “implicit bias is everywhere,” so that’s an issue. And what does “social justice” mean here? Does it mean equality under the law, or does it mean Progressive leftist egalitarianism (which I regard as profoundly unjust)?

Hutchins also quotes from Amy Gillentine Sweet, publisher of the Colorado Springs Indy, which has always been a self-consciously ideological publication. She writes, “We know it’s time to stand up and speak out. When we see racism in action, we will call for justice. If we uncover biased courts, we will hold judges accountable in print. If we see neighbors abused by the authorities, we will demand action. Silence is not an option; it never was. Our job is to seek truth—and report it. We’re going to do that job.” I like this approach because of its focus on reporting the truth, an implicit guard against subverting facts to an ideological agenda.

Another: Hutchings quotes Tim Russo, station manager of KGNU community radio, who writes, “For centuries the media has cloaked the genocidal and racist foundations of the country by villainizing, demonizing, dehumanizing, demeaning, and disenfranchising Black people and non-whites.” As I would put it, the problem has been that (elements of) “the media” were non-objective in that respect. But his claim about “the media” is silly for the same reason that most claims about “the media” are silly: “The media” are an aggregate of many different publications and writers. The Abolitionists wrote pamphlets that were “media.” Ida B. Wells worked in “the media” to reveal the horrors of lynchings. A red flag: Russo says his station will work against “patriarchy” and “privilege”—whatever that means. My fear is that Russo has bought wholesale into “identity politics,” the neo-Marxist doctrine that views all aspects of human society in terms of power dynamics. So again this looks to me like journalists promoting hard-left political views under a facade of moral righteousness.

And another: The ever-prolific Hutchins quotes a CBS4 piece on the views of journalists there. I was struck by a comment of Gabrielle Cox: “America has a race issue. As journalists, we cannot be objective about racism. There’s a right and there’s a wrong.” Here again is the (false) assumption that objective means detached or disinterested.

Moving away from Hutchins’s piece: Vic Vela, a CPR journalist, writes, “Calling out racism is not biased journalism. In fact, it’s the duty of journalism to inform your audience of the expressed views of people in your communities.” I agree it’s not biased to point out that racism is racism.

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.