Journalism & humility

"Journalism & humility" Continued...

Issue: "Lavelle's wonderful life," Dec. 25, 2004

Before 1960 newspapers typically portrayed abortion as evil. For a brief period during the 1960s they offered "balanced" abortion coverage; then they typically became pro-abortion. Press coverage of homosexuality (once considered deviant behavior) changed rapidly in the 1980s, with journalists both before and after calling their reporting objective. Should positive coverage of something the Bible views as wrong be called "objective"? Should even neutral stories about clearly sinful activity receive that label? Is "objectivity" based on shifting social mores a house built on sand?

It's easy to raise more questions of this sort, but-regardless of the theoretical issues-current practice makes one big change apparent: Mainstream journalists generally consider "fly on the wall" humility less important than nailing to the wall the hides of those considered reactionary. In that sense American journalism is slowly becoming European, with newspapers revealing a clear ideological base.

I saw the beginnings of this firsthand while serving my journalistic apprenticeship at the Boston Globe in 1970-1971 and in 1973, at a time when The Globe was transitioning from a reporting staff of sometimes cynical but often humble old-timers to a brigade of liberal or radical Ivy Leaguers. By 1973 I was a hardcore Marxist full of myself, and had no trouble getting into the Globe stories that insinuated my views of class warfare and capitalistic corruption. News and feature editors encouraged me, as long as my doctrines were not so explicit as to scare typical subscribers.

"Humility" would not have described me or my fellow new Globe reporters. They and I still insisted publicly that we were "objective," but privately we agreed that we would give all sides what we felt they deserved, with we the reporters serving as judges and sometimes executioners. I was witnessing the beginnings of what Jay Rosen wrote about early this year in an aptly titled article published by New York University, "Journalism is itself a religion."

Mr. Rosen describes "the priesthood of the journalism profession in the United States, especially those at top news organizations in New York and Washington." He raises good questions: "How does this elite group create and maintain its authority over what counts as serious journalism? . . . What are the god terms and faith objects in journalism, and how are they derived? . . . What lessons do journalists at the top of the pyramid preach to others in the news tribe?"

Mr. Rosen describes the "high church in journalism, with high ceremonies, like the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize," and quotes Bill Moyers's praise of the Columbia University School of Journalism and the Columbia Journalism Review: "I think of CJR and the J-School as sort of the 'high church' of our craft, reminding us of the better angels of our nature and the demons, powers and principalities of power against which journalism is always wrestling."

Demons? Former New York journalist William Proctor points out that New York Times editors condemn "the sin of religious certainty" yet have their own "set of absolute truths. [Editors are] absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals, and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

I saw the beginnings of the dramatic journalistic surge to the left; Mr. Rosen and Mr. Proctor are seeing the culmination. The humility of the golden age, even if the problems of that kind of journalism are overlooked, is long gone. The question before us seems to be: Do we hold onto the shreds of "objectivity," or do we embrace the reign of subjectivity that many journalists demand?

If we do, given the tilt of today's mainstream media, will we be stuck with newspapers pushing leftist solutions, with talk radio and some blogs counterattacking from the right (and doing not much better at basing opinion on evidence)? In the process, what will happen to humility?

I don't see the European model of ideological newspapers, often tied to political parties, as an improvement. That system tends to turn journalists into propagandists who must follow the party line. It also doesn't bring us any closer to the goal of humility, unless it's humility before political leaders or empowered ideologues. Given a choice between the ideological model and the traditional American model, I'd buy American-but is there a better way?

Robert Bartley, the late Wall Street Journal editor, wrote last year, "I think we're coming to the end of the era of 'objectivity' that has dominated journalism over this time. We need to define a new ethic that lends legitimacy to opinion, honestly disclosed and disciplined by some sense of propriety."


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