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Mitchell Stephens
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Mitchell Stephens

‘Wisdom journalists’

Books | Author acknowledges a lack of media objectivity, but his solution means more propaganda

Issue: "China's abortion regime," July 26, 2014

Should I cheer or wince when the opposition partly accedes to my view, but misses what’s most important?

In the 1980s I criticized the mainstream media fiction of “objectivity” but wasn’t impressed with the common alternative, existentialist subjectivity. My proposed alternative: biblical objectivity, based on the realization that God created the world and knows its essence, so only He can describe it accurately, and has done so in the Bible.

The 1980s also brought us The Right Stuff, a memorable movie about the early days of the space program. In it Gus Grissom—who would become the second American in space—asks a fellow flyer what the word “astronaut” means. His friend replies, “Star Voyager.” Grissom responds, “Star Voyager Gus Grissom. I kinda like the sound of that.”

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In Beyond News: The Future of Journalism (Columbia University Press, 2014), influential NYU journalism professor Mitchell Stephens notes that reporters and editors in the late 20th century publicly defended “objective journalism,” but in the early 21st century “many journalists were finally ready to concede the point.” 

Stephens quotes Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. acknowledging that “nobody’s objective,” but insisting that his reporters should try to be “fair.” Stephens criticizes that standard as well, because “we can’t be ‘fair’ to all, anymore than we can see the world as it is seen by all.”

Stephens also slams another word used by post-objectivity editors, balance, because “there inevitably are a limited number of seats on their seesaw. The range of positions that are balanced is limited—usually to two. 

The range of discussion will thereby be circumscribed.”

Hmm. No objectivity, no fairness, no balance: How then shall we report? Stephens proposes that journalists “consecrate themselves to insight and understanding” and henceforth be known as “wisdom journalists.” I can hear press gangs across the land saying, Wisdom Journalist Gus Grissom. I kinda like the sound of that.

But if journalists are so consecrated—Merriam-Webster defines that as “dedicated to a sacred purpose”—we need to ask what “wisdom” means. Stephens defines it as “good sense … insight … accumulated learning.” He writes that news organizations can gain wisdom by “hiring individuals with an academic background in the fields upon which they are commenting” and having them pursue what New York Times columnist David Carr calls “shimmering intellectual scoops.” 

The Bible has a different definition of wisdom. Chapter 1 of Proverbs tells us it begins with “the fear of the Lord.” Chapter 2 explains, “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” Chapter 3 nails it down: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

Stephens wants journalists to move from the five W’s (who-what-when-where-why) to his five I’s: informed, intelligent, interesting, insightful, and interpretive. He should have added a sixth: ideological. Stephens compliments in passing a couple of nonliberals, but heaps repeated praise on the politically correct: Eight cheers for the late Rachel Carson, who did some good but whose anti-DDT campaign led to more malaria in Africa. Nine cheers for New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Ten cheers for Ezra Klein, the former Washington Post wunderkind.

But even if the playing field were not so tilted, reliance on man’s wisdom rather than God’s makes us shepherdless sheep. In the 1980s I argued against journalists who said their ignoring of God was “objective journalism.” Now Stephens opines, “The main goal of a twenty-first-century journalism organization is to fill its site with wisdom.” Unless we seek God’s wisdom, all we have is a new rationale for propagandizing.

Hope remains. Proverbs tells us, “If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you. … Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.”

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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