"Objectivity" has been a major goal of twentieth-century American journalism. New York Times editor Sydney Gruson demanded "purity of the news columns. Pure objectivity might not exist, but you have to strive for it anyway.'' Associated Press General Manager Wes Gallagher argued that "all men and women must have a Holy Grail of some kind, something to strive for, something always just beyond our fingertips even with the best of efforts. To the journalists that Holy Grail should be objectivity."
Textbooks and codes of ethics still insist upon "objectivity." Yet, the concept has been under attack since the 1960s, first by fringe groups of "new journalists," now by those thrusting microphones in power-laden corridors. Robert Bazell of NBC, interviewed in 1986, said flatly, "Objectivity is a fallacy.... There are different opinions, but you don't have to give them equal weight." Irxing R. Levine of NBC noted, "The reporter has got to determine, ultimately, what is valid and what is not." Linda Ellerbee wrote that "There is no such thing as objectivity. Any reporter who tells you he's objective is lying to you."
We will see in this chapter that Christians should side with neither the current objectivists nor the new subjectivists. First, though, we need to examine some basic dictionary definitions of Uobjective": "Existing independent of mind; emphasizing or expressing the nature of reality as it is apart from personal reflections or feelings." An objective report, clearly, would be one "stressing objective reality as distinguished from subjective experience or appearance." But what is reality?
Look at it this way: An atheist would argue that God, as a product of imagination, has no real place in an objective news report. A Christian would argue that God's existence and sovereign ty are objective truth, regardless of an atheist's personal belief in God's nonexistence. Is an objective reporter supposed to treat God as matter of fact (in which case he is joining the theistic side) or matter of opinion (in which case he has assumed the truth of atheism)?
There is a similar debate over what is "fact" and what is not. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fact as "A thing done or performed . . . something that has actually occurred or is actually the case . . . truth attested by direct observation or authentic testimony; reality." Typical usage in 1794 was, "The evangelists wrote from fact, not from imagination." That definition goes against the common journa!istic tendency today to say that anything dealing with religion is a matter of opinion, not fact. That definition may open our minds to understand the four different phases of objectivity within American journalism history.
PHASE ONE OBJECTIVITY: SPIRITUAL/MATERIAL INTERFACE
Many early American journalists assumed that God is objective reality, with an existence independent of our minds. The first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestic, was filled with statements in which God's "Merciful Providence" was noted as fact, not opinion. Editor Benjamin Harris reported on September 25, 1690, that Plymouth residents "have newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God for his Mercy in supplying their extreme and pinching Necessities under their late want of Corn, & for his giving them now a prospect of a very Comfortable Harvest."
Although no one in early American journalism used the term "objective reporting," some editors obviously understood that factuality demanded taking into account the spiritual. The Boston Recorder reported that "on a Sabbath, when church members were partaking of the Lord's Supper," members of an "infidel club" wenc to a nearby creek: "One of them, with the approbation of the rest, administered the Sacrament to dogs."
The Recorder did not argue that vicious and unrepentanl | blasphemers normally dle quick and horrible deaths; obviously, some escape physical punishment in this life. But in this case,"on the same evening, he who had done the impious deed was attacked with a violent inflammatory disease; his inflamed eye balls were protruding from their sockets; his tongue was swollen in his mouth;and he died before morning, in great mental and bloody agony." The Recorder saw the horrible death as God's judgment.
Recoveries from illness also were reported as acts of God. One Recorder story began with a note that when a ship sank "by the will of Providence" and a merchant lost all he had, his wife "was rendered altogether insane, and that to such a degree, that it was necessary to confine her in order to prevent her from doing herself and others harm."
The wife's insanity continued until her father, who lived one hundred miles away, received a letter describing what had happened, and immediately "gathered together at his house many of the brethren of the Church for the purpose of pleading with God on her behalf. It was a solemn season of united and earnest supplication to the Lord." A few days afterwards the father received a letter saying his daughter had suddenly "sat up in bed . . . in an instant restored to her usual health."
The story concluded, "Here we cannot but notice, in grateful acknowledgement, the goodness and mercy, compassion and faithfulness of that God who has said, 'Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me'�for that evening and that hour of restoration, were the same evening and the same hour when many were gathered together, and prayer was made unto God for her."
Just as Recorder editors knew that few blasphemers died immediately after notorious offenses with inflamed eyeballs protruding from sockets, so they knew that many individuals recover after prayer, but many others die. There is a problem when Christians want so much for God to "do justice" right away that they exaggerate reports of His intervention; God does not need public relations help. But when truly miraculous cures do occur, a Recorder editorial writer asked, "Can you rationally draw any other inference" than that of God's sovereignty?
Many early American journalists would have been amazed to hear that those who ignore the spiritual now consider themselves objective. Then, those who ignored the spiritual were considered subjective atheists, allowing their own feelings to overcome what really was there. The Book of Colossians had noted that Christ "is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (1:17). How then could a reporter, in describing reality, not refer to God, the Creator of reality?
Throughout phase one of American objectivity, mentions of God or Providence were not inserted into articles merely for ritualistic purposes. Journalists evidently saw that the world could not be understood apart from a Biblical context. Furthermore, early Christian journalists knew the Biblical view that all of man is fallen and needs regeneration, and that man unaided by God's grace cannot interpret correctly the facts of the universe.
PHASE TWO OBJECTIVITY: STRAIGHTFORWARD MATERIALISM
As Christian journalism was declining midway through the nineteenth century and materialism was becoming dominant, "fact" was redefined to mean only that which was scientifically measurable. Journalists were told to emphasize "Facts; facts; nothing but facts. So many peas at so much a peck; so much molasses at so much a quart." Materialists who wanted to pursue their own desires without thought of morality particularly relished their new "freedom" in journalism, literature and other spheres. Theodore Dreiser enjoyed the journalistic experience he had before gaining novelistic fame: "One can always talk to a newspaper man, I think, with the full confidence that one is talking to a man who is at least free of moralistic mush."
Economic as well as presuppositional reasons backed the materialist trend. Beginning in the 1830s, the "penny press" began pushing for larger and more diversified circulation, which would bring with it the opportunity to raise advertising rates. On some newspapers, avoiding religious offense became critical. Mid-century brought with it development of the Associated Press and an increased push for a lowest common denominator view of news content: Describe who, what, when, and where, but often leave out the why and the how.
As the pressure for journalistic speed increased, reporters found that they could turn out more copy by ignoring deeper questions. Some editors resisted this movement toward superficiality, but others proudly proclaimed that their job was to put out a newspaper, not run a theological debating society. They did not understand that an editor inevitably has to do both.
The new definition of objectivity, as coverage of material alone, also required several assumptions about man and the world. Reporters had to be seen as capable of seeing things as they are. An innocent American Adam, before the fall, would name what had to be named. The world would have to be seen as a generally unmysterious place, with the visible equated with the real. Reporters could believe that what they saw naturally was a rational order, and that their own minds were the standard of authority. This represented a considerable departure from Biblical notions of fallen man and complicated world.
Soon after gaining ascendancy, though, the concept of reporter as camera began to fall apart theoretically and practically. Early in the twentieth century some journalists rebelled against the idea, not because of questions brought forward by Christians, but because of the impact of Marxism and Freudianism. Marx argued that much of what was called objectivity actually was class subjectivity, with one class-bound vision of the world up against another's, thesis vs. antithesis. Freud contended that much of what affected individuals was unknown, even to the individuals themselves, so it could not be assumed that judgments were unimpaired.
Economic society and individual psychology were both in flux, journalists came to believe. Christian objective reporting had depended on the understanding that the material/spiritual interface could be understood by man, with God's grace. Materialist objective reporting had grown up with the notion that a stable, easily understandable material world was there for the taking: What you see is what you get. In the twentieth century, it was being said that all was confusion. How could one reporter figure it out and get it down?
PHASE THREE OBJECTIVITY: BALANCING OF SUBJECTIVITIES
Walter Lippmann, probably the most influential newspaper columnist of the twentieth century, was a Marxist in his early years and an admirer of Freudian thought. He used those ideas to become in the 1920s a philosopher of journalism as well. Lippmann was sarcastic about reporters' claims to objectivity, arguing that "For the most part we do not see first, then define; we define first and then see.... We pick out what our culture has already defined for us." Lippmann viewed the typical reporter as akin to the traveler who liked trains but did not think it proper to tip station agents and ushers: "His Odyssey will be replete with . . . train escapades and voracious demands for money."
Others during the 1920s had similar scorn for pure fact, whether material or spiritual. Ivy Lee, one of the founders of public relations, said that it was "humanly impossible" to state a fact: "All I can do is to give you my interpretation of the facts." Many others came to believe that the journalist could not be a camera, since no one viewpoint could possibly be accurate. Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, said, "Show me a man who thinks he's objective and I'll show you a man who's deceiving himself.''
"Objectivity" in journalism, therefore, went through its second reconstituting. First, it had been redefined to mean an ignoring of the spiritual; now it had to be redefined to mean an ignoring of part of the material that the reporter himself might observe�for that part might be gained through bias. Instead, the reporter would forego his own reporting in order to assemble as many reports from others as he could.
"Objectivity" could be reached only through a balancing of l multiple subjectivities. The outcome might be neither truthful nor accurate, but who knew what accuracy, let alone truth, really was? The important thing is that different points of view would be reflected. The desire to reflect multiple subjectivities, in the eyes of its proponents, was not an invitation to nihilism, but a pluralistic recipe for compromise and harmony. Since a variety of views were strongly held, this belief suggested that probably none of them was right, but all of them might have some truth.
The triumph of theological liberalism in major Protestant denominations occurred at the same time as the development of phase three objectivity in newspapers. This was no coincidence, since the balancing-of-subjectivities mode often suggested that there is no right or wrong, just opinion. The idea of absolute truth existing outside of man could not be taken seriously within phase three objectivity, because that would suggest the existence of real objectivity.
To summarize, phase three objectivity became not a reporting of both material and spiritual, nor a reporting of material only, but a reporting of what a variety of observers thought about material. Phase three objectivity became the journalist's theoretically evenhanded reporting of subjective impressions or reactions of partici- I pants in an event. Journalists from the 1920s through the 1960s generally did not attempt to hold up the mirror to society. Instead, they urged others to hold up their own mirrors, so that reporters could then describe the funny shapes each mirror produced.
Such subjectivity-balancing objectivity was concretized in thet Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi code of ethics. r In it, journalists proclaimed that "Truth is our ultimate goal," but "Objectivity in reporting the news is another goal, which serves as the fnark of an experienced professional." Such constructions wes typical when Bible-based spiritual confidence was lost: Objectivity might become "another goal," but it could not be part of the goal of truth, since truth, while ultimate, was ever receding.
As the number of cities with competitive newspapers declined from the 1920s onward, lowest-common-denominator pluralism and superficiality on the news pages was increasingly seen as essential both to profitability and to community service. It would be neither fair nor smart to upset the apple cart in order to search for better apples. Biblical beliefs generally were excluded from the lowest-common-denominator "consensus," but pietistic Christians tended not to complain.
JOURNALISTIC CRITICISM OF SUBJECTIVITY-BALANCING
Many journalists came to find phase three objectivity frequently boring, occasionally demeaning, and generally purposeless. Boredom tended to set in because the reporter, if he was not to tip his hand, was forced to tell much less than he knew. Specific detail might be damning to one side or the other; the reporter, typically, would have to quote a variety of positions while keeping the more interesting�but biased�story buried in his notebook.
Some reporters became ascerbic about objectivity. Former New York Times reporter David Halberstam complained that "objectivity was prized and if objectivity in no way conformed to reality, than all the worse for reality." Douglas Cater put it succinctly: The straight reporter is a "straight-jacket reporter.''
A few reporters escaped from the straightjacket by becoming known for "interpretive reporting" or "news analysis." Columnists such as James Reston could claim that they had "a wider vision of our duty," and were learning "to put the event of the day in its proper relationship to the history of yesterday and the dream of tomorrow." But only a favored few could indulge themselves in that way. Most journalists were demeaned, at least in their own eyes and often objectively, as they became delivery boys, used by politicians and others to carry their messages.
Subjectivity-balancing became particularly obnoxious to many liberal reporters during the early 1950s, as Senator Joseph McCarthy gave speeches about 57, then 205, then some other number of Communists in the State Department. The "balancing of subjectivities" approach forced reporters to quote McCarthy, then quote some other "authority" in a sputtering refusal, with the result that fallacious accusations received wide publicity. One reporter concluded that he and others were manipulated "like Pavlov's dogs."
Subjectivity-balancing also tended to create or reinforce, as Edward Jay Epstein has written, the "impression that at the root of political controversy is an intelligent argument between evenly matched opponents�an impression fostered by the articulateness of the opponents." When opponents were not equally articulate, the balancing mode favored, particularly on television, the articulate over the inarticulate.
This proved distasteful because journalists knew that most people do not communicate well in public, and that those who do so generally have considerable practice. Since the articulate often are interview professionals, hired to come across well regardless of the validity of their position, balancing stories often do not get at the truth at all. They only create a seller's market for glibness.
Some journalists did find uses for a subjectivity-balancing approach. Reporters as late as World War Two did not balance comments by Franklin Roosevelt with those of Hitler; American journalistic objectivity, like American political debate, extended only as far as the water's edge. In 1966, though, reporter Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times could journey to Hanoi to get the North Vietnamese side of the story. During the remainder of the war, newspapers that wanted to be neutral could refute charges of lack of patriotism with claims of subjectivity-balancing objectivity.
Most journalists forced into stenography were frustrated, though. Subjectivity-balancing satisfied parts of an ingenuous public, but it was unsatisfying to reporters who wanted to express themselves. As an article in The Public Interest noted in 1978, "A significant segment of the media has become impatient with its limited information dissemination role. It is not easy and frequently not exciting for an intelligent person simply to report events. The tendency, therefore, has been for imaginative and socially dedicated journalists to go beyond normal reporting in order to seek fuller expression of their talents or social values.''
The movement toward fuller expression of social values led in the 1960s to development of an explicitly subjective "new journalism." Magazine writers such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and (on the extreme) Hunter Thompson wrote themselves and their ideas into their stories, often with startling effect. New journalism stories often seemed more vivid and honest, with a writer's beliefs showing through.
Television stations and established newspapers, however, tended to oppose "new journalism" methodology. Stations by law, and newspapers by practice, had become by the 1960s very careful about giving obvious offense. For mainstream reporters, the "new journalism" officially could become a subject for gossip but nut overt imitation.
PHASE FOUR OBJECTIVITY: DISGUISED SUBJECTIVITY
And yet, with subjectivity roaring through America over the past two decades, and each person supposedly an oracle unto himself, journalists inevitably were going to act in ways designed to more fully express their "social values." If they could not do it openly, they would make the world safe for duplicity by doctoring the subjectivity-balancing scales.
Readers and viewers could continue to believe that subjectivity-balancing gave them the opportunity to make up their own minds, but journalists would be sure to select the evidence and structure the debate to produce the desired conclusions. To some extent this had always been done in subjectivity-balancing, since no reporter could be completely neutral. During phase three, however, reporters were taught to have so much doubt about their own conclusions that they would not want to push their vision too far.
Since the 1960s, though, journalists have been encouraged to think of themselves as more knowledgeable than the people they cover. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee argued even two decades ago that "Nowadays, when a government expert gives a press briefing on news about economics, missiles, or Africa, there are four or five reporters in the room who know more about the subject than he does." (Maybe the journalists do and maybe they don't, but if they think they do they will write accordingly.)  "News analysis" articles became common, and were not always marked as such. As early as 1965 one correspondent was saying, "My instructions are not to write a story unless I can put into it at least some analysis and interpretation."
The 1980s have witnessed an extension of "strategic ritual" (pseudo-objectivity that provides defense against criticism). A key aspect of strategic ritual is choice of sources and selection of quotations. Of half a dozen legitimate spokesmen on a particular issue, reporters can readily pick out one who expresses the reporter's own position. One reporter, Norma Quarles of NBC, has been honest enough to admit that she plays journalistic ventriloquism when she wants to make a point: "If I get the sense that things are boiling over, l can't really say it. I have to get somebody else to say it."
Similarly, of the many statements an opponent may make during an interview, reporters can play up one that will make that opponent look foolish. The upshot is that, once again, a reporter often makes a story conform to the "pictures in his head," just as in the era of straightforward materialism. Now, though, the process can be far more effective, for readers and viewers have become used to thinking they actually are receiving the debate. When such attitudes are imbedded, millions of suckers are born during every minute of airtime.
Some poker-faced reporters continue to proclaim that they merely present "information." Since they do not have to show their hands unless a libel suit results, many readers and viewers never see that they are bluffing. The abortion debate alone provides endless examples of journalistic strategic ritual. As ABC executive producer Av Westin has noted, network abortion stories during the early 1970s followed a formula: First, dramatic photos of bruised, "unwanted" babies, or shots of "a silhouetted woman telling how she nearly died after an illegal abortion"; then, "with the case for legalized abortion powerfully presented, an opponent of abortion would be given a chance to make the prolife side of the case, usually without dramatic pictures, inserted merely as a 'talking head.'"
The game of strategic ritual is often unsatisfying to a reporter~| but what alternative does he have? He cannot return to phase one, because he (and his editors) will perceive spiritual matters as grounded in opinion, not fact. He cannot return to phase two, because twentieth-century relativists have seen correctly that no man is a camera. Phase three is increasingly seen as forcing balance where there is none. (Rita Braver, covering health issues for CBS news, skillfully made the argument from absurdity: "When I cover drugs, it would be absurd for me to look for a person who says PCP is good for kids.") Phase four is the last resort.
Yet, he who digs a pit falls into it. Strategic ritual is based on deception, the idea that reporters are smart enough to indoctrinate subtly and the assumption that readers or viewers are too stupid to get angry. But readers and viewers are getting angry, as we will see in the next several chapters. Strategic ritual alienates journalists from the communities they are supposed to serve and exhibits the arrogance that people hate. Unless a reporter has extraordinary gifts or technical backing, readers seeking knowledge of the way the world works will eventually turn away from such contemptuous treatment.
NEW OBJECTIVITY NEW SERYANTHOOD
There is a Christian solution to the problems of objectivity. It is based on a different understanding of the nature of man, the nature of God, and the nature of man's tasks and man's hopes.
First, the Christian solution is not based on confidence in man. It assumes that fallen man naturally distorts and lies, and it assumes that fallen man's wisdom will slide us even deeper into sin and misery. Objectivity in all its non-Christian phases assumes that the major check on pernicious news twisting is journalistic goodwill. As former Louisville Courier-Journal Editor James Pope put it, "Objectivity is a compass for fair reporting, a gyroscope, a little secret radar beam that stabs you when you start twisting news to your own fancy...." But, given man's nature, is such a man-made belief likely to function in that way?
Second, the Christian solution is based on confidence in God's objectivity. God alone, the Christian knows, has given us a Biblical measuring rod built of true, godly objectivity. As the prophet Amos saw, "The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand." God then told Amos that he was "setting a plumb line among my people Israel" (Amos 7:7, 8). We have that plumb line today, the Bible. Thus, we know what man should do.
Third, the Christian solution is based on man's ability, with God's grace, to study God's objectivity and apply it to everyday situations. Christians know that our hope of arriving at accurate views is not to wipe our minds clean, because then we are at the mercy of our fallen vision, but to fill up our minds with God's vision. Walter Cronkite once said that he was a liberal, which he then defined as one "not bound by doctrines or committed to a point of view in advance." But, given our fallen natures, we are all captive to sin unless we are committed to Christ.
Christians are skeptical of self-generated conclusions but sure of God's. When Christians understand the Bible and are able to apply Biblical principles, then there can be confidence to go beyond subjectivity by responding to problems with God's Word, which is objectivity. Since the Christian presuppositional structure is closer to reality than competing frameworks are, Christians can explain more accurately how the world truly works.
Furthermore, since Christians can measure with God's plumb line, Christians can use all the techniques of phases one, two, and three; there is much that Christians can learn from talented journalists who were philosophically wrong. Since spiritual causes are not always clear, pure material description will be all that is sure in some cases. For example, the Boston Recorder reminded readers of the results of Napoleonic ambition by printing, without editorial comment the following report:
More than a million bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighborhood of Leipsic, Austerlitz, and Water- | loo, and all of the places where during the late bloody war the principal battles were fought, have been swept alike of the bones of the horse and his rider, and shipped to England, where steam engines have been erected, with powerful machinery, for the purpose of granulating them. In this condition they are sent chiefly to Poncaster, one of the largest agricultural markets, and sold to farmers to manure their lands.
Just as Christians may use straightforward description of material at times, so Christians may use phase three techniques 5 quoting various sides fully�as long as the context of actions also IS shown, so that the relationship of Iying promises and horrible deeds becomes evident.
God's inspired writers quoted adversaries often in the Bible. Almost entire chapters of 2 Kings (18) and Isaiah (36) were given over to the blandishments of a blaspheming Asssyrian general who demands surrender and promises exile to "a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey." The strategy involved in printing this offer was clear from I the context: The Assyrian was merely imitating what God had told the Israelites concerning the land of rnilk and honey He was offering them in permanence. The Israelites remained silent.
Christian objectivity, then, consists not of a technique but of l a plumb line. All kinds of stories can be Christian. Those that end in sadness often teach the wages of sin, those that end well may emphasize the wages of piety, and those that are unclear teach us that much of life is unpredictable and often confusing. Immediate justice often is not forthcoming, except in poetry. Poetic justice tells us what Heaven will be like, but an undue emphasis on good guys always winning might make us believe, falsely, that the present, shattered earth is our real home. Christian journalists like to "see what God is doing today"; they do not necessarily supply the didactic "why." Christian objectivity means having both eyes fas tened on God.
CAN THIS BE TRUE OBJECTIVITY?
This type of objectivity will not be satisfying to the atheist. Yet, criticism of Christian objectivity must necessarily assume what it is trying to prove. If an atheist says that a Christian is being subjective by reporting God as reality, the atheist is insisting that God is merely an object of the Christian's consciousness; the atheist is thus assuming, without proof, that atheism is true. If an atheist says that a Christian is wrong to report God's activities as factual, then he is assuming that his own ability to report reality is accurate and the Christian is adding on something.
To the Christian, the atheist is leaving out basic fact due to his spiritual blindness. No easy compromise is possible when such fundamental presuppositions are battling each other. God shows Christians that He exists independently of our minds by acting on our minds from outside. Yet, if a person who had not had that experience is unwilling to accept the testimony of others, and thus assumes internally-generated psychological change rather than God's grace, he will see Christian fact as imagination, and Christian obiectlvlty as subiectivity.
In the long run, journalistic differences between Christians and non-Christians are inevitable.
|PART ONE QUOTE
|All the devils in hell and tempters on earth could do us no injury if there were no corruption in our own natures.|