Slowing Down the Speed of Time
Elder News: 17 February 2010

REFLECTIONS: On Objectivity

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections One of my less talented editors in my early days in the news business would gather the staff and say things like, “ Always be on the lookout for a good story.” I kid you not. Then he would look over at me and say, “and always play it down the middle.” He knew that I had trouble with that from the beginning.

How can you “play it down the middle” when the victim of a horrendous crime is a child? Or, for that matter, how do you keep yourself out of the story when you’re sent, as I was, to interview a kid dying of leukemia but hoping he would live until the baseball season? How can you write such a story with objectivity? If there are no tears on the page (we used paper then) you’ve done a lousy job.

Somewhere I read that Theodore Roosevelt, who called some of the best reporters of his day “muckrakers” but admired them for their trust busting work, told the press once that there was no way to “play it down the middle” of competing assertions that the natural color of grass is red, not green.

Today, Paul Krugman has told us, it’s the style of too much of the main stream press to give equal weight to nonsense as in, “on the one hand all the facts tell us Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, but here is another view” usually from a self-serving nut who is barely challenged but simply quoted. As if that fulfilled the reporter’s responsibility to tell the story, if not the truth.

A digression: Why is it news at all to give voice to verifiable nonsense? It may be useful if the reporter grills the subject and calls out his/her false statements. Isn’t the job of the reporter to tell the truth as best as he/she can learn it? You may not be able to call someone a liar, but you can expose the lies if you’ve done your homework before the interview.

Why, after all this time, are we Americans the only people on earth who are obliged to defend Darwin? Is it honest journalism to report seriously, as fact, that the earth is 6,000 years old and man walked with the dinosaurs?

At the Grand Canyon, where some rocks are two billion years old, one Park Service guide was obliged to represent the creationist view to provide both sides of the story. No wonder a large percentage of Americans, don’t know that the earth revolves around sun instead of the other way around.

I have been over this ground before, but I’m interested in making a further observation – that too many mainstream reporters, especially the careerists who earn too much money, don’t really care about the story they’re covering and the outcome. Outcomes matter, as in two elections in which the Democratic candidates – both good men – were trashed with the help of the press that stood by.

I wonder, for example, if Ceci Connolly, the Washington Post reporter who helped kill single payer health care by refusing to write about it early on, really cares about how this health care fracas turns out. Are reporters pulling for Obama’s success, or will they be glad to pounce on the President because it would be a good story if the reforms die? Will they care about the effect on people who, unlike themselves, will be without health insurance? And is this kind of objective, uncaring good for the country or journalism?

I was called to revisit this subject by a fine, lengthy piece by former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. Posted February 1 on Truthdig, it was entitled “The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News. And it quoted one of the best journalists I knew, the late Molly Ivins, a friend from my Texas days. While we search for the middle as if the truth lies there, Molly wrote,

“There is no such thing as objectivity, and the truth, that slippery little bugger, has the oddest habit of being way to hell off the one side or the other; it seldom nestles neatly halfway between two opposing points of view...It’s of no help to either readers or the truth to quote one side saying ‘cat,’ and the other side saying ‘dog,” while the truth is, there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes.”

Hedges calls this unthinking objectivity an “abject moral failing [that] has left the growing numbers of Americans shunted aside by our corporate state without a voice...The elitism, distrust and lack of credibility of the press...come directly from this steady and willful disintegration of the media’s moral core.”

I can’t disagree, but the mantra of objectivity is not solely to blame. The trouble and the amorality lies deeper. It may surprise you, but the best reporters for the best newspapers (and television) no longer carry the torch of objectivity. It’s not even held up in journalism schools as an ideal. As I’ve told journalism students, only a tape recorder can be objective, but a human reporter must listen to it and decide (subjectively) what is important and what is not.

What most reporters say they try for are accuracy, fairness and honesty. But that too can be a way to dodge finding out and reporting the truth. After Katrina, CNN’s Anderson Cooper became, and deserved to be a star, when he exposed the failings of the government in getting help to the people dying at the Superdome. He spoke the truth for those people and the rest of the country and there was no other side to the story.

Consider, in the extreme, the sham of the Fox network’s “fair and balanced.” It will ignore the truth, that elephant out in the bushes, to entertain the like-minded loonies who enjoy cat fights that get some precious space and air time. It’s not news or the truth, for weighed in the balance, the cat that can scream the loudest with the most outlandish, outweighs the elephant. Nevertheless, fairness and balance, as practiced by the most responsible main stream reporters, often become copouts for dodging the moral judgments about the stories they cover.

Robert Fisk, one of the best reporters in the Middle East, says that too often balance comes down to this: “Record the fury of a Palestinian whose land has been taken from him by Israeli settlers, but always refer to Israel’s “security needs” and its “war on terror.” If Americans are accused of torture, call it abuse...”

Once in 1991, I witnessed a heart-breaking scene at the Allenby Bridge, watching Palestinians crossing from Jordan to the West Bank, which technically does not belong to Israel. The Palestinians, especially the women were subjected to humiliating open air searches by armed Israeli soldiers.

My office told me to be fair in the story and note the threats to Israel’s security. I’ve been cautioned by an American editor not to describe the wall of separation between Israel and what’s left of the Palestinian territory as “apartheid.” But Israel’s more aggressive press calls it just that.

The best and most credible information a reporter can bring to a story is what he sees with his own eyes; too often that has to be balanced. But as Hedges said, “this becomes more of a way to obscure the truth.”

If reporters for the mainstream newspapers vigorously searched for the uncovered, controversial truth in a story, and exposed it with the same alacrity we probe and endlessly report on a congressman’s sexual transgressions, perhaps we could intelligently sort out from the barrage of news, the truth of what it means.

I suppose the bigots, nuts and know-nothings will always be with us, ignoring the facts and reason. But their voices and their enablers are amplified by modern journalism. Without some guidance from a reporter who knows his/her beat and points to the truth, we are left open to the ridiculous, lying rantings of right-wing talk shows. That, in turn, has prompted commercial television to bring us more liberal talk shows. But their elephants cannot compete with screaming cats, and Rachel Maddow’s solid reporting gets scant mainstream coverage compared to the stream of unconciousness raving of Glenn Beck.

Finally, the American people have never had more free communications sources for news. Yet they are among the most politically ignorant. According to a new Daily Kos poll of Republicans in the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, 68 percent think Obama should be impeached or are not sure. Fifty-three percent believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be president than Obama; another 33 percent were “not sure.”

The poll also found that nearly half of all Americans believe, after 26 years of polling, that God created human beings pretty much as they are 10,000 years ago. Author Frank Schaeffer, a former Republican who has been at war with the fundamentalist rightists of the Tea Party movement, whom he calls “village idiots,” notes as a preface to Hedges’ piece, “A village cannot revise village life to suit the village idiot.”

My question is why and how did they get that way?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Brenda Verbeck: On Life and Love and Stuff


Saul, you are singing my song. Only you sing it so much better. I have ranted on this at times and it infuriates me that the mainstream press give so much attention to certified nut cases like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck. If the press would just ignore the no-nothings they would go away.

Everything you said, and as usual said so well, is true. I am asking for the privlige of copying your post to send to my e-mail family.

Molly Ivins was my idol and I still mourn her death. No one could write the truth with such biting humor. The Molly Ivins and Helen Thomas's are becoming extinct. (Although Helen still writes occassionally.)

The press isn't a news group anymore. They are entertainers with a hair stylist.

This issue hits home with me, too. I think the trend toward "balanced" news is a real problem. It's as if the truth matters not at all, so long as both sides get to repeat their spin. Journalists never interject the truth into the discussion, they merely parrot the viewpoints of the opposing parties. It's no wonder the people can't find the facts. If journalism and print newspapers are dying out, it may not be the Internet that's killing it. It may be because the facts don't seem to matter to the mainstream media these days.

THANK YOU for this one!!

Will keep forwarding your articles to everyone for whom I have an Email address -- whether they are left of center and will enjoy them as much as I, right of center, or, sadly, way too far right to even have an intelligent conversation.

I live in hopes of the enlightenment of some of those of my acquaintance who might one day wake up to reality.

Keep up the great work.

Entertainment is dumbing down anybody who watches it. It started innocuous enough, but it's grown into a monster. How can schools do anything about something that is so invasive? Fox not only has the news that creates a lot of this, but they put out the worst of the worst 'entertainment.' I have to think a lot of it is deliberate. Could it really be just to make money or is there something else behind it? The average person doesn't want anything literary or requiring deep thinking.

The so-called reality shows sure haven't helped. I don't watch any of them but read about the kind of thing that entertains so many Americans. Where is it taking us? I don't know what can fix any of it now. I have this feeling it's more a case of how do we protect ourselves individually from it.

When Evan Bayh resigned, I hated to see it but couldn't blame him for how frustrating it must be to work in a Congress that is so badly out of whack. Unfortunately, it's just a product of the rest of us :(

Anyone is free to circulate any of my articles.Just be sure to give me and Time Goes By credit.

You are absolutely right!!!

My dad taught me that I had to look at both sides of issues and that
I should keep my mind open to both sides. I don't think anyone teaches that anywhere anymore.

One of my best lessons in high school came my senior year in 1964 when it was LBJ vs. Goldwater for president. Our government teacher, who encouraged debate, divided the class according to party lines and all the LBJ supporters had to speak for Goldwater and vice versa. Needless to say, those of us who did our homework learned a lot. (This teacher was fired after that year.)

I've learned that most people believe what they want to believe and don't really care about the truth or reason and you have made this abundantly clear here. Thank you!!!!!!

Too many Americans are idiots simply because they choose to be. That's the sad reality of our country.

Because, for the most part, your generation failed to understand and my generation has failed to try to understand? Clearly, Mr. Freidman, you get it. But … this piece is on the Elder Storytelling Site and not even where you can link it to Facebook, though I can just about guarantee that the “Elder” and the length of the article aren’t going to net a lot of readers. It’s the NEXT generation that needs to pay attention? Can you chop this into 10-15 sound bite sized pieces? Can you make the pursuit of truth and reason into a video game?

To anyone wondering, including Mamalinde:

Of course, any story on this blog can be linked to from Facebook or anywhere else. Just copy the URL.

To the degree there is an intellectual tradition in the U.S. it has always been "left of center," or liberal. There have been conservative intellectuals, but not very many. The same applies to the press, and this makes sense: analysis and critical thinking demand education in the liberal arts, which call on students to formulate plausible positions and to be able to defend them rationally.
In recent years, this simple truth has been used to attack the press with charges of bias. I would hope (but with little confidence) that the mainstream press/media will begin to insist on rational arguments before giving electrons or newsprint to political opinions.
What I was most struck by in your excellent piece is the following: "Why is it news at all to give voice to verifiable nonsense?"
Exactly. Catch phrases, shouting matches and repetition of patently untrue statements continue to be given exposure, but shouldn't be. The reason? Nonsense repeated--however bone-headed--gains in credibility every time it gets aired or printed. This is a simple truth of psychology.
So the press demonstrates a kind of disservice--and laziness--by relying on foolish theatrics to fill column inches and air time. It won't do, and it is not, finally, in the service of fairness or "balance." It's just timidity and sloth.

I've been trying to figure this out too. I've been told for many years now, by my clients who are doctors that they wish they had met me years before because then they wouldn't have made the same mistakes, like joining HMO's or choosing not to offer complementary care. Yet, when I offer them the chance to hear the latest on health opportunities, they act just like they did ten years ago, unable to understand anything that isn't main stream.

I can only think that it is human to reject the unknown. Because important issues are difficult to grasp, it is easier to just repeat the first or last thing you heard. I give a talk called greedy, lazy and cheap. It's about doctors, but now I have to believe it may be about us all.

When truth is not valued, when truth is not shared, when truth is not taught or not modeled (as in parents "modeling" truth for their children), then we are left with a majority sadly wallowing in "balanced" ignorance.

We ourselves are to blame for the political, financial and ideological mess we are in. Of course we're in economic turmoil. Lenders were not truthful with borrowers, borrowers weren't truthful with themselves. The examples in every aspect of our lives are plentiful!

Let's light the flame of truthfulness with the matchstick of informed facts and public opinion. Each of us has the responsibility to keep this flame alive...

Saul, you began your excellent piece by citing an editor, your boss. Don't most reporters, both print and electronic, have to answer to an editor? Isn't editorial policy/leadership heavily responsible for what's printed/broadcast? Who sets editorial policy? Where does "the buck" stop?

How and why did our village idiots become idiots? I've been pondering this question hard lately, because there had to be a solid base of ignorance in order for there to be a gathering and growing movement of idiocy. Our refusal to spend for quality public education and our willingness to market the puerile and the inane to the least discriminating of audiences on network television have played key roles. We've elevated our ignorance, given it the high-sounding title of Populism, and proclaimed that it ARE us. And, heaven help us, it is becoming so.

Go Saul Go,
Honesty is great in word
but tough in deed
Truth has history on it's side
unfortunately most folks don't have that much time to breathe
Thanx for sending your thoughts through the ether, they will be shared

Thanks for your usual wise commentary. Your columns are a breath of fresh air.

Concerning idiocy, when nonsense is repeated often enough, lots of people think it must be true. Fox News understands that. They saw it on TV, right?

TV commentators today often seem like schoolyard bullies who surround two arguing children yelling, "fight, fight," and egging them on. They pretend they're above the fray, but they are so gleeful about stirring up those fights. Actual ideas are ignored while they keep score on who's winning or losing the battle.

As for reporters who think they're fair and balanced, presenting both sides with a straight face when one is obviously true and the other is obnoxious baloney, my journalist husband used to call that "giving cancer equal time."

Thanks for inflating my oft-rant so beautifully and succintly.
I'm so glad I'm not alone, my friend.

Righteous commentary. Thank you.

I find the pervasive hostility in this society towards intellectualism to be quite disturbing. Good article on the topic by Leonard Pitts Jr. in the Miami Herald:

I'm a fan of Paul Krugman, was a fan of Mollie Ivins. Your fan, too.

These days it's everything for the extra dollar. Truth, fairness, morality go by the wayside, while noisy sensationalism sells. What will be the future of our country???

This country was born and grew up thousands of miles from any other advanced civilization aside from Canada that was in the same boat as we were.
Living in America in the first 100 years was like living on a flat world - if you stepped off either coast you risked a gigantic fall!
The result was "reactive isolationism" which stills colors the thinking of many Americans.
It will pass but not overnight.

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