The trouble with objectivity

Objectivity is a principle whose legitimacy stems from its seeming neutrality. It’s not hard to see why it forms the cornerstone of responsible journalistic praxis; it is the principle that separates the reporter from the pundit.  It is the principle that identifies what the openly ideological conservative media dubs “the liberal media.” This is, by the way, a brilliant relabeling on the part of conservative think tanks for two reasons.  First, it puts journalists on the defensive, forcing them to take great pains to give equal time to “both sides.” Second, it conceals the anti-intellectualism and relativism intrinsic to the principle of objectivity.  The former has fostered a level of political discourse that is completely severed from reality–fictions and fantasies are presented as reasonable alternatives to facts and analysis.  The latter renders everything a mere matter of opinion, which precludes the judgment required to offer a substantive notion of political progress.  Which is to say, objectivity is a functionally conservative principle.   Like I said, brilliant.

Let me offer an example of objectivity in action. Today I listened to a podcast of a radio interview conducted by Michel Martin of NPR’s Tell Me More.  The show is a daily talk show in which “nothing is assumed” and in which the “issues and pleasures relevant to multicultural life in America” are discussed.  What could be more liberal?

The segment entitled, “Government Shutdown? This is Democracy in Action,” featured an interview with Chris Jacobs from the Heritage Foundation and Gayle Trotter from the Independent Women’s Forum, two incredibly powerful conservative think tanks. Let me table a discussion about  the unquestioned intellectual legitimacy given to think tanks (i.e. institutions of obfuscation), and move directly to the substance of the interview, wherein the position of shutting down the government to protest a law is presented as a a reasonable position one might take. Both guests were extremely creative in their presentation of “facts” and “history” (air quotes), regarding the ways in which “Obamacare is hurting people” and “hurting the economy” (real quotes). Yet when presented with misrepresentation and misdirection, Michel responds with some iteration of “but maybe other people see it differently, what do you say to that?” It’s clear that the goal here is not to analyze this position; the goal is to demonstrate good journalism by allowing “both sides to speak.”

In fact, Michelle goes to absurd lengths to avoid the appearance of any kind of “bias” when she admits that she’s using a different language than her guests.  She refers to the government shutdown as a government shutdown, whereas her guests call it a slim-down or a slow-down. She says, “I do take note that we’re using different language…that we are having a semantic difference here. I’m not trying to persuade you in either direction, just, you know, pointing it out.” Heaven forbid she try to persuade! Lord help us if she were to suggest that it’s possible to judge between these terms! No, these terms are, like everything else, matters of personal opinion, and therefore must be protected from judgment.

And the most important thing is to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, right?


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