The latest Economist has a special report on the state of the news business. The key reminder is that our current, more overtly opinion based journalism is actually a throwback to older models. In the Revolutionary era there was no pretense of objectivity; Thomas Paine wrote deliberately polemical pamphlets. And yellow journalism also offered stridently opinionated reporting. Seen in this light, our hyper-partisan journalistic mode is the norm.
And yet, the conceit of the objective journalist--someone who reports the facts and lets the reader or viewer decide--persists. I think this ideal has value, even if it is a historical anomaly. NYU's JSchool professor Jay Rosen criticizes this as an unrealistic "view from nowhere," since everyone must have some point of view. And Rosen is right that news reports often provide tit-for-tat quoting from people on opposing sides of an issue, creating an illusion of true controversy when in fact there is a consensus that one side is correct. Global warming is a case in point. Almost all scientists believe it is a serious, man-made problem. But news reports create the impression that there is signficant disagreement.
So, score some points for Rosen. But he goes too far in seeking to banish all disinterested journalism. Many issues are nuanced and complicated, offering a clash of legitimate competing views. For example, are taxes harmful to the economy or a spur to useful public investment? Pundits on all sides of this issue will debate it until the end of time, using competing think tank reports and intellectual sleight of hand. For these types of discussions, disinterested journalism sheds the most light.
True, journalists needn't be automatons who blindly quote people on opposite sides of every issue in equal proportion. But journalists shouldn't become indistinguishable from think tank pundits either. We still need the view from nowhere.