Objectivity in reporting: worth a try

Chris Suellentrop in today’s Slate has some reflections on the openly biased (in opposite directions, of course) coverage of the war from al-Jazeera and CNN. He asks why it isn’t better that journalists expose their biases rather than trying to conceal them. Suellentrop seems to be groping toward an “adversary system” theory of how mass-media journalism should work, to replace the notion of “objectivity” that has ruled in this country since sometime early in the last century.

Journalistic objectivity can never be complete, and attempts at objectivity can make life easy for the most shameless liar around, as Joe McCarthy and George W. Bush both demonstrated. As long as your lie gets equal coverage with your opponent’s statement of the truth — each “objectively” represented as someone’s opinion statement, neither compared with the facts — then you’re way ahead of the game.

But the journalist’s attempt to say more or less what is the case rather than to say what will best persuade the reader or viewer — the attempt, never perfect, to act as an impartial judge rather than as an advocate — still has value. The return to the bad old days of the purely partisan press — of which Fox News and the Murdoch rags are now giving us a taste — would be a truly bad result for the politics of this country.

Suellentrop’s proposal makes sense only from the sort of postmodern perspective that denies the difference between truth and falsehood, leaving nothing but opinion behind. He should recall Hannah Arendt’s story about the eminent historian who was asked what he thought historians a century hence would be saying about the origins of World War I: “They will not say that World War I started when Belgium invaded Germany.”


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com