To take newspapers as the oldest handy example, the hallowed principle of journalistic objectivity is less than two centuries old. Until the early 19th century, most newspapers were unabashedly partisan--they were openly attached to one or another cause, such as monetary policy, abolition, and territorial expansion, or more broadly to one political party or another. Their readership understood--and expected--this. Only when circulation began to expand beyond the narrowly partisan readership that was their core did newspapers begin to search for a way to maintain a broader audience to which a one-sided approach to issues would no longer be marketable. (Thus, in a bit of historical irony, the nakedly partisan Fox News' claim to "Fair and Balanced" coverage flogs a modern slogan in support of an old approach to journalism.)
Even on its good days, objectivity is not a concept you'd want to bet the farm on; it's more an agreed-upon ideal than anything noticeably connected to practice. The process by which news is observed, reported, structured, and presented, even in good faith, is rife with opportunities for individual preferences to insinuate themselves.
Objectivity, such as it is, is guaranteed by methods: Facts must be checked through multiple sources. News stories must be reviewed at more than one level, by persons without the situated reporter's connection to the people and events involved, before publication.
Another tool for creating--or enforcing, or displaying--objectivity is the principle of balance. It's an old Enlightenment notion: Truth comes out of the clash between opposing ideas. Thus, reporters who cover a controversial topic by faithfully passing along what both (or all) sides say about it has discharged their journalistic duty to balance. Now, goes the theory, it's up to the audience to decide which side deserves their belief.
The problem comes when journalists assume--or hope--that merely having people disagree on a point is sufficient to create the kind of balance that will allow readers to determine the truth. Critic Pauline Kael called this--accurately if ungenerously--"saphead objectivity," the naïve believe that mechanically presenting two sides in disagreement creates a crucible from which the truth can be found, even if at least one of those sides is full of crap.
The principle extends even to opinion columnists, where news media attempt to show their objectivity by striking a "balance" between commentators from different positions. A case in point is in today's (Portland) Oregonian. The front page of the Commentary section was given over to a discussion of "Iraq's Democratic Future," featuring a reprinted article by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and another by Washington Times columnist James Lileks . Everything about the feature--down to the symmetrical layout on the page--indicated that these two takes on the recent Iraq elections constituted a "balanced" presentation of ideas.
A representative clip from the top of Friedman's essay, usually pointed to as one of the Time's "liberal" commentators:
As someone who believed, hoped, worried, prayed, worried, hoped and prayed some more that Iraqis could one day pull off the election they did, I am unreservedly happy about the outcome - and you should be, too.Friedman goes on to portray the first round of Iraq elections as an opportunity for "Iraq moderates" to show themselves.
The kick-off to Lileks' article takes a somewhat different approach:
The German welfare system may be generous, but it's not run by idiots. Turn down a good job, and you get your benefits cut. But here's the rub, literally: The Germans decriminalized prostitution, which means brothels are now legitimate businesses. According to the British newspaper the Telegraph, at least one job seeker has been forced to choose: Work in a brothel or lose your goodies.Lileks, in turn, goes on to paint the dilemma he sees in this for the "reactionaries," "Nordic socialists," "anti-capitalist anarchists," and "neo-Stalinist nut goodies" who oppose the "progressive, idealist, and revolutionary" Bush and his policies on Iraq.
There you have the two extremes of the Muslim world and the West: the burqa or the thong. Take off your clothes, you're stoned. Keep them on, and you forfeit your pension contributions.
Harsh, yes, but then the principle of balance requires that both sides in a debate be allowed to put their case as strongly as they can, right?
Well, not really. And the onus here lands as much on the high-minded Oregonian as on the spittle-flecked Lileks.
As it turns out, the "work in a whorehouse or lose welfare" story--juicy as it is, and handy as a club to beat lefties over the head with--has the disadvantage of not being true. It simply didn't happen. Worse, it's been debunked several times, in detail, since it first appeared. Go here for a snarky summary, and here, here, and here for the goods.
This is saphead objectivity run amok. So low is the bar for achieving "balance" that the Oregonian can present Lileks' right-wing diatribe, built on a false story, as counterpoint to Friedman's liberal-to-centrist confessional. As Michael Kinsley noted, "the conventions of objectivity make it very difficult to say that something is a lie."
Ironically, it's precisely this saphead objectivity that irritates both left and right--and has earned mainstream media the poisonous "liberal bias" epithet. That's because if one side of a reconstructed debate is bogus, the other side will naturally scream foul. And these days the right wing screaming is much louder and more organized, whether or not it's based on any legitimate grievance, so it's the charge of "liberal bias" that sticks.
Postscript: It just wouldn't be complete without a letter:
To the Editor of the Oregonian:
I appreciate that pairing the Washington Times' James Lileks ("George W. Bush: progressive, idealist, and revolutionary for Iraq") against Thomas Friedman ("Now the United States should help Iraqis build a consensus government") on Page One of the Sunday 2/6/05 Commentary section was an attempt to display balance.
But the cause of journalistic balance would have been better served if anyone had noticed that the central story in Liken's attack on all non-Bush supporters--about the German unemployment system "forcing" a woman to choose between working in a brothel or losing her benefits--was false, and had been debunked several times since its initial publication. See these sources: http://sadlyno.com/archives/001192.html , http://xrlq.com/archives/2005/01/31/2134/unemployed-german-prostitutes/ , and http://www.snopes.com/media/notnews/brothel.asp .
The belief that uncritically presenting any two opposing sides of an issue--even if at least one of them is bogus--therefore constitutes balance is what critic Pauline Kael used to call "saphead objectivity."