NY Times Political Reporter Believes Telling Right From Wrong Is Beyond His Job Description; He's Wrong

from the the-view-from-absolutely-nowhere dept

For many years we’ve talked about the silly position that many journalism organizations take, in which their interpretation of being “objective” is to have what Professor Jay Rosen has called “the view from nowhere.” I understand where this inclination comes from — with the idea that if people think you’re biased or one-sided that it taints the legitimacy or credibility of what you’re reporting on. But in practice it often comes off as bland nothingness, and reporters willing to repeat any old nonsense that politicians and others put forth. Indeed, I’d argue that many people in the politics realm have learned to use this to their own advantage, and to say any old bullshit, knowing that the press will repeat it in a manner that only gives the original claim more validity and attention — rather than calling it out as bullshit.

Similarly, such a bland “view from nowhere” creates a standard of “objective” reporting that is not there. Journalists always need to make choices — choices about what to include and what not to include, who to quote and who not to quote. And, of course, journalists do have opinions and pretending otherwise is just silly. As such, we’ve long called out why this kind of view from nowhere is ridiculous, and journalism outlets that do silly things like ban reporters from stating opinions are not being “objective,” they’re denying reality.

The NY Times is running a new series on “Understanding the NY Times,” which I think is actually a great idea by itself. A big part of the problem with the way people (don’t) understand journalism today is that so much of how journalism works is set forth in an effective code of unwritten rules that many journalists learn as they get into the business, but which the public has no clue about. Non-journalists often impute a kind of motive to journalists that is laughable if you know actual journalists (or happen to be one). So, it’s good (if unlikely to impact much) that the Times has chosen to do something to open up some of the details and explain things.

And yet… a recent piece in this series about how journalists “try to stay impartial” really seems to show just how silly this particular policy is. A bunch of people on Twitter commented, in particular, on a short comment provided by the NY Times’ White House correspondent Peter Baker. In response to a discussion about whether or not reporters should even vote, he says the following:

As reporters, our job is to observe, not participate, and so to that end, I don?t belong to any political party, I don?t belong to any non-journalism organization, I don?t support any candidate, I don?t give money to interest groups and I don?t vote.

I try hard not to take strong positions on public issues even in private, much to the frustration of friends and family. For me, it?s easier to stay out of the fray if I never make up my mind, even in the privacy of the kitchen or the voting booth, that one candidate is better than another, that one side is right and the other wrong.

Many people are calling out the not voting part as ridiculous — and I agree. I have no problem with people choosing not to vote, as I believe that’s a personal decision that everyone should make for themselves, using whatever rationale they think appropriate, no matter how crazy. Yet, to think that this is somehow noble of a reporter or some sign of objectivity is just silly. It feels more like putting on a performance of objectivity.

But the much crazier part of this is not the lack of voting, but the final point he makes, that his job as a reporter is not to say “that one side is right and the other wrong.” That’s basically his only job as a reporter. As we’ve pointed out multiple times in the past, figuring out the truth is the key job of a journalist. And if you think that failing to say when someone is wrong makes you a better journalist, you’re wrong (and I’m not afraid to say that).

Of course, there may be a larger point that Baker is getting at here, and he just failed to explain it well. So many political debates do get dragged down into questions of “right” or “wrong” on issues of opinion — where “rightness” or “wrongness” is not something that can easily be assessed. The line between facts and opinions can get a bit fuzzy at times — especially with policy issues. Will this particular policy accomplish what its backers claim? Well, who knows? We can look at past data or other evidence that suggests one outcome or the other, and that would be useful to report on. But every situation may be different, and different variables may be at play. So, calling certain claims right or wrong can be challenging in the best of times — but simply swearing off saying if something is right or wrong seems to suggest not just a cop out from doing your job as a reporter, but also a fairly cynical take on what the role of a reporter actually should be.

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Comments on “NY Times Political Reporter Believes Telling Right From Wrong Is Beyond His Job Description; He's Wrong”

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48 Comments
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K`Tetch (profile) says:

"Of course, there may be a larger point that Baker is getting at here, and he just failed to explain it well."

That’s not a good thing either. Basically, ‘explaining things well’ is the OTHER half of his job description.
If he’s not reporting the facts, and he’s not explaining things well, then WHY is he employed as a journalist, when he can’t manage either of the basic requirements of that job.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: An average day for Peter Baker.

Or literally, "Since we gave Sanders and Trump an hour of air time in the debate, here’s local Neo-Nazi John Smith who is also running for president as a write-in candidate to tell you why we should genocide the Jews who run everything!"

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 An average day for Peter Baker.

"What sort of advertisers would one see?"

Hmm…

*"Southern Cross – we’ve got well-aged timbers with just the right amount of oil fer yer cross-burnin’ to last the whole night. Buy now, get half a dozen tiki torches fer free.".

"Alabama Hemp. Stout rope that’ll hang ANY size’a n____r guaranTEED!"

"Georgia’s clothiers want YOU to know that their white cotton robes and hoods, unlike the dull old bedsheet-with-holes breathes well, keeping you snug and cool for the whole experience"

*"Old Relics and Imports would like to remind you they’ve still got a warehouse stocked to the rafters with gen-u-ine world war 2 paraphernalia, especially uniforms and armbands in all sizes. Any purchase o’ more than $200 comes with a leatherbound copy o’ "Mein Kampf" signed by Steve Bannon."

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Anonymous Coward says:

alleged NYT proposition (the premise):
"Telling Right From Wrong Is Beyond His Job Description"

(insert argument here)

techdirt conclusion:
"he’s wrong"

Perhaps td is right, but it is supported by no argument. I used the standard method, each paragraph I examined at the start, it suffices. Here are the first bits of each paragraph. I’m only looking for anything that might support the idea that journalists have as their job determining truth:
"For many years we’ve talked about the silly position"
(appeal to ridicule)
"Similarly, such a bland "view from nowhere" creates a standard of"
(slippery slope)
"The NY Times is running a new series on "Understanding the NY Times," which I think is actually a great idea"
(immaterial)
"And yet… a recent piece in this series about how journalists "try to stay impartial" really seems to show just how silly this particular policy is."
(appeal to ridicule)
"Many people are calling out the not voting part as ridiculous — and I agree."
(immaterial & appeal to ridicule (whether or not he votes is immaterial to the proposition) & appeal to popularity)
"But the much crazier part of this is not the lack of voting, but the final point he makes, that his job as a reporter is not to say "that one side is right and the other wrong." That’s basically his only job"
(begging the question)
"Of course, there may be a larger point that Baker is getting at here, and he just failed to explain it well."
(immaterial)

If there was an argument hiding in there, let me know!!! I only have just so much patience with poor writing!

Traditionally, it was relatively easy to stay neutral, merely report on the facts. That’s because the main people reading the news were people pretty well educated, and taught not as today advocacy, but rather to themselves, by logic, identify the truth. It was how writing and everything worked, in the school system. Today, readership is completely without the tools necessary to determine what is true. Instead, they desperately identify the stylish idea, and cling to those, as they do with clothing, because there is safety in being plain (and what is more plain than a bunch of tatts and skinny jeans?)

But the irony is that such a group created, so easily led, because they are ignorant of logic, also create a group easily misled as well. And control over media won’t help it. Write something on a sign, poorly. They’ll believe it – for the five seconds they’re in the presence of it, until another comes along. So demoralized are they, that they give their own rational process no merit.

How thinking was taught in the schools of yore was to demand that students reason out everything (like in math showing your work). Then they would be judged according to this, not according to their ability to come to the "right conclusion".

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

Journalism 101: If someone says “it’s raining” and someone else says “it’s not raining”, a reporter’s job is not to report both sides, but to look out the fucking window and see if it’s raining.

The “view from nowhere” is about reporting anything anyone presents as a fact, even if what they say is provably a lie. In “view from nowhere” reporting on Flat Earth theory, the Flat Earthers would be treated the exact same as esteemed, knowledgeable scientists — even though the Flat Earthers clearly have no credibility and scientific evidence proves their theory is bullshit. Similarly, a “view from nowhere” would put anti-vaxxers and scientists on equal footing, even though the anti-vaxxers are…misinformed in their “scientific” beliefs, to put it kindly.

We want reporters to find the truth and report it. A “view from nowhere” reporter finds both the truth and a lie, then reports both as either fact or theory (but equally so), even if the evidence proves the truth is true and the lie is a lie. That way lies madness; we should not want it, nor do we need it — or, for that matter, anyone who thinks it’s a good idea.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Journalism 101: If someone says “it’s raining” and someone else says “it’s not raining”, a reporter’s job is not to report both sides, but to look out the fucking window and see if it’s raining.

That’s an oversimplification. To know whether it’s raining at any location not visible from the window, they either have to go there (and no longer know whether it’s raining near their window), or trust a person or some equipment. Part of finding the truth in knowing whom to trust.

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Rocky says:

Re: Re:

I’m only looking for anything that might support the idea that journalists have as their job determining truth

You conveniently side-stepped answering the question yourself which I find very telling. If a journalists job isn’t determining and reporting the truth, what is their job? Copywriter?

No journalist won the Pulitzer prize by being the one who thought everybody’s viewpoint where equal regardless of facts and truth.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Perhaps td is right, but it is supported by no argument."

The argument would be the uses of the term "reporter".

The statement that a reporter’s job is to find out what is right and report that is as dictionary-definition clear as the statement that "’down’ refers to the vector aligned towards the center of mass".
With that out of the way the rest of the OP becoming a lampoon is fairly natural.

"Traditionally, it was relatively easy to stay neutral, merely report on the facts."

That has, in fact, never been true for anything but a science journalist who only has to bring empirical observation to the table. For any other journalist it’s all about finding a story, validating it, and commenting on the parts found to be untrue.

The fourth estate has a rather important job, most of which has to do with finding out whether the talking head in front of the microphone is "right", "wrong", or "flat-out lying".

"But the irony is that such a group created, so easily led, because they are ignorant of logic, also create a group easily misled as well."

This has similarly always been true, ever since the "news" were written in cuneiform on clay tablets. We rely on journalists and reporters to present a hopefully less biased portrayal of the carefully spun rhetoric fed us by a politician whose entire career may rest on their ability to spin the public a good yarn.

"How thinking was taught in the schools of yore…"

Was to provide a ready answer to any hard question and align the young inquisitive minds in such a direction that their future questions were never aimed at contemporary authority.
Every "school of yore" in the US of the 50’s taught, to some degree, why the White Man was superior to the Black Man, in some way, even outside of the south. Later on they taught children that if their mommy and daddy were reading many foreign books those children should probably call the committee of UnAmerican activities so Uncle Hoover could come have a chat with mummy and daddy.

The "schools of yore" might have benefited the young when it came to understanding math, but there’s a bloody good reason that today 50% of the US population believes, with all their heart, that evolution is wrong and science is suspect.

And it’s not because they were taught to question. they were taught to believe.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Scary.. what is so scary is the length of print I would have to read of yours (did you even take one breath whilst you wrote that?) to get a single point of yours. I apologize for not reading your comment tonight. I looked and saw how frickin long it was and just said to myself, "I am gonna miss my show if I read that," plus I was planning on traveling sometime soon to a far away island. I just don’t have time to read that.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Ah, you were looking for the TL;DR? Mea Culpa.

  • There are, in fact, cases where the "neutral" position can’t exist.
  • Journalists have the job of determining outright falsehoods and bring to light factual truth.
  • "Equal weight" is a myth unless what is discussed is pure opinion. For anything else observable fact should suffice for the journalist to draw the proper angle for their piece.
Anonymous Coward says:

what's a journalist?

…."Non-journalists often impute a kind of motive to journalists that is laughable if you know actual journalists (or happen to be one). "

….so just how do we humble non-journalists recognize genuine "journalists" from fakers & poseurs ?

how does one formally enter this lofty priesthood of Journalism (?) … or are the criteria for the title of "Journalist" so loose as to be useless in sorting them from the masses of ordinary writers and speakers ?

Bruce C. says:

Going back to the Garden?

Seems like this school of journalism wants to go back to Adam and Eve before they gained knowledge of good and evil.

Journalists should report the facts as they are best understood at the time. In an issues piece, they should give a fair and neutral presentation of differing viewpoints, but neutral doesn’t mean non-critical. It just means to subject all viewpoints to the same scrutiny. If any viewpoint is based on faulty information/assumptions/biases, that issue should be called out during the analysis.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

neutral doesn’t mean non-critical

Yes, it does. Neutrality means giving the same credibility and weight to the arguments of both scientists and Flat Earthers as if both sides deserve credibility only for making their arguments. You can’t be simultaneously critical of and neutral towards Flat Earthers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Going back to the Garden?

"It just means to subject all viewpoints to the same scrutiny."

Does one have to perform this task each and every time these broken records repeat the same debunked viewpoints? What if the repeats appear in the same thread? Are you then allowed to show a tad bit of sarcasm, or maybe disgust?

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Agreed.

If a writer claims they needn’t call out misinformation, then we can call them mere storytellers and their works mere fiction.

Imagine a science journalist that didn’t care to tell us if a claim was the modern consensus, or a weird new idea, or debunked.

Likewise we expect all journalists to help readers with the job of separating the world’s information from misinformation.

If all we keep seeing from news organisations is flippant infotainment then we will surely move away to the better storytellers and works of fiction we have found online.

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Anonymous Coward says:

"Journalists should do away with any pretenses of impartiality and become the arbiters of truth based on how they feel, so that we no longer have to cede any space to potential "alternate facts" and other misinformation influencing the minds of the vulnerable public that can’t be trusted to tell "right" from "wrong" for themselves!"

Well, Mr. Masnick, you must be very proud of the current age journalists then, that brought us enthusiastically ’round the clock coverage of partial and truthful news such as:
WMD in Iraq!
Snowden and Assange are traitorous criminals!
Trump is a Putin puppet!
Assad is gassing his own people every time he’s losing!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

" the current age journalists then, that brought us enthusiastically ’round the clock coverage of partial and truthful news "

Are you referring to the journalists employed by large corporations who direct said employees journalistic activities?

How are journalists responsible for the activities of their co workers (editor) and employers (corporate owned media)?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

When a reporter on tv starts rambling on in their opinion or how they feel, I immediately switch channels. I don’t give a crap what they feel or believe. Just give it to me straight confidently so I feel better that I can make up my own mind by researching the different sources about it. Their opinions interjected inside the scope of my research just mucks up the truth.

McGyver (profile) says:

I have no opinion...

An opinion is just a conclusion one has reached after weighing the facts and carefully deciding between what to ignore and what one immediately forgot because they really weren’t paying attention in the first place.
Not having an opinion allows one to avoid choosing between the classic positions of “right” and “wrong”…
Who is to say what is wrong or what is right, or even what is left… for that matter, what is up or down…
We live on a planet floating in space, and there is no up or down in space… and left or right is just dependent on which shoe is on which foot…
Do we not all walk funny when the shoe is on the other foot… and what of those without feet?
Are any of us so bold as to judge those without feet such as the humble cephalopods?
If we all try to walk a mile in one another’s shoes only then can we truly appreciate how bad our feet will smell.
A true journalist knows those arguments and to avoid forming opinions because they can cloud one’s mind with judgmental thoughts that might make them seem biased or preachy…
They know it is best to leave judgement to historians who are judgie bitches anyway… always pointing out who massacred who and who committed genocide where.
Journalists need to be pure, they need to let history unfold without them calling out potential problems or facts that might lead to those problems being avoided and mankind not learning another important lesson that we’ll instantly forget.
After all, if we all listen to both sides, no matter how batshit insane and dangerously divisive the other side may sound and behave, and then carefully take into account all we have learned from them, only then can we all appreciate how insane they truly are, and then take steps to avoid labeling their insanity as right or wrong, and by doing so head down the path to true enlightenment, free of all judgmental opinions.
By giving both sides equal time and consideration, regardless of how much one side may be lying or trying to manipulate the situation by having it’s insane rhetoric aired, we give history a chance to unfold without sensible interference.
Some may say that’s irresponsible, but still others may say that’s just an opinion based on a presumption of a concept of right and wrong, facts or bullshit.
In the end, each of us must randomly choose for ourselves the wildest explanation and stick to it until something cooler or more popular comes along.
But ultimately that all just my opinion of which I have no opinion on.

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