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.

Filed Under: bias, journalism, objectivity, peter baker, reporting, view from nowhere
Companies: ny times

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  1. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 3 Mar 2020 @ 1:34pm

    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.

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