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
    McGyver (profile), 4 Mar 2020 @ 10:52am

    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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