Only through objectivity can we approach truth: Absurd Liberal Myth?
Objectivity. That rational, collected, intelligent ordering of facts into
a tight, cohesive and meaningful way that conveys the story as it happened,
with no colorful asides, no linguisitic histrionics and certainly not a trace
of opinion. Objectivity is what drives your local newspaper, what fills
the Nightly News and what history texts are made from.
Objectivity is also, of course, a myth. At best, a shoddy rumor and at
worst, a bald-faced lie.
The central tenet of objectivity, in relation to the writing of
"factual" information, is one that simply cannot be met - at least,
not with any real honesty. There are very few stories in history and current
events that can be boiled down to "just the facts." There are, in
almost all instances, facts that simply do not make the story. And it is the
process by which some facts are included, and some are excluded, that changes
the role of the writer/journalist/historian from one of objective observer to
As an example, consider for a moment what you might think if I told you I
had just seen a man savagely kicking a dog while on my morning walk. You might
curse the man, and wish to find him and exact a brutal revenge on the bastard
for harming a defenseless dog. What you may not know, since I did not bother to tell you, is that
this was a rather large dog that was in the process of rendering the man's left
forearm into so much human burger for his lunch. In this instance, the kicking
of a dog seems fairly justified, right?
But, consider again that this dog might not be the vicious attack-dog-killer
that the last few sentences suggest. Perhaps the man provoked the dog first? By
throwing a rock at the dog's head? Or by threatening the dog's
10-year-old-school-girl-master? Oh, did I forget to mention the 10-year-old?
I could go on with this line of thought for quite some time, and in each
case I could introduce more and more story elements left out from previous
renditions. And, in each case, you would think I was being quite the objective
But whose observations are we interested in? After all, the Japanese story
Rashomon tells us that even a simple event observed by different people will
result in different stories. This is not true for any one type of writing, but
all of them (yes, including my own).
Objectivism in the Press?
"The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism
was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at
Woody Creek, Colorado. So much for Objective Journalism. Don't bother to look
for it here - not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With
the possible exception of things like box scores, race results and stock market
tabulations, there is no such thing. The phrase itself is a pompous
contradiction in terms."
Hunter S. Thompson, from
Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail '72
This statement, even thirty years later, is in sharp contrast to the almost
fanatical insistence of almost every other reporter, editor and owner of a
media outlet. There are constant protestations from even the most obviously
biased media outlets: "We are an Objective News Source." Well of
course, and in a perfect world that would mean that every single news story
would sound and read the same, regardless of which particular outlet it emerged
from. And while we could argue that reporting has almost reached that point, we
can save that for another time.
In the United States, at least, the news is constrained by a number of
factors but the two most interesting are time and space, which are the exactly the same concept depending on whether it is a print or electronic news source. For my purposes, we will look at the printed word as opposed to television or radio news (Internet news is a special, special, special case and I don't think anyone's looked at it separately from it's progenitors).
An Associated Press piece in your local paper is likely to be three to five paragraphs shorter or longer than it might appear in mine. These paragraphs might come from the
bottom of the story, where - in ancient and time-honored journalistic fashion -
the least important parts of the story are conveyed. Yes, despite the continued
proliferation of claims of objectivity, even the most stalwart of press people
will tell you that news items (at least in the print media) are written in what
is known as the inverted pyramid style, with the most pressing facts (as
determined by the writer and ultimately the editors) at the beginning and the
less pressing points towards the end. The theory being that later paragraphs
can be, in times of space problems, chopped out with no damage done to the core
of the story.
Those who believe in what is called The Propaganda Model of the news
media, however, will tell you that it is only in those lingering paragraphs at
the bottom of news stories that little bits of reality appear. That the real
news story is, despite what the press might officially tell you, below the
fold or even on the jump page.
Now, in the interest of fairness, there are plenty of stories that do get
published in the papers. Or, at least, in some of the papers. Project
Censored, each year, publishes its "Top Ten Censored Stories" list,
detailing news items that were never picked up for national distribution but
that certainly seemed more important than what the media did pick up on for the
previous twelve months.
And this all deals with just the stories that actually appear in the paper.
What about the stories left out? Or never even assigned to journalists for
Objectivism in the textbooks: What
about the children?
Perhaps there is no need at all to delve into this subject, but a balanced
essay requires a touch, however light, on all aspects of the topic, right? And
with that little bit of sarcasm out of the way, let's delve into the historical
works end of this Objectivity business.
In the 1970's, Howard Zinn began work on an entirely new version of
American History. Zinn believed that the story of America had been told too
long from the point of view of the ruling class. The elites that
"shaped" our history were glorified and the "masses" who
simply followed suit were relegated to footnotes, when mentioned at all. Where,
Zinn wondered, was "the story of Columbus told from the point of view of
Native Americans...the story of the labor struggle from those who fought
it...the story of the Vietnam War from those who protested it?" Where
indeed. That story had not, in a single volume, ever been told.
Zinn knew his work, perhaps unlike others of its field, would almost
certainly come under attack for its "bias." So he did the only proper
thing, he addressed it in the book's opening pages, stating that his wishes for
A People's History of the United States to act as "counter-balance"
to all the other equally biased works all ready available.
Endgame, Admission of Guilt, The Only Defense
There has been plenty of debate over the bias of the media, whether liberal
or conservative, and of the role of objective reporting in history books. Some
have stated a support of the status quo, saying that things that ain't broke
need no mending. Others claim that everything is so broken that new methods are
needed. Some would have a reporter's or writer's credentials explained, in
full, to readers. Others insist that a writer's bias is sometimes clear enough
that no explanations are needed.
There have been discussions even closer to home, right here on this site, about the relative merits of fact versus fiction and objective presentations versus subjective ones. At the risk of invoking a more or less long dead meme I can only say that you should be struck by the realization that they are all highly subjective nodes.
So, where to go and how to get there? What is the proper method of writing for anyone who wants to be "objective?" Can you hope to ever be objective? My own totally subjective thoughts should, by this time, be completely clear. If not, maybe you should take up a serious Gameboy habit or go read some more of what passes for news and objective commentary on a local TV news show. And above all, just remember that there's always more to everything you see, hear and read. Sometimes quite a bit more.
I don't have the answers. Not all of them, at any rate. I can tell you that
everything that I write, including this very piece, is shadowed by the things
that make me who I am. I can no more escape these mental constraints than I
could escape my skin. Every writeup I have added to this database was written
out of some bias, some sense that the data I was inputting was more important
than the data I left out. This lack of objectivity is what gives us our distinct
styles, our passions, and our best material. Facts are fabulous things, but one
should never be so arrogant as to believe that one has presented all the facts
and nothing else. We all present stories as we want to believe them. And,
perhaps, there isn't a thing wrong with that, as long as we all agree to take
everything with a grain of salt.
For your further enjoyment, I suggest any of the works of Hunter S. Thompson, as well as the media-related musings of Noam Chomsky and a little book (if you can find it) called Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media by Michael Parenti.