How to Destroy (What’s Left of) the Mainstream Media’s Credibility

It is hardly a secret within America’s newsrooms that our profession has lost much of the public’s trust. Gallup, which has polled “Confidence in Institutions” for decades, found that, as of last summer, just 16 percent of Americans had either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers — down from 25 percent a decade earlier and 35 percent in 2002. For TV news, the latest results were even worse. Eleven percent of Americans trust it. Fifty-three percent don’t.

Most of us, in or out of the news media, would surely agree that this is a bad thing: We were a saner country when we could argue from a common set of uncontested facts. But we have a harder time agreeing on why trust in media collapsed and, more crucially, on how it can be restored.

Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post, has an idea.

In a guest essay last week for The Post, Downie made the case that newsrooms must set aside journalistic objectivity because a new generation of journalists “believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading ‘both-sides-ism.’” He added, “they feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.” He even claims that objectivity was never a standard he upheld, even though the principles he says were the goals he pursued as editor — “accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth” — are the same as those upheld by most objective journalists and little different from what he elsewhere says is the dictionary definition of objectivity — “using facts without distortion by personal beliefs, bias, feelings or prejudice.”

Downie’s essay is based on a report, “Beyond Objectivity,” he wrote with the former CBS News president Andrew Heyward, which draws on interviews with 75 newsroom leaders and prominent journalists. After I disparaged the essay on Bill Maher’s show last week, Downie asked me to read the full report. We then spoke about it over the phone.

“Beyond Objectivity,” published by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, is a remarkable document — though perhaps not for the reasons Downie or Heyward intended.

The prose consists mainly of quote after quote after quote. Most journalists cited in the document speak in the argot of modern-day progressivism, which merely corroborates the belief of many Americans that mainstream media is now the mind, voice and arm of the political left. The executive editor of The Los Angeles Times, Kevin Merida, says he’s amenable to allowing his staff members to participate in some causes on which they report, blurring the line between social activism and journalism. Objectivity, says another editor quoted in the report, is news “through the lens of largely white, straight men.”

The report also urges newsrooms to become ever more diverse, but omits any reference to viewpoint diversity, which today is the most glaring deficit in most of the American news media landscape. In our conversation, Downie acknowledged that this was an unfortunate oversight. Unfortunate — but telling.

The report has deeper problems. The deepest is that Downie and Heyward have a mistaken idea of journalism’s purpose in a free society.

First, most journalism in the United States, including The New York Times, is a business — a noble business, sometimes, but a business all the same. Democracy may die in darkness, as The Washington Post’s grandiloquent motto has it. But The Post will die if it can’t sell subscriptions and ads or lean on the savvy and largess of its billionaire owner.

This by no means discredits the good work The Post does. But news organizations will inevitably lose public trust when they pretend to be something they aren’t.

We are not simply disinterested defenders of democracy writ large. We are actors within that democracy, with a powerful megaphone that we can sometimes use in problematic ways. When, for example, paparazzi snoop on celebrities going about their regular days, are the interests of democracy being served — or merely the interests of the press in selling copy? The same goes for public figures accused of salacious activities that remain unproven: How well was American democracy served by rumors of a pee tape?

If the American news media wants to regain trust, we could stand to get off our high horse and be a bit more self-aware about our privileged and often troubling role in society.

Second, we are not in the “truth” business, at least not the sort with a capital “T.” Our job is to collect and present relevant facts and good evidence. Beyond that, truth quickly becomes a matter of personal interpretation, “lived experience,” moral judgments and other subjective considerations that affect all journalists but that should not frame their coverage. The only place where nonobjective truth can play a valuable role in the news media is in the Opinion section, which at least is honest and transparent about the ideological assumptions and aims of its commentary. If Downie and Heyward had only wanted more of that, I’d be all for it.

The core business of journalism is collecting and distributing information. Doing this requires virtues of inquisitiveness, independence, open-mindedness, critical thinking and doggedness in the service of factual accuracy, timeliness and comprehensiveness. It also serves the vital interests of democracy by providing the public with the raw materials it needs to shape intelligent opinion and effective policy. This may be less romantic than the pursuit of “truth,” but we could regain a lot of trust by paring down our mission to simple facts.

Third, the fact that objectivity is hard to put into practice does nothing to invalidate it as a desirable goal. On the contrary, the standard of objectivity is of immense help to editors trying to keep reporters from putting their own spin on things or excluding people and arguments they dislike from coverage. What Downie and Heyward dismiss in their report as “both-sides-ism” is, in reality, a crucial way to build trust with audiences, particularly in a country as diverse as America. It gives a platform to multiple views. And it shows faith that people can come to intelligent conclusions of their own.

Nor is it a serious objection to say, as Downie and Heyward suggest, that objectivity is somehow tainted by a white, straight male pedigree. By that absurd standard, we should also look askance at, say, calculus (Newton, Leibniz), or much of modern medicine (Osler, Fleming, Salk), or, for that matter, a journalism school named for Walter Cronkite. If newsrooms were previously insufficiently diverse, then surely the answer is to make them more diverse, not throw away their standards. It’s through hewing more closely to those standards that professional excellence and trust in institutions is maintained.

Finally, the purpose of journalism in a democracy is not just about reporting. It’s also about listening. “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself,” Arthur Miller once remarked. Downie and Heyward are right that more diverse newsrooms can help readers gain the perspectives of people from marginalized communities, which don’t always have large megaphones of their own. But that listening must also extend to the sorts of Americans much of the mainstream media now sees, at best, as a foreign tribe, and at worst, grave threats to democracy itself: people like religious conservatives, home-schoolers, gun owners and Trump supporters.

Right now, much of mainstream journalism is failing at that task by treating this part of America with tut-tutting condescension and name-calling (“racist,” “misinformer,” “-phobic” and so on). One purpose of objectivity in reporting is that it can push the news media to listen to all kinds of people without casting moral aspersions — while allowing those people to see and hear themselves represented in the media in a way that isn’t belittling or disparaging. That’s another good way of rebuilding trust.

There’s no doubt that much about the traditional model of objective journalism is flawed. Journalism that tries to maintain a stance of neutrality on morally contentious issues will always be discomfiting. All journalists are subject to the personal shortcomings and cultural blinders that make all human enterprises imperfect. And there’s never a foolproof way of capturing reality and conveying information, particularly in a pluralistic and often polarized country. Advances in technology, changes in regulatory frameworks and the rising tide of political demagogy have made the task of producing authoritative journalism even harder.

But if you still believe that a healthy democracy depends on the quality and credibility of information with which our society makes its choices, then we have few better models than the kind of objective journalism that is now going out of fashion. Downie, Heyward and other would-be saviors of our profession should be careful what they wish for.

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