Flat White

The new, objectivity-free journalism?

1 November 2016

10:33 AM

1 November 2016

10:33 AM

The British Press Reacts To Donald Trump's Anti-Muslim TiradeA prize-winning reporter of the old school (we started as cadets on The West Australian together) has sent me a remarkable, and even alarming, document, “Donald Trump and the Liberation of News” put out for the instruction, or rather the indoctrination, of journalists and of would-be journalists.

This article, by one Lee Siegel, emanated originally from the University of Columbia Journalism Review and is distributed in Australia to the profession by the Arts and Media Alliance, trendy successor to the old Australian Journalists’ Association.

Siegel argues that since Donald Trump is, well, Donald Trump, the modern journalist has been ‘liberated’ from any old-fashioned need to write with balance.

There is no longer any need, it seems, to strive for objectivity or equal time. And not just when reporting on Mr Trump. This is allegedly a universally liberating thing. Just as one of his disciples claimed as praise, that Manning Clark had liberated Australian history from ‘The triumph of fact’, so, it would seem, we should celebrate a similar liberation in the area of journalism.

It claims, ‘Trump possesses … the “attraction of repulsion.”’ There is, naturally, no suggestion of anything repulsive about Hilary, such as her conniving at her husband’s sexual predations.

The article is sub-titled ‘Media in the Age of Trump’ which seems to give Trump stature of transcendent importance.

It continues: ‘Regardless of what happens on Election Day, dark clouds are gathering in politics. But above the storm, blue skies are visible in the media world. Trump’s effect could well be, if journalists wholeheartedly seize the opportunity, a liberation.

‘Who could have guessed that Trump would come to embody a ray of hope and a new dawn for journalism? Yet here he is, offering everyone working in the media a new objectivity, a chance to throw off the shackles that made Trump possible.

‘Objectivity.’ it continues, ‘is always in flux.’ In fact, of course, the point about objectivity is that it is not in flux. It deals with unchanging facts. He claims oddly that ‘Just as the word “cancer” no longer means what it did in a scientific context 50 years ago, the word “poverty” no longer means what it did in a political context a half century ago.’

This is a very odd and apparently pointless statement. Does it mean journalistic values have changed? This appears to be an attempt to prepare the ground for an assertion that telling the truth about Trump –and by extension about politics in general – no longer matters. It continues that:

‘What constitutes an objective view in the way the world is observed and reported on by journalists changes from one generation to the next.’ [Does it?]

‘The term “inequality” once held different meanings for different people on the political spectrum. Now, as people everywhere suffer from economic disparity and disorder, “inequality” is being transformed from a circumstance subject to various interpretations into a demonstrably unambiguous reality; that is to say, into a fact.

Huh? Not only has there always been inequality (‘The poor you will always have with you’) but there is probably less economic inequality globally now than ever before. Anyway, inequality was never before used to justify in journalistic ethics putting anything ahead of objectivity.

‘What constitutes objectivity in journalism can now suddenly shift.’ The article goes on to justify this by arguing that:

‘The forces that created Trump’s constituency have now created a new political consensus that is so visible, so explicit, so naked and urgent that the parameters of what constitutes objectivity in journalism can now suddenly shift.’ Well, what ‘forces’ created Trump’s constituency is an interesting question.

A major part of these pro-Trump ‘forces’ in the US at least (how it all relates to Australia is unclear) seems to have been popular discontent with a remote and unaccountable political class, popular anger at the rise from nowhere and without any record of achievement of Barack Obama, involving America in unwinnable wars in which it seems the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy, Hillary Clinton’s harvesting of six-or-seven-figure sums for lecture fees, and Bill Clinton’s successful escape from impeachment over his public lying.

Add among other ingredients perhaps uncontrolled immigration and unresolved fury at 9/11. There does not, however, seem to be any connecting chains of causality between all this and some redefinition of what constitutes ‘objectivity’ It goes on:

‘What this means is that the old ways of doing journalism no longer have to apply.’ [What exactly were the old ways of ‘doing journalism’? Perhaps having better grammar that ‘doing journalism“ was one of them] ‘Journalists no longer have to rely on official sources [competent ones never did] any more than a reported piece has to strain to achieve on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand balance. You don’t have to end a reported piece with a quote from one of the principal actors. You can end with the same subjective kicker that concludes an op-ed. In choice of stories, of the telling and the editing of a story, journalists can be more explicit than ever about social ills without appearing ideologically biased. Editors do not have to consign stories about the values of the new class of American oligarchs to the Styles section. They can run as consequential news stories. And instead of covering politics as entertainment, journalists can investigate the economic sources of various types of entertainment.’

Again, Huh? I always thought journalists worth their salt did investigate ‘the economic sources of various types of entertainment.’ The author seems to have a very poor opinion of the abilities of his predecessors, although the fearless, crusading journalist has been a major figure, and certainly by no means a completely fictional one, in the popular image of American life. The important difference was, of course, that to the ideal crusading journalist of yore, nothing mattered more than truth – something this article seems specifically to disavow.

What this actually looks like is a directive to apply a Marxist or deconstructionist exegesis to each story. And in any case, what has any of  it got to do with Trump?

The article goes on to advocate that leaders or editorials should be presented indistinguishably from news stories, that is, the editor’s maxim: ‘Facts are sacred, comment free,’ be scrapped. It continues:

“Now that the socioeconomic cat is out of the bag, the sky’s the limit … But this decision to put an editorial on the front page … was the invention of a new journalistic convention, or even genre. The article was less an argument than the presentation of a formerly debatable issue that was no longer open to debate … The editorial was, remarkably, a report in the form of an opinion that became a fact … A long-held, unstated roadblock to the new objectivity of sharp opinion and journalistic advocacy—i.e., an acknowledgement in the media of what ordinary people experience or recognize every day—is now gone.’

I don’t know if this article is typical of what is being taught in Australian journalism schools now (I escaped ever having to attend one), but the question seems sufficiently important to warrant investigation.


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