Is the concept of journalistic objectivity in danger of growing as quaint and unfamiliar in our society as Edsel sedans or wringer washers?
I find myself increasingly wondering about that — as I did the other day, when one of my bright journalism students at Chapel Hill hung around after class the other day with a question.
“Mr. Bouser,” she said, “you were talking about objectivity earlier. Can you tell me again what that word means?”
She was probably just looking for a textbook definition that might come in handy at exam time. But I couldn’t help wondering if her question was at least partly a reflection of a wider, growing millennial unfamiliarity with the once-sacred ideal of news reporters and broadcasters studiously viewing their job as to provide “just the facts, ma’am.”
If I ended up telling the student more than she wanted to know — and I’m probably doing the same again today in this space — that’s because it’s a subject that has been bugging me and many other old-school journalistic types more and more in recent days and months and years. And not because of what objectivity is, but what it increasingly isn’t anymore.
Let me hasten to say high up here that I’m not talking about the news pages of The Pilot — which to the extent that I have known them for the last 20 years at least, have always striven to be studiously objective.
Take, for example, staff writer Laura Douglass, whose desk is right behind mine in The Pilot’s newsroom.
Laura might occasionally harbor a personal opinion or two about subjects here in our community. But the point is that I can overhear her interviewing someone at length over the telephone about some controversial topic, and I would never guess what any of her personal biases, if any, might be.
More to the point — and this is probably the best practical measure of objectivity, as I told my student the other day — you can read one of Laura’s lengthy stories about some local conflict or controversy, and when you get through you really have no idea where she might stand on the matter.
So Laura cherishes objectivity and works hard to achieve it, and the same goes for all her news department colleagues.
Let me also hasten to add that I am not talking about the page on which this column appears. It is clearly marked “Opinion” in large type at the top. And items like this one that appear here and on the next page are not supposed to be objective — but rather the opposite, which is subjective. A strictly objective, non-judgmental editorial, column or letter would hardly be worth the space.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines objectivity as “the state or quality of being objective.” And the word objective, in turn, is defined as “without bias or prejudice; detached.” And most American newspapers, in my experience, still seem to studiously attempt to remain objective on their news pages.
But both The Washington Post and The New York Times, I believe, have stepped far over the line in the past year or so, mostly in response to hard-to-swallow provocations from the Trump White House.
One glaring example came back in July 2016, when The Post took up most of its front page with a large-type editorial calling Trump “a unique threat to American democracy.”
A more subtle and more recent example came just this week, when The Times’ front-page story about the Paul Manafort indictment had a link to “Related Coverage,” which routed readers to something that wasn’t really “coverage” at all, but a strongly worded opinion column.
When it comes to the most grievous examples of non-objectivity, though, my biggest problem in recent years has been not with the world of print but with that of broadcast.
With Fox News way out on the right and MSNBC hammering away on the left, poor CNN finds it harder and harder to stay halfway neutral — especially when more and more viewers show themselves to be less and less interested in even any pretense of neutrality in what passes for broadcast news.
Part of me — the old fogey part — longs for a return to the days of my youth, when Walter Cronkite or Huntley/Brinkley gave you 30 minutes of straightforward news and then got out of the way to allow us time to tune in to “Gunsmoke” or whatever, forming our own opinions by ourselves.
But now that the cat of non-objectivity is so far out of the bag, our society will play heck ever forcing it back inside, even once the Trump phenomenon has run its course. Or at least that’s my non-objective opinion.
Contact Steve Bouser at (910) 693-2470 or by email at email@example.com.