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Surviving the Death of Objectivity

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When Walter Cronkite stepped out of character in 1968 and questioned Johnson on the Vietnam War it was a monumental event. Cronkite was a sort of national godfather, the arbiter of what is and what ain't. His statement on the war effectively doomed President Johnson.

No figure in American journalism has anything like Cronkite's stature in our era. That may not be such a bad thing. The old notions of objectivity were always more aspiration than reality. The decline of the old journalistic establishment may create a lot of angst, but there may be a model for how a post-objective news media can work.

You can learn a lot about the people around you on the tube in London with a glance at their newspaper. Labor-types will be reading The Sun and often lingering on Page 3 (NSFW). Tories will be pouring over the Daily Mail. The Guardian will be folded in the laps of intellectual socialists or lazy folks who bought it because of the handy kiosk at the train station entrance.

As the Red Line churns through its stops in the City, you'll see bankers or traders reading the conspicuous pink sheets of the Financial Times. Upper class professionals tend to stick with The Times, or expose their lefty pretensions with a peek at The Guardian.

In short, Britain is a successful democracy whose journalistic establishment has never, beyond the BBC, pretended any objectivity. Yet they suffer nothing like the polarizing ideological blindness we currently endure.

The critical difference between Rupert Murdoch's Labor rag, The Sun, and his American, Republican, Fox News, is intellectual honesty. No one on the staff of The Sun would claim their news is either "fair" or God-forbid "balanced." That's not what the audience wants. Readers understand the bias and calibrate accordingly.

Fair and balanced aren't what Fox or MSNBC deliver either, but they continue to lie about it and listeners pretend they are getting The News. Deception is bad. Self-deception is even worse. Neither is necessary.

Objectivity as a professional goal may have been admirable, but it was more than a little arrogant. A journalist is supposed to actively work to discover all the different angles of a news item and synthesize them in order to establish and report on what is real. In other words, the professional journalistic establishment purports to be the arbiters of reality. That's a bold proposition in a post-modern world. It stopped working long before Fox News went on the air.

Folks on the political fringes have always complained that this model of "journalistic objectivity" works to discredit them, closing them out of mainstream political discourse. They have a point.

When media, by law, was dominated by television and the local newspaper, objectivity was an important value. But as the world has opened up and every aspect of life has been deregulated and subjected to the profit standard, journalism is suffering a crisis of relevance. Objectivity has a limited market. In a financially competitive environment it has been gutted, replaced mostly by entertainers.

This is not all bad. The British experience demonstrates that a mature political culture can tolerate deliberately slanted, tabloid-infused news. The emerging constellation of new media outlets mean that anyone who cares about reality-based news (which is clearly not everyone) will have new ways to find it.

Undoubtedly, quality is going to suffer around the edges and high-end journalism of the war-correspondent type may be headed for the dustbin. For more than a decade we've had little journalism from our two war zones that was unfiltered by the military. We can adapt to this.

Well into the future there may still be major media outlets that will strive to preserve some relic of objectivity. The British still have the BBC. Americans have NPR and what's left of the slowly suffocating CNN. The rest of the old media establishment has already been overwhelmed by car-chases, idiotic crime-shows, feely segments on hero-dogs, and Glenn Beckistry. America's most trusted journalist was once Walter Cronkite. Now it's Jon Stewart.

We will adapt and survive.

The element that will make this transition survivable will be the gradual acknowledgement of bias and public recognition that skepticism and fact-checking have become a civic duty. So long as we all understand and account for the angle, deliberately biased news reporting is something we can learn to live with.