Imagine a newsroom with hundreds of robots typing away news stories on computers. No, this is not actually happening -- at least not yet. But this is where journalism with its demand for unreasonable levels of objectivity appears to be headed.
People are incapable of being devoid of opinions on issues that matter to them. Every reasonably-informed human being -- and I hope journalists belong to this class -- has a world view that is determined by his or her own circumstances, experiences, and perspectives in life. Yet journalists, somehow, are expected to display no evidence of bias -- not just in their reporting, but even as people.
This is why high-profile news anchors are suspended for donating to political campaigns, reporters are fired for taking part in protests, and budding journalists are denied jobs for simply signing online petitions.
The ironic thing here is that any social or political action a journalist takes, except perhaps the most consequential one -- voting -- is considered a conflict of interest in his or her profession. The mere act of a reporter identifying himself as a Democrat or Republican is presumed to be a sign of bias.
Even veteran media journalist Bob Garfield seemingly asserted this in a discussion about NPR's supposed liberal leanings. "If you were to somehow poll the political orientation of everybody in the NPR news organization and at all of the member stations, you would find a progressive liberal crowd, not uniformly, but overwhelmingly," he said on On the Media.
It was This American Life's Ira Glass, in response to the indefatigable Garfield who perhaps said it best: "Reporters tend to be Democrats and tend to be more liberal than the public as a whole, sure. But that doesn't change what is going out over the air. [Let's] measure the product."
Media scholars have long called for objectivity as a set of methods -- a process -- rather than an ideal for life itself: recognizing that human beings are subjective and disciplining themselves to push against their biases to cover all bases and report on a story as accurately and fairly as possible.
Scientists do this every day: use meticulous investigation to arrive at the closest approximation to truth possible. Scientists are not often working on stringent deadlines and 24/7 news cycles, but the discipline and habit should be translatable. As Jack Fuller writes, "it is possible for subjective individuals to use rigorous methods, just as subjective scientists do."
Besides, it was the scientific method that this notion of objectivity was founded on -- first proposed by Walter Lippmann and championed by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.
Coveting objectivity was all well and good in the days of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, when the press was no more than a glorified propaganda machine, blatantly campaigning for political parties and pushing the country to the brink of war.
What happens when we go too far in the other direction is emblematic of journalism today. What the media labels as objectivity is to merely quote two people on different sides of an issue and watch as a bystander. The prolific Joan Didion recognized this as an "excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking" as early as the nineties.
Is it really a good thing for journalism to expect reporters to be empty vessels simply reiterating information from others? This defeats the very purpose of media as fourth estate, as a watchdog of the powers that be.
It is the unrelenting need for the 'other' side in today's reporting that leads even credible news organizations like The New York Times to seek quotes from sources that have no objective except to balance out news stories.
It is this false equivalence that causes the media to put its weight behind baseless stories and assertions that have no merit (think birtherism and creationism). Bill Maher recently accused Tom Brokaw and other mainstream journalists of fueling the birtherism debate by favoring balance over objectivity.
Yes, there is a difference. Objectivity is reporting on an issue with truth as your goal, no matter where it takes you. Balance is putting forth arguments from both sides of any issue, regardless of their gap in credibility. Trying to engage the ridiculous Tea Party assertion about Obama's birthplace simply feeds into the idea that there may be some truth -- even if just a grain -- to the theory.
Acknowledging haters and bigots who have no motive other than to willfully undermine our first black president is quite the opposite of being objective. Are we covering other wild theories out there with equal fervor? Apparently the fast-approaching 2012 apocalypse hasn't been covered enough.
As Alex Jones, author of Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy, puts it, "Objectivity also means not trying to create the illusion of fairness by letting advocates pretend that there is a debate about the facts when the weight of truth is clear (my emphasis)."
What we need in our media today is reporting of an event or policy or idea on its own merit instead of looking for the "other side," the yin for the yang. This is not a wrestling match or a football game.
As Kathleen Parker urges -- strangely in a WaPo piece accusing MSNBC of being a propaganda machine for Democrats -- perhaps this pretense is what we should do away with. Why feign equal airtime when tone and political ideology point overwhelmingly in one direction?
Perhaps it was easier to keep the "fair and balanced" cover and still report on some truths when both parties were in the mainstream. But with one leaning so perilously close to the margins, it is more imperative than ever for reporters to not indulge this faux ideology of fair and balanced. It is impossible to balance out something that doesn't have a counterweight.
The other issue that stems from this emphasis on balance is a desire to present as neutral a tone as possible.
Media organizations are constantly wording and rewording phrases so as not to unconsciously display a bias toward one or other side of any issue, even in cases where there is an overwhelming consensus in the general public toward one truth.
For instance, NPR began to use the term "harsh interrogation techniques" in place of torture when the Bush administration reworded its terminology thus. It's hard to deny that NPR wasn't toeing the establishment line when it followed suit with the euphemism, despite the fact that a majority of the American public is against using torture tactics on terrorists.
NPR's ombudsman explained that there was no clear consensus on what constitutes torture, and using either term was bound to offend one side.
Again, why are these two equal sides? How about this for a benchmark: The U.S. considers waterboarding torture when an American prisoner is subject to it in another country.
Tone or wording can make a huge difference to how the public perceives a certain action or idea. And established news organizations run the risk of legitimizing a particular position by the language they use.
Sometimes this can be unconscious: The Philadelphia Inquirer in an analysis of its reporting on the Middle East found that its reporters tended to side naturally with peace. So, the paper determined that it had a pro-peace bias. No, seriously.
Perhaps in an age where the theory of evolution and creationism occupy equal footing, it's not altogether surprising that violence and war could be legitimately comparable to peace.
This is not to say that all violence is naturally wrong. Some violence is essential to acquire peace, but it is ludicrous to think that any rational human being would think of violence as a "good" thing. Advocating for peace (be it taking the side of the faction that favors it or anticipating a resolution to get on a quick path to peace) would seem the most natural thing to do -- sort of like hoping for victims of an accident to survive rather than perish.
But then again, we have put such a high premium on being blandly neutral that even spontaneous human emotions seem biased.