"Down with objectivity," Downie says!


How humans deal with ideas: At the end of last month, Leonard Downie attempted to detonate a bit of a bombshell at the Washington Post.

Downie is a former executive editor of The Washington Post. Today, he's a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Through his long tenure at the Post, Downie was very big deal in the world of mainstream American journalism. He's also a good, decent person.

That said, how well does he work in the general realm of ideas? For us, this question came to mind as we reread the essay he wrote for the Post. It appeared on January 30 under this bombshell-adjacent headline:

Newsrooms that move beyond ‘objectivity’ can build trust

Newsrooms should move beyond objectivity! There one of our journalists went again, with another attempt to negotiate the difficult conceptual waters surrounding that now-despised term.

Downie is a good decent person. He's also highly experienced, at the highest levels of mainstream journalism.

That said, how well does he work in the general realm of concepts and ideas? That strikes us as an anthropological question—a question about the basic capabilities of our faltering species. 

Even on the highest levels, how well do we humans deal with abstract ideas? Downie is a good and highly experienced person. Headlime included, his essay started like this:

DOWNIE (1/30/23): Newsrooms that move beyond ‘objectivity’ can build trust

Amid all the profound challenges and changes roiling the American news media today, newsrooms are debating whether traditional objectivity should still be the standard for news reporting. “Objectivity” is defined by most dictionaries as expressing or using facts without distortion by personal beliefs, bias, feelings or prejudice. Journalistic objectivity has been generally understood to mean much the same thing.

So the essay began. Our puzzlement starts with this:

According to Downie, objectivity is the attempt to express or use facts without distortion. If that's what we mean by objectivity, we have no idea why a newsroom would want to move "beyond objectivity" as a journalistic standard.

What could be wrong with the goal of reporting, citing or referring to facts without distortion? After reading Downie's essay, we have no earthly idea.

In fairness, let's see where his presentation went. He continued as shown:

DOWNIE (continuing directly): But increasingly, reporters, editors and media critics argue that the concept of journalistic objectivity is a distortion of reality. They point out that the standard was dictated over decades by male editors in predominantly White newsrooms and reinforced their own view of the world. They believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading “bothsidesism” in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects. And, in today’s diversifying newsrooms, they feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work. 

Make no mistake! As with every other pursuit, the pursuit of objectivity can yield imperfect, even horrible, results. 

For example, a person can attempt to present all the relevant facts without realizing how many relevant facts he or she may be unaware of. The fact that such mistakes can be made doesn't mean that the overriding standard was somehow wrong.

This seems like a fairly obvious point. The fact that people can make mistakes doesn't mean that there's something wrong with the objective of "expressing or using facts without distortion," whether "by personal beliefs, bias, feelings or prejudice" or by anything else.

From this point on, Downie presents an array of journalists who seem to feel that the goal of "objectivity" should be replaced by the practice of "diversity." In a large nation which is demographically diverse, it's almost surely a good idea for a major news org to have a demographically diverse staff, whose members may understand a given issue in a wide array of ways.

That said, how does this perfectly sensible objective undermine the value of "objectivity," at least as Downie has defined it? How does it undermine the goal of reporting and discussing facts "without distortion?" Why doesn't this type of newsroom diversity simply make it more likely, at least in theory, that a news org will be able to meet that original goal?

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but the human mind is often remarkably muddy. By the time his essay is done, Downie is quoting major newspeople making such fiery statements as this:

“The consensus among younger journalists is that we got it all wrong. Objectivity has got to go.” 

Given the way Downie has defined the term, it's hard to see how that fiery declaration makes any sense. In a similar vein, Downie describes how he viewed this matter, during his tenure at the Post, in the following murky passage:

DOWNIE: Throughout the time, beginning in 1984, when I worked as [Ben] Bradlee’s managing editor and then, from 1991 to 2008, succeeded him as executive editor, I never understood what “objectivity” meant. I didn’t consider it a standard for our newsroom. My goals for our journalism were instead accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth. 

Nonpartisanship was particularly important for a paper that was a national leader in covering politics and government. As the final gatekeeper for Post journalism, I stopped voting or making up my own mind about issues. As Bradlee had, I insisted on noninvolvement of Post journalists in political activity or advocacy of any kind, except voting. I also worked to make The Post newsroom more diverse, and encouraged everyone to have a voice in our decision-making.

According to Downie, he never considered "objectivity" to be a standard for the Post's newsroom. 

Instead, he considered the goals of Post journalism to be "accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth." But how does that differ from the goal of "objectivity" as he defined the allegedly controversial term in his opening paragraph?

He also says that he made the newsroom more diverse. Almost surely, that was a good idea—but why isn't that simply a way to move toward the goal of objectivity as he first defined it?

"Man [sic] is the rational animal," Aristotle is famously said to have said.

In truth, we humans tend to work quite poorly with ideas. We prefer to work ourselves into a snit as we pretend that we've come up with exciting new ideas.

Down with objectivity, Downie seems to be saying. Down with the goal of reporting and discussing facts "without distortion!"

The woods are lovely, etc. That said, we human beings are strongly inclined to live inside conceptual muddles—or at least, so we're told by despondent top anthropologists!

Professor Downie is a good, decent person. His essay came from the very top of the mainstream press corps pile. 

His essay presents a stirring new idea. In closing, our question today would be this:

Did it really make sense?


  1. tl;dr
    "Down with objectivity, Downie seems to be saying. "

    Ha-ha. Your lying tribal media dembots wouldn't know objectivity if it hit them in the nose.

    ...but, alas, according to our observations neither would you, dear Bob. No liberal would.

    ...anyhow, what is your reputed opinion of incomparable Tulsi Gabbard declaring your tribe a Nazi organization, dear?

    "“They’re are proud to be judging people, hiring people, selecting people based on race — and let’s be clear how serious of a problem this is. It’s based on genetics, race, based on your blood, your genes, and where do we see that connection?” Gabbard told Fox News host Jesse Watters.

    “Well, these are the very same geneticist core principles embodied by Nazism and Adolf Hitler,” she continued."

    ...personally, we find it extremely convincing...

    1. Religion gives people a shield to be mean and cruel, armored in false virtue.

    2. Tulsi likes candidates who say “I’ll accept the results if I win.” In terms of ethics, She’s rolling around in the sewer with you pig boy. That you both drink the same racist swill is not surprising.

  2. If one person claims water is wet and another steps in and says water is dry, objectively we can say the second person is wrong, instead of just quoting both parties and doing a report on the conflicting ideas on the nature of water. The article is a misguided attempt to state that.

    The reason it's worded in this confusing way is because it's not that simple in today's climate. You typically have right-wing MSM taking a seed of truth and building a bogus story. Then you have the left-wing MSM claim that there is no truth to the story at all, instead of acknowledging that there is at least a seed of truth.

    So now that we're in this position with both sides of the MSM having their collective heads up their asses, it's time to go back and redefine the most obvious of words like objectivity, as we push further through the looking glass.

    Bottom line, profit-based reporting is not about objectivity. But they still want to rationalize their behavior and pretend to be traditional journalists. So you get crap like this.

    1. Can you provide examples of a left-wing MSM?

    2. Left and right have lost their meanings. Acknowledged.

      I was attempting to refer to WaPo/NYT/MSNBC/CNN et al

    3. So, is the “mainstream media” supposed to call the 2020 election into question? Maybe those space lasers or Chinese bamboo really did cause ballots to flip.

      Besides, this is not my experience with the mainstream media. They almost always report “both sides” of every story, regardless of how insane the Republican position is.

      Because they aren’t liberal after all.

    4. Chinese balloons are slanted. I mean biased.

    5. What happened to Scott Adams is a cautionary tale, for those not too dumb to notice. The majority of good decent people don't like unfunny racist jokes.

    6. But it was funny.

    7. Not to Asian people.

    8. I’ve talked to some Asian people who think Chinese have slanted eyes.

  3. Now let's get on with the MSM Shill material; nit picks, irrelevancies, intentional misunderstanding, taking out of context, logical fallacies... spot as many as you can. It's a target-rich environment!

    1. Good Lord, that’s a near perfect list of why Somerby’s posts are always nonsense.

    2. Does the idea that "Objectivity has got to go” make sense as described by Bradley?

      Where is the logical fallacy? What is taken out of context?

    3. Logic is overrated.

  4. The news industry is always subjective. They pick and choose what they report. For example, the media isn't going to tell you about publicly-funded elections, because they profit off the Citizens United decision.

    1. Sure, that's subjective prioritizion of stories and probably of equal importance to understanding how they distort the news.

      People are recently asking how there can be so many environment disasters all of a sudden. Or look at the Chinese balloon story and the resulting revelations about previous balloons.

  5. Howell Raines, who seemed to work out a
    person grudge against President Clinton
    with his Whitewater reporting at the
    times, while Ben Braden’s airhead wife
    looked after that chore at the Post,
    is still welcomed as a Honored guest
    on “The Last Word” even though he
    had to leave the paper for running
    a faked story on page one of the Times.
    So a lot of shoddy thinking goes on
    in those mercenary circles.

    1. So you might only be ostracized for backstabbing your colleagues or going against the latest cocktail party wisdom, failures of journalistic integrity are perhaps overlooked. What a rotting profession.

    2. Rotting but necessary, and the only profession we have. You don't do away with journalism because it is imperfect. That is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    3. Which is why you need critics of journalistic behavior, which Bob used to do about 25 years ago.

    4. Long ago, Bob was worth reading.

  6. Both sides is the biggest political story we are facing. Both sides funding wars for energy and military companies and ignoring the needs of the people.

    1. Except one side leans into fascism and will never bother with anything outside the interests of the wealthy and the corporations; this is decidedly different than the other side that, while still trying to escape being under he thumb of neoliberals, is leaning progressive and actually passes regulations and legislation to improve society.

      Your take is just pure nihilism, you’re in a death cult.

    2. 5:09,
      Do you think a political party actually calling for defunding the police could be successful in this political climate? I'd like to think so, but it might just be the American exceptionalism talking.

    3. It already has been.

    4. No political party has called for the defunding of police. Both sides do not support defunding of the police.

    5. So asking one side to stop it, is calling for political suicide. Go figure.

    6. The police should be well funded and well trained. Officers who do wrong should be held accountable.

  7. Meh. What's so big about this story? It's business as usual.

  8. It sounds like a dumb column. But what
    about Howard Kurtz not being allowed to
    report on the Dominion Story? Not that
    Bob would be interested.

    1. “Kurtz” is German for “short.”

  9. He devoted good rockets, too.

  10. He developed good rockets, too.

  11. "Instead, he considered the goals of Post journalism to be "accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth." But how does that differ from the goal of "objectivity" as he defined the allegedly controversial term in his opening paragraph?"

    Objectivity is not a goal in the same sense as accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship etc. It is a means to attain those ends. It may not be the only means. If a person cannot be fair or nonpartisan because of their own limited perspective, then including diversity on their team is a good way to broaden that perspective and better ensure accuracy, nonpartisanship, etc.

  12. And he died in a bunker after shooting his dog.

  13. You be either rhyming in code or on some gangster node
    You all clockwork apocalypse you about to implode
    Collapsing on yourself 'cause your whole foundation is
    Built on lies don't apologize

    'Cause once they watch you rise they wanna watch you fall
    And they'll all take a piece just like the Berlin wall
    And place it on their mantle like a souvenir
    And what they call a knick-knack is really your career

  14. Objectively consider what Bob would do to
    a Democrat who behaved like Trump.

  15. Republicans in Congress are paid by both sides, the USA and Russia.

  16. "Asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press." Jay Rosen

    "Clown car hearings exploit a weakness in mainstream journalism's source code, which gives no clear instructions for how to report truthfully on events that are themselves false, meaning they spring from a propagandistic intent and taking them seriously just furthers the scam." Jay Rosen

  17. Does Stanford U discriminate against whites?


  18. What’s sad is that anyone thinking critically (in the traditional sense) would immediately reject Critical Theory (Critical in the Marxist sense, i.e. intended to bring about The Revolution).

    It’s just rubbish. That so many J-school kids swallow it shows what a bunch of shallow, conformist group-thinkers they are.

    Folks on the left need to get comfortable calling out the nonsense these obscurantist hack professors spout.