MONDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2023
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?