Monday, November 21, 2016

Falling Short

In a rapid post-mortem of comments by scores of academics and scholars US Election Analysis 2016: Media, Voters, and the Campaign, Prof. Brian McNair writes an excellent analysis of the problems with traditional standards of objectivity as defined by the 'quality' media.  But in the last paragraph, he lets the media off too lightly:
'This tendency is not the fault of the mainstream media, nor of their journalists, who are simply applying the professional codes and practices with which they have been raised. For those in the media who wish to stem a slide into democratically-legitimised fascism in the next four years – and of course, similar processes are now unfolding in Europe, Australia and elsewhere – it is time to rethink the appropriate response of ‘objective’ journalism to the post-factual politics of extreme subjectivity.'

Actually, the time to rethink the appropriate response of objective journalism passed a long time ago - hence the disastrous result. In fact, the stubborn resistance to update those outmoded professional codes and practices at organizations like the New York Times is much to blame.

The standard applied by the NYT was developed for a different environment and still functioned fairly well up through the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, another author in the same post-mortem, Matt Carlson, in The question of objectivity in the 2016 Presidential Election invokes the example of the NYT with Adoph S. Ochs' original declaration "that the paper would report 'impartially, without fear or favor', which we noted is obsolete in Objective Journalistic Standards. But Carlson falls into the same trap with other analysts, in this case invoking Hallin's sphere model, which appears to be yet another labored attempt to properly define objective journalism, but falling short. Carlson invokes the HuffPo footnote warning response to Trump as well, but this again misses the point. With the Fox News launch in the 1990s and takeoff in the early 2000s, the universe changed. No longer could objectivity be defined as "fair and balanced" wherever the story may lead. Fox's unbalanced approach creates an unbalanced world and needed itself to be balanced, but not by advocacy. Instead, the model for objective journalistic balance needed to be redefined away from "he said/she said" toward the scientific objectivity approach. He said/she said needs to be seen as a red flag of failure. Fact-checking in abundance also needs to be seen as a red flag of failure. Objective journalism means behaving like a scientist who explores exactly what is going on, not based on the data/accusations supplied by combatants, but the data needed for full and fair reporting in context. This key point is explained at length here and here. Just filter on the Media label to the right below for more.

Sadly, one of the great tragedies of failure to report in context is the fact that only now, starting immediately after the election, the consequences of the election in policy terms comes to light. The fact that a sweep of POTUS and both House and Senate would lead quickly to an effort by Republicans to eliminate Medicare was fairly obvious. Would the objective press have been somehow biased to point this out beforehand? Would it have been bad journalism if every article about emails was instead about the fate of Medicare? In a word, no. Because that is the proper context that the 'quality" press if afraid to report.

Yet another analyst, long time scholar of journalism in a digital age, Jay Rosen in Journalism and the illusion of innocence had yet another perspective, making a strong case that the cause of the journalistic failures is due to reporters making an extraordinary effort to demonstrate their innocence by bending over backwards never to appear to be taking sides, even at the expense of responsible reporting. Sort of a journalist defense that " we can not be held responsible because we are irresponsible." The frequent accusations that otherwise objective journalists care only about making money (a.k.a. surviving financially) , are otherwise corrupt, or are just obtuse never seem persuasive. So Rosen's argument is compelling. Rosen quotes from Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor's 1990 book:
“Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses – partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.”
Rosen is highlighting the quest for innocence, but another salient point pokes out here. Truth is never found by averaging of two extreme points, even though that has become the standard model for "objective" television news programming when opposing pundits are paired for five minute shouting matches. On PBS, the difference is that they don't shout, but we still have the problem of "Truth = Halfway Point."
Rosen goes on to quote from NYT editor Dean Baquet who startled many observers early this year by agonizing in public over how an objective press can manage to tell the truth, relating the challenge the NYT thought they faced in the swiftboating of the Kerry candidacy. As we have stated, the Times stubbornly held to their "principles" and refused to call a lie a "lie" until it was so blatant. But the problem did not start with Trump or the swiftboaters. It shifted into high gear with Fox News and the NYT only response was more of the same.
The NYT could have reworked their journalistic approach if they had the wisdom and would have become a refuge for readers who care most about accurate news in context. Such readers do exist and the Times may have already lost many of them by their inaction. Many of us.

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