What Does Objectivity Do?

One of my theses is that the adoption of "objectivity" as a goal, or, often, the goal, of journalism has been deeply destructive to democracy in the United States. 

Meanwhile, it is simply a fact that there is no legal category of "journalist" when it comes to the First Amendment. There is no legal protection for anonymous sources nor for the reporters who refuse to name them. When journalism is defined as witnessing a crime, not telling the authorities, and selling an account of the events, it is obviously dangerously close to criminal in its own right.

And so I am no fan of Glenn Greenwald, the self-important winer who facilitated the Snowden leaks and fancies himself a champion of freedom. Nonetheless, in criticizing Greenwald's new Snowden book, George Packer makes a claim about objectivity that suffers from the same fatal flaw: self-regard. In Packer's case, the self-regard of journalists for journalism, very narrowly defined as the kind of journalism practiced in the US since 1945:

Greenwald has no use for the norms of journalism. He rejects objectivity, as a reality and an ideal. “‘Objectivity’ means nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington,” he writes. “All journalism serves one faction’s interest or another’s.” This is hardly a new notion, but it’s also a destructive one. Of course everyone has biases, which is exactly why the effort to think and report in spite of them is important. Without objectivity as an aspiration, the correctness of a political line comes before a fair consideration of facts: the facts follow the line, not the other way around.

This is absurdly stupid. Normal human beings don't make an effort to be objective, and yet, remarkably, we tend to have a correct factual understanding of our immediate world. See, also, Nelly Bly, Upton Sinclair, and Thomas Paine. Meanwhile, the "heroes" of objective journalism like Bob Woodward never hold up under scrutiny.

Murrow clashed with McCarthy only after the Red Hunting Badger had been (disasterously) attacking the Army for months, while Sinclair attacked a meat packing industry that had friends in every hall of power!

Packer is simply wrong that the opposite of objective journalism is political polemic, and insults all our intellegence by implicitly assuming that the populous could not adapt to a media environment where news had an explicit point of view.

The problem with Fox isn't that it's biased. The problem is that its viewers believe it either to be the kind of objective source that the NYT proclaims itself to be, or they see it as a needed corrective to the liberal NYT. But it's not a fair fight, because the NYT pulls its punches in the name of "objectivity"! The NYT is not liberal; it is a bunch of centerist Democrats trying as hard as they can to be fair to the right.

Packer labors to show that Greenwald's flaws flow directly from his abandonment of objectivity. Unmoored, Greenwald makes logically incoherent claims in service of a final outcome: the condemnation of the Anglo-American surveillance state. But why resort to theories of objectivity? Bad writing and bad logic are mallum per se. And objectivity is no cure, as ten years of the NYT Well Blog have aptly demonstrated.

A better diagnosis comes from Packer here:

If Greenwald and others were actually being persecuted for their political beliefs, they would instinctively understand that the rule of law has to protect people regardless of politics. The NSA disclosures are disturbing and even shocking; so is the Obama administration’s hyper-aggressive pursuit of leaks; so is the fact that, for several years, Poitras couldn’t leave or re-enter the US without being questioned at airports. These are abuses, but they don’t quite reach the level of the Stasi. They don’t portend a totalitarian state “beyond the dreams of even the greatest tyrants of the past,” as Greenwald believes is possible. A friend from Iran who was jailed and tortured for having the wrong political beliefs, and who is now an American citizen, observed drily, “I prefer to be spied on by NSA.” The sense of oppression among Greenwald, Poitras, and other American dissenters is only possible to those who have lived their entire lives under the rule of law and have come to take it for granted.

Ironically, Packer gets his analysis of Greenwald almost right, but misses the mark for precisely the same reason that Greenwald is off base. The flaw is the dangerous self-regarding journalist, in Packer's case, the conviction that bad journalism can only result from the abandonment of good, ie, the kind he practices, objective journalism.

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber (writing on the subject of criticisms of Piketty) agrees with me:

Motivated reasoning, if properly harnessed, can be epistemologically very valuable. That methodological critics of Piketty (and people insistently suggesting that there’s nothing very interesting to be learned from studying the distribution of wealth) nearly all clump together in one ideological camp, and people defending the methodology clump together in another, doesn’t mean that the dispute between the two isn’t useful. Argument about politically divisive topics is only disinterested in rare and isolated instances – yet it still can have great benefits. What it does mean is that the dispute, in the end, is a directly political one – over what constitutes the proper subject matter of economics and the other social sciences. Plausibly, it’s the people who are least willing to acknowledge the political aspects of the debate who are most completely captured by them. Practical economists, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any political influences, are usually slaves of some defunct political philosopher.