Journalists Can't Abide One-Sided Truth

To be a good journalist in the post-war era, you need to be "objective" and report both sides to every story. But journalists and the world they cover are one system that feeds back on itself. The requirement of objectivity doesn't just shape journalism, it also shapes politics. 

You can't objectively report the results of a baseball game. The Cardinals won. The Cubs lost. No one wants to read quotations from the Cubs' manager claiming that it was actually the other way around.  

In political reporting, this simply is not allowed. If the GOP says last night's election is still up for grabs, a reporter must include that in his coverage or be fired. Easy enough. But seeing two sides in some cases could lead to some disquieting cognative dissonance. How does a human being quote a Republican saying "government is always less efficient than the private sector" without comment in one story after writing a series of pieces detailing how private defense contractors do the job of soldiers, poorly, for twice the pay? He could either engage in justified self-loathing or he could use the handy mental partition of "ideology".  There's no contradiction because "small government ideology" is not a claim about the world, it's a value or philosophy. Dissonance avoided. No problem, right?

That is until the wealthy learn how easy it is to rename "policies of upward redistribution" as "small government ideology". Worse, they have succeeded even in protecting the doubious claim that "prosperity relies on such policies" behind the protective label if ideology. Because of the rules of journalism, all fair stories about the economy are required to regurgitate these lies. 

So I get annoyed when pundits claim the problem is ignorance of history! 

My reply:



The latest long form piece by Robert Kuttner is true as far as it goes, but suffers from David Brooks Syndrome, ie, an utter lack of self-awareness. 

True, the current debate locked into terms favorable to the economic royalty. But is this because we are unaware of both Roosevelts' attacks on economic royalty? Are you blaming David McCullough and Doris Kerns Goodwin for the current GOP legislative blockade?

The real cause of the poorly framed debate is a lack of self-awareness on the part of the media and pundit class. In fact, your article on how to solve the problem is a prime example of what is causing the problem. This early paragraph is the key to self-defeat:


Two big factors prevent these issues from assuming center stage. First, the public is increasingly skeptical that government can do much to change things for the better. The sense of resignation and cynicism plays to the ideology of Republicans—the claim that government doesn’t have a big part to play in the economy and that we’re all on our own. Conversely, resignation harms Democrats, whose core ideology is that government exists to help ordinary people. Republicans have done their best to prevent Democrats from delivering on the vision of activist government.


First of all, this is simply wrong on the facts. This graph shows that public trust in government is a problem, but it also shows that "increasing skepticism" is not the current pattern. Of late, "increasing scepticism" is simply a characteristic of Republican Administrations!

Even more importantly, the death of the current Fox News generation (average age: 72) combined with the strong support for government among Latinos and millennials, means that "increasing" is actually the opposite of true. Skepticism of government has almost certainly hit bottom.

Second of all, "the claim that government doesn't have a big part to play in the economy" is not part of an ideology! Compare a genuine ideological claim of nationalism: "individuals owe their highest loyalty to the nation-state". There's a big difference. For 95% of Americans "small government is good" is not an ideological claim, but rather, it is an empirical claim about how government is most effective. The problem isn't ideology, or values, or morality. The problem is that the central tenet of Republican dogma is false.

So then the question becomes: what is preventing us from seeing that the Republican dogma consists of a series of empirical claims about the world that are, as it turns out, false?

The answer: you! You are what is preventing us from seeing that.

Why? Because you insist on calling Reaganist dogma an ideology and pairing it with Democratic views that you also call ideological. Look at the claim from nationalism: actual ideological claims are neither true nor false. They are not subject to empirical falsification. If Reaganist beliefs are "ideological" then they can't be false. This is more than mere logic thanks to the rise of the professional media after WWII,

Professional journalists live by the rule of objectivity which requires all "ideological statements" to be balanced by the opposite point of view. This doesn't just mean reporting "both sides", it means seeing two sides!  If your definition of "good journalism" declares, axiomatically, that "every article must tell 'both sides of the story'" then your reporters, in order to produce what they are required to produce, will necessarily see the world as presenting two sides to every story. Journalism sees two ideologies because it has to! The parties ideological sorting didn't happen in a vacuum. Thus, we reach what should be an obvious conclusion: there is a causal connection between the rise of objective media and the simultaneous decline and fall of democratic institutions in the late post-war era.

Changing the debate is not a matter of the history of the tax code. It requires a journalism that ditches the self-obsession and becomes self-aware. Please try to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

For a an ongoing discussion, see my