Objectionable Objectivity

California is what it is. After more than sixteen years here in this place in Hollywood, what with all the minor earthquakes, and the sonic boom that shook the place hard each time the Space Shuttle was forced to land at Edwards out in the nearby desert – its approach path was right overhead – and what with the booms from the fireworks a few nights a week from whatever big show there is at the Hollywood Bowl one valley over, it was time to patch and paint the walls. Things crack and settle and the place was looking shabby. So the painters came and patched and repainted. And it was two days elsewhere while they did their thing, chatting away with each other in a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. It’s that part of Hollywood, save for the four apartments here occupied by very French folks, and there’s that Brazilian fellow working on his novel, and the pretty young people who move in and are gone soon enough, as they don’t become movie stars or rock gods or whatever. It’s an odd mix.

But the odd thing was two days down in white-bread suburban San Diego. There was no mix there. And it was odd that the news was always Fox News on the television – and no newspaper in the morning, and no magazines of any sort. There was no sound of French or Russian and Ukrainian or Portuguese in the air. And there were no nasty looking young people rolling by in Escalades or Ferraris. It was Ozzie and Harriet Land. It was a different world – clean, pleasant, safe and sunny – but a different world nonetheless.

And of course it was Republican conservative land, if not Tea Party territory. You’d meet Sarah Palin fans of course, and everyone loves Glenn Beck, and, in Congress, North County down there gave us Duke Cunningham and Duncan Hunter and now Daryl Issa.

It figures – the Marines are on the north end, at giant Camp Pendleton by Oceanside, and half the US Navy is on the south end in the San Diego harbor, although the Top Gun program is no longer in the middle, at Miramar. That’s been moved out to China Lake, beyond Barstow, as screaming F-18 fighter planes had become a bother. They are damned loud.

Obviously this isn’t Hollywood. This is pro-military anti-fluoridation defeat-the-commies America, where the John Birch society thrived and you won’t find a registered Democrat anywhere at all, and where there is a Contemporary Christian megachurch on every other hilltop, with the soft rock and that gospel of sink-or-swim Tough Love personal responsibility replacing all that turn-the-other-cheek stuff. It’s a little disconcerting.

But their Fourth of July parades are way cool – from 2009 see Sousa Lives and The Military and The Politicians and American Beauties and Tin Lizzies and Patriotic Rides and The Flag and Fireworks – it’s good to remember there is this other America. And it’s best to remember, when you’re down there, not to mention you live in Hollywood. Don’t mention the ACLU membership card or the NAACP one either. And it is best not to be caught sneaking a peek at CNN or MSNBC, or reading a newspaper or news magazine. You stay inside the bubble. Be a good guest. Don’t stir things up.

But the bubble is the issue. Hannity or Beck or O’Reilly is on the television and you do want to say, well, there’s another way of looking at that issue, whatever it is. You get a blank stare. You might venture that what they’re saying isn’t objective. It’s advocacy journalism. The other news sources – CNN and the broadcast networks and MSNBC and even NPR – aren’t like that. The Fox News crew had an agenda. No, you’re told, this is straight reporting – they’re telling it like it is. They’re not the lamestream media, trying to make conservatives look bad. You might want to raise the issue of journalistic standards. Maybe some conservative said something really boneheaded. Objectivity matters, doesn’t it?

Or you might want to be a good guest and just watch Hannity or Beck or O’Reilly and smile. Saying that on this issue or that Hannity or Beck or O’Reilly is distorting the facts of the matter would be impolite. And Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy will be on soon enough. Journalistic standards can wait.

But journalistic standards do present a problem. You might remember this – on the November 11, 2009 edition of his nightly broadcast, Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs announced his immediate departure from CNN. That ended his thirty year career at the network, and he cited plans to “pursue new opportunities” and said the whole thing was amicable. And CNN President Jon Klein said that Dobbs’ sudden exit was not a result of organized opposition to Dobbs’ viewpoints, although Dobbs had become a bit of a Birther, calling again and again for Obama to produce his birth certificate – the real one, not the official one. And some of his comments on immigrants had become borderline racist, and his xenophobia was nearing hysterical levels. Dobbs may have been paid eight million in severance pay, when he left CNN prior to his contract being due for renewal, and you don’t take an eight million dollar hit to make someone go away unless there’s a reason. Dobbs was making sounds like he wanted to run for president – on some sort of deport-them-all platform – and his show had become advocacy journalism, which may not be journalism at all. CNN doesn’t do that sort of thing.

But the obvious thing happened – “Lou Dobbs, former host of Lou Dobbs Tonight on CNN, has joined Fox Business Network. Dobbs, who left CNN last November, will develop and host a daily show for FBN scheduled to premiere in the first quarter of 2011.” Fox News does that sort of thing.

And NPR terminated Williams’ contract on Wednesday, October 20, after Williams’ remarks on The O’Reilly Factor two days earlier – “Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

It didn’t seem like much, but according to NPR, those remarks were “inconsistent with our ethical standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” They fired him and Fox News immediately gave Williams an extended multimillion dollar contract. And all hell broke loose – as you would expect.

And see Brian Stelter with Two Takes at NPR and Fox on Juan Williams from the New York Times, the next day:

After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’ contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view – rather than the view-from-nowhere – polemics.

We seem to have two views of the news, and a few weeks later they collided again:

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, the unabashedly liberal-leaning counterpart to cable television’s conservative hosts, was suspended indefinitely without pay on Friday for contributing a total of $7,200 to three Democratic candidates in late October, in violation of network policies.

The facts are these:

Federal Election Commission records show that on Oct. 28 Olbermann gave $2,400 each to Arizona Reps. Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords, and on Oct. 29 he donated $2,400 to Kentucky Senate candidate Jack Conway. The donation to Grijalva came on the same day the Democratic incumbent appeared on “Countdown,” Politico reported. Conway and Giffords have also appeared on the show.

And his network would have none of that advocacy journalism stuff:

MSNBC President Phil Griffin said in a two-sentence statement that he learned of Olbermann’s campaign contributions late Thursday night, and “mindful of NBC News policies and standards,” he acted quickly. However, the language of NBC’s policy leaves open the possibility that Olbermann would have been in compliance had he sought permission from his superiors first – though they could have denied his request.

This was an odd business. Olbermann was back on the air after two days, and that was that. It was a slap on the wrist, and as Jack Shafer notes, the policy was odd:

By suspending MSNBC Countdown anchor Keith Olbermann without pay for a grand total of two days, NBC News struck a suspiciously weak blow for its policy that requires employees to secure the permission of NBC News’ president before they give to political campaigns.

But policies are all over the place – Time magazine allows donations – just follow the applicable laws and don’t use company resources or “coercive solicitations” to further you own personal political activities. But Newsweek forbids donations, generally, with exceptions – it depends on your role or responsibilities. And the New York Times forbids donations:

Staff members of The Times are family members and responsible citizens as well as journalists. The Times respects their educating their children, exercising their religion, voting in elections and taking active part in community affairs. Nothing in this policy is meant to infringe upon those rights. But even in the best of causes, Times staff members have a duty to avoid the appearance of a conflict.

Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics. Staff members are entitled to vote, but they must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of The Times. In particular, they may not campaign for, demonstrate for, or endorse candidates, ballot causes or efforts to enact legislation. They may not wear campaign buttons or themselves display any other insignia of partisan politics. They should recognize that a bumper sticker on the family car or a campaign sign on the lawn may be misread as theirs, no matter who in their household actually placed the sticker or the sign.

Staff members may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate or election cause. Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides.

That’s old school, and Fox News Channel allows campaign contributions, as long as the money doesn’t come from corporate funds.

Reuters allows contributions for journalists not involved in political coverage and ABC News forbids donations, period. CBS News forbids donations, but until September they were only discouraged – they think the New York Times might be right on this matter.

And the odd thing – NBC and MSNBC TV require permission of the president of NBC News. That’s a sort of middle ground. Forbes magazine allows donations, the Atlantic Monthly is considering a tougher policy, and Dow Jones forbids any partisan activity – if it’s “judged newsworthy.” If it’s boring then it’s okay:

Many companies, for a variety of reasons, participate in the partisan political process, at various levels of government. As a publisher, Dow Jones has a different tradition. Dow Jones does not contribute, directly or indirectly, to political campaigns or to political parties or groups seeking to raise money for political campaigns or parties, and Dow Jones does not and will not reimburse any employee for any political contribution made by an employee. All news employees and members of senior management with any responsibility for news should refrain from partisan political activity judged newsworthy by their senior editor or in the case of senior management, the Chief Executive Officer. Other political activities (including “issue oriented” activity) are permitted, but should not be inconsistent with this code.

On the other hand, it is not the intention of Dow Jones, or of this code, to dissuade employees from participating actively in civic, charitable, religious, public, social or residential organizations. Such activities are permitted, and even encouraged, to the extent that they do not, by their extensiveness, cause the Company to subsidize or appear to subsidize the activity; and do not otherwise violate this code. In the event that a conflict arises or may arise between an outside organization with which an employee is affiliated and the interests of Dow Jones, the employee should refrain from participating in the conflicting or potentially conflicting activity.

No Dow Jones employee should permit his or her Dow Jones affiliation to be noted in any outside organization’s materials or activities without the express written approval of a member of senior management or unless of course the employee serves as a representative of Dow Jones or unless the affiliation is noted as part of a broader description of the employee’s identity.

On December 13, 2007, Dow Jones, and its flagship newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, became part of the Rupert Murdoch press empire. The man who owns Fox News bought Dow Jones. There rules at Dow Jones may change.

And of course National Public Radio, the folks who fired Juan William, forbids donations:

NPR journalists may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics. Since contributions to candidates are part of the public record, NPR journalists may not contribute to political campaigns, as doing so would call into question a journalist’s impartiality in coverage.

NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them.

NPR journalists may not serve on government boards or commissions.

NPR journalists may sit on community advisory boards, educational institution trustee boards, boards of religious organizations or boards of nonprofit organizations so long as NPR does not normally cover them and they are not engaged in significant lobbying or political activity. Such activities should be disclosed to the Managing Editor or designee, and NPR may revoke approval if it believes continued service will create the appearance of a conflict of interest or an actual conflict.

When a spouse, family member or companion of an NPR journalist is involved in political activity, the journalist should be sensitive to the fact that this could create real or apparent conflicts of interest. In such instances the NPR journalist should advise his or her supervisor to determine whether s/he should recuse him or herself from a certain story or certain coverage.

They’re with the New York Times on this – old school. If you want to practice advocacy journalism, go work at Fox News – and don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.

And, as regards the Olbermann suspension, Jack Shafer tries to untangle this all:

If the network was hoping to telegraph that it doesn’t think Olbermann’s offense was much of an offense at all – the consensus view of his ideological soul-mates and even some of his ideological opponents – it succeeded hugely. According to Politico, Olbermann wouldn’t have had to serve his suspension had he agreed to deliver an on-camera mea culpa.

But NBC still has some explaining to do.

Yep, they were serious about this, but not that serious about this, and now they look a bit foolish. But all is not lost:

The best way for the network to exit the morass it’s created is to stop pretending that Countdown and The Rachel Maddow Show are straight-news programs. Of course, there’s plenty of straight news in both programs, just as straight news can be found in the New Republic, the Nation, the Weekly Standard, Mother Jones, the National Review, Reason, and other opinion magazines. But both anchors and both programs are so transparent about coming at the news from a liberal angle that it’s the network’s failing – not theirs – that the shows aren’t billed as partisan takes on the news, as the magazines listed above are.

And that’s the model that might be useful:

At their best, American political magazines don’t pretend to be bias-free. But they do subscribe to elementary standards of fairness and accuracy, which I’ve always thought were more important to good journalism than being independent of bias. A partisan journalist doesn’t have to feign impartiality to do his work, which can sometimes be a plus. Like investigative reporters, partisan journalists hear frequencies outside the listening range of journalists who subscribe to the centrist ideology. On the great issues of the day, I’d rather read the best of what left-wing and right-wing journals had to say than I would the Washington Post or the New York Times. In fact, by publishing an op-ed section, a newspaper acknowledges the fundamental role partisan journalism plays in understanding politics and culture.

Take, for example, Maddow’s respectful but prosecutorial grilling of then-candidate Rand Paul during his senatorial campaign. Maddow drew upon her partisanship to press the question of the Civil Rights Act on Paul. Or, I think I should say, a lack of worry on her part that she’ll be busted for leveraging her own points of view in an interview with a politician gives Maddow real strength. Give me Rachel Maddow over Diane Sawyer any day.

The idea is not to be “objective” in what Shafer calls the pedestrian sense of the word, but to generally attempt to verify the accuracy of your findings. And he refers to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their 2001 book The Elements of Journalism – the journalistic method that was supposed to be objective, not the journalist. As Shafer says, “As long as the partisan journalist comes to verifiable conclusions, we shouldn’t worry too much about the direction from which he came.”

And that’s the gripe with Fox News. It’s all in the method. You attempt to verify the accuracy of your findings, you don’t shout louder.

But that doesn’t solve the problem with MSNBC:

Why can’t MSNBC see the value in letting Countdown and The Rachel Maddow Show be what they want to be: well-reported, liberal opinion magazines that happen to air on television? Perhaps it’s because MSNBC’s strings are still controlled by NBC, which, as a holder of federal broadcast licenses for its TV and radio stations, had to uphold the fairness doctrine all those decades or face the revocation of its licenses. Even though the fairness doctrine is long dead, and stations no longer have to make sure that, if violet expresses its opinion on a show, its take must be balanced by a hearing of equal duration from the color orange. One of the causes of the Olbermann dust-up is the fact that the doctrine lives on in the institutional memories of the old networks like NBC, which controls MSNBC in a co-venture with Microsoft. Fox, which never really had to kowtow to the fairness doctrine, seems to be the least psychologically muzzled of any network, although I don’t intend that as an endorsement of any Fox News Channel program.

So it comes down to this:

I’m not advocating that every channel and every publication become an organ of opinion. But if it’s okay for newspapers to run opinion columnists and opinion sections, then surely there’s sufficient room in MSNBC’s 24/7 stream of cable news for both. Instead of viewing Olbermann’s partisanship as a liability, NBC should treat it as an asset. To paraphrase something Paul Starr once wrote to Michael Schudson, in the minds of many readers, the editorial pages of a newspaper vouchsafe the credibility of its news columns by saying here is opinion, and over here is fact. But making overt what is now covert – stating unequivocally that Countdown and Maddow are opinion magazines, and, hell yes, shredding that no-contribution-without-permission policy – the network could better brand these two shows and its other programs.

And they can outfox Fox by assiduously verifying the accuracy of their findings, without shouting at all. That can be devastatingly effective.

And at pressthink.org Jay Rosen offers this:

If objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, I agree. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense. Don’t you?

Cool. But then you sometimes find yourself in suburban San Diego, where all you get is Fox News. We can have a better press, but no one will notice. Then what?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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