The Immense Cost of The Loss of Media Objectivity

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In journalism, there seems to be no room for objectivity, and the media are entering a new era, as they have started to use this in their favour.

Emanating from our universities, one idea in particular – more accurately an instance of sleight of hand – sends ripples through how we think of the world around us. The idea is that, given that there is no such thing as complete objectivity, the only option is to accept that, whether we are telling stories or writing the news, we are always being political – occupying a position, be it left or right, feminist or neocon and so on. Exponents hope that no one will realise that that conclusion developed does not logically follow said premise.

If complete objectivity is impossible, then our conclusion should be “Sometimes we achieve objectivity, sometimes we don’t” or “Sometimes we achieve a high degree of objectivity and sometimes a low degree or none at all.” The conclusion that we are stuck with political takes on things is simply a non-sequitur. The result of this conceptual legerdemain is to expel facts from debates, thereby turning them into simple political stand-offs between members of different political groupings. (In a piece for Quillette about Northrop Frye, I spoke about the process whereby truth of correspondence gets collapsed into truth of vision.) Before we know it, we find ourselves in the revolutionary, them versus us situation, and the spectre of having the right politics heaves into view, highlighting the subjectivity we cannot avoid.

The situation is not simply a matter of the politicisation of everything, however: it is also conducive to separatism. The everything is political people seek to promulgate the idea that society consists of a variety of groupings, defined by gender, race, age, etc. If this type of critique of objectivity would once have been a Marxist one, today it is a key idea of identarians. To say that there is no such thing as objectivity is, by and large, code for “Historically, the cultural activities of white men have never been ‘objective’ in any regard.” And what should take the place of putative “white male ‘objectivity’” is the full range of identity-based, overtly political “takes” on things.

We feel the effect of this idea is three hot-topic areas. One such area is the representation of members of non-privileged groups in fictional material. Here we start out with the idea that, in toto, literature as well as film and television are not objective but are characterised by negative and stereotypical images of non-privileged persons – which up to a point and within a particular context of response is true. However, following the logic just outlined, the response of opinion-shapers is to insist on a different type of political representation – a particular kind of progressive one.

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Journalistic objectivity is nothing but baloney, so a broadcasting environment which is simply diverse in terms of political attitude is right and proper.

All kinds of identity groups have strong feelings about this issue, but the most active and successful agitation here is undoubtedly feminist agitation, which has effected a situation in which representing women as strong is now something close to a sine qua non in all things fictional. In proportion as separatism succeeds, these positive representations are produced more and more by writers, directors etc. whose identities match the represented identities. The dream is clearly that only creatives from non-privileged groups produce images of members of said groups, and that all such images are positive.

Of course, the move from negative to positive in this domain involves our by-passing better levels of objectivity. Were healthy levels of objectivity an attainable goal, we would have to ask ourselves why a fictional culture characterized by this type of progressive politics was better than one which passes muster as highly objective, especially when the emphasis on stereotypes clearly references issues connected to accuracy. But any degree of objectivity is humbug, which leaves just one option.

Another area is that of the literary canon. In this domain, we are confronted by the notion that the Western canon is the little more than a testament to white masculinist politics, evidenced by how the canon has always been mostly limited to a group of dead, white, male writers – a critique which certainly plays a part in the understanding of canon formation. Something progressive is demanded here as well, though, and the progressivist solution again proves to be thoroughly separatist. Academic campaigners demand canons suggestive of other politics and construct other canons tied in with other identities. Thus we have a canon of African American literature, a canon of literature by women, a working-class canon, etc. Again, something reformed and more objective gets by-passed. If a higher degree of objectivity were obtainable, again we would have to ask ourselves why a plethora of blatantly political canons was better than a single, capacious, reformed and inclusive canon. But higher degrees of objectivity is bunk, so separate canons are the only way forward.

With respect to broadcast journalism, we find something similar in regards to the UK,  which I deal with in more detail below, but the same trends are discernible elsewhere. The idea of objectivity in broadcasting is larger than the concepts of neutrality or (due) impartiality. As Calcutt and Hammond explain, objectivity in journalism comprises truthfulness, neutrality and detachment. But today most of those who offer an opinion on the issue find the idea of broadcast journalism objectivity nothing more than quaint. There are only political takes on things, and the only thing to do is immerse oneself in politics. Even many journalists at the BBC appear to have no interest in the principle of objectivity.

Unsurprisingly, identity-based separatism has taken hold there as well. As Blair Spowart argues in “The Public Broadcaster without a Public,” the “BBC has given up on speaking to the public as a whole, on representing a coherent, unified British demos. Now, it implicitly divides its services along age, ethnic and class lines.” So the BBC begins to blend in with the rest of the media eco-system, where new identity politics publications (such as The Voice, for example) join the traditional left- and (mainly) right-wing legacy publishers. Again, if objectivity were a thing, we might conclude that old-school broadcasting principles about journalistic objectivity might be worth hanging on to. But journalistic objectivity is nothing but baloney, so a broadcasting environment which is diverse in terms of political attitude is right and proper.

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The BBC has given up on speaking to the public as a whole, on representing a coherent, unified British demos. Now, it implicitly divides its services along age, ethnic and class lines.

Of course not all those involved in these new cultures would say that they are playing a part in wholesale revolution – perhaps very few would – but the most coherent way of understanding apologists for this change is to posit the idea that, willy-nilly, they are part of something revolutionary. Of course, the figure of Gramsci lies behind much of today’s radical thinking. He encourages radicals to think in terms of a hegemony which compromises cultural as well as political and economic factors. Gramsci advocates supplanting the old hegemony with a new one.

Some radicals today feel that even if, say, economic inequality is only getting worse, we can start the revolution by changing the cultural aspects of the hegemony, and the trends discussed here can easily be construed as part and parcel of an attempt to establish just such a new hegemony. When we add so-called “standpoint epistemology” to the mix of radical ideas, the idea that it amounts to an attempt to establish a new hegemony looks even more plausible. Some commentators have of course speculated about the extent to which there is a (deeply ironic) causal link between this kind of agitation and the election of Donald Trump.

My argument will wash over those who collapse knowledge into politics, but let’s stick with argumentation for a moment, anyway. As I suggested at the outset, the starting point of this kind of thinking doesn’t hold water, and everything which flows from it is false, too. In sum: degrees of objectivity are possible. Everyone (i.e. members of all social groups) can participate in achieving levels of objectivity in different domains.

Consequently, we should categorically reject each of the prescriptions I have just outlined. Needless to say, the endeavors this article supports – attempted objectivity in fiction (where it makes sense to employ that criterion), the on-going expansion of the canon, and levels of objectivity in broadcast journalism – are of course suggestive not of revolutionary but liberal politics: a combination of gradualism and reform oriented towards the unlimited expansion of the middle section of society.

“Objectivity in journalism comprises truthfulness, neutrality and detachment. But today most of those who offer an opinion on the issue find the idea of broadcast journalism objectivity nothing more than quaint”

The good news is that the politicised alternatives have not yet achieved full hegemony. Regarding positive images of social identities, while one TV drama, the unwatchable Collateral, is quite obviously tied in with an entirely uncritical attitude towards dogma about representation, others show signs of resistance. Channel 4’s tremendous drama The State is a case in point. In this case, rather than aiming for a politically progressive take on members of a group, British Muslims and specifically the small number drawn toward ISIS, the show strives for accuracy, with its success stemming in part from the painstaking research which went into the program. With respect to canons, while radical critics evolve their alternative canons, moderate reformers work on the canon – as earlier generations invariably did.

They respond to criticism and conscientiously participate in the reformation of the canon, seeking out writers belonging to non-privileged groups whose work possesses the qualities which mark their natural belonging to our literary heritage. You can track this process by looking at how the contents of Norton Anthologies of Anglophone literature have evolved over the past few decades. And if you keep your ears and eyes open, you might even catch respectable levels of objectivity in British broadcasting.

Clearly, the BBC falls down on the job an enormous amount, and it is impossible not to pick up on its odd hotchpotch of political views through its journalism: its soft left/centrist politics, its metropolitanism (read “London-centric view of the country”), its anti-Brexit view, its royalism, its gender feminism, to mention a few. But, fitfully, the BBC proves that it is perfectly capable of reasonable levels of objectivity in relation to some issues. When Messrs. Marr and Neil and their teams behind the scenes are doing their jobs correctly, which is fairly often, they achieve impressive levels of objectivity in their work for the BBC.

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