The worst agenda is a hidden agenda

Vaughn Ververs writes an odd and emotional and ultimately simplistic analysis of journalistic objectivity and transparency over at CBS’ Public Eye, using me and reaction to Rep. John Murtha’s call to pull out of Iraq as his jumping-off points.

First, Vaughn misses the point on the objectivity debate. It isn’t that with the death of the objectivity ideal — or the admission that it was a false idol — you must now slant every newscast. That’s what he says and that’s what is simplistic, in my view. Instead, I say that the ethic of transparency requires you reveal the biases you do have because your audience deserves to know them, so they can judge your judgments. Having done that, then, of course, you should still try to be accurate, truthful, fair, balanced, and all that. But to refuse to reveal a bias — or rather, call it a perspective — and to, indeed, hide it is a lie of omission. There’s no agenda worse than a hidden agenda.

When Murtha made his call to pull out of Iraq, it was given major coverage — “All three nightly newscasts led with them, as did the New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers,” Public Eye reported at the time. But conservatives said this shouldn’t have been given such coverage since Murtha, though once in favor of the war, had long been critical of it. Public Eye linked to Glenn Reynolds saying just that. I didn’t weigh in on that and still won’t, not having studied the quotes.

So now Vaughn mashes this up with an argument over what is newsworthy and who can say what is newsworthy and whether making that call can be seen in this case as evidence of bias:

Now here’s where I have problems with attacks on the idea that the media can achieve a perspective that is unbiased, if not totally objective: If we can agree that there is something called “newsworthy,” then Murtha’s speech qualified.

But, Vaughn, it is a matter of degree, wouldn’t you agree? Was it news, big news, or the top news story in the nation? Couldn’t reasonable people disagree about that?

But, no, Vaughn seems to say it is an absolute — in fact, he attacks me as a relativist, even though I hadn’t even weighed in on the matter.

Jarvis isn’t alone in making the argument for the death of “objectivity” as an idea but since he’s a friend, we’ll pick on him. In Jarvis-world, with no objective criteria for judging events, how does one argue with the conservative advocate who says Murtha’s speech was not news? You can’t, because there’s no common meaning to the word, “news.” It’s total relativism, it trivializes everything and ignores the real world, commonly understood.

That is why we call it news judgment, Vaughn: because people judge it. And we’ve both worked in enough newsrooms to know that there are plenty of disagreements about that judgement, even among the supposed pros at making those decisions. And behind every one of those decisions comes — let’s not call it bias — perspective. That could be the perspective of experience in journalism. It could be the perspective of politics. But it’s not as if you can just feed the news into an algorithm and get universally accepted news judgment. That’s naive.

Vaughn doesn’t stop there. Oh, no, he keeps driving without brakes:

Advocacy that tries to convince you that the Murtha speech wasn’t news is Orwellian, it’s dishonest. An advocate who will argue that Murtha is wrong, misguided or even a pant-load is honest. But in Jarvis-world, you can’t make distinctions like that because, well, everything is relative. Mostly, the Murtha-isn’t-news drumbeat comes from ideologues who, in days of yore, would have been printing pamphlets, distributing fliers or attending demonstrations. It’s nothing new and nothing reserved for one viewpoint or another.

Whoa, fella. When did I become Big Brother? I had nothing to do with this argument and you’re roping me into this without saying that. I wouldn’t call that fair and balanced. And, again, I think you’re misrepresenting what I say about objectivity and transparency in journalism.

In any case, something sure got in Vaughn’s craw. I don’t really know what it is or why. So I wish I knew more about that perspective. Case in point.

But at least he is acting like a blogger, which is what I suggested he do in advice Vaughn quotes. I said when Public Eye started, vowing to be objective:

Try this on for size: I think there’s no such thing as an objective blogger. Or you’re probably not blogging. You’re probably not talking with people, eye to eye. We’re about to kill the myth that journalists can be thoroughly objective; let’s not start trying to accrete that artificial ethic to blogs.

Oh, yes, Vaughn is plenty opinionated. And that’s a good thing.

: LATER: Jay Rosen reacts to Vaughn in the comments:

You have fallen for your own deceptions, Vaughn, casting yourself as the defender of order and others as the bringers of chaos, instead of trying to describe two different ways of ordering the world, both of which have their chaotic contradictions.