Taking a side

Time managing editor Rick Stengel giving the Bullion Lecture at the University of Mississippi says he was tired of his magazine asking questions and he wanted it to give a perspective (it’s on the audio player here):

I didn’t go to journalism school… This notion that journalism is objective or must be objective is always something that has bothered me. The notion about objectivity is in some ways a fantasy. I don’t know that there is such a thing as objectivity.

One way to break through commodified news, he says, “is to have a point of view, to have an opinion.”

He bases this on the notion that the journalist is an expert. I don’t think journalists are experts as often as they’d like to believe. They find the experts. But still, I do side with Stengel on objectivity.

That’s a perspective.

  • Brian Storm, speaking at Columbia, pooh-pooh’ed the idea of objectivity, too.


  • I don’t think this argument stands or falls based whether the journalist is “the expert”. You can interview experts, synthesize and analyze their inputs and present your analysis to the reader. The reader then applies his own intelligence and analysis to what you’ve presented. Thus the reader is served (unless your analysis consistently stinks) and the discussion moves forward.

  • Neon Java

    On the topic of publishing and marketplace changes, I thought you might be interested in this:


  • Basil Berntsen

    I’ve always seen this dedication to appearing unbiased as a weakness in traditional media. I’d much rather read the same story twice with opposing, disclosed biases than read the mainstream media’s “unbiased” version. I trust the information I get online precisely because I don’t trust everything I read there.

    The reality is that now, more than ever, newspapers and the mainstream media in general are dependent on their advertisers and their relationships with big business and big government. More to the point, most big media outlets just reuse each others content and report AP and Reuters content.

    There will always be a requirement for some sort of traditional journalism- someone has to keep on checking facts. I see future mainstream journalists using the internet to aggregate stories that are interesting to their readers and doing the fact checking to ensure accuracy, but less and less direct getting out and digging up stories in the real world. people who can do that are better off as bloggers ;)

  • Eric

    From the conservative’s perspective, the “dedication to appearing unbiased” seems to go no further than appearances. I know a lot of fellow conservatives who refuse to read, for example, the NYT because of irritating biases on the part of the editorial staff.

    And I didn’t realize Time was making an effort to be objective. It never appeared that way to me.

  • “Opinion” and “perspective” sell only to niche markets — generally the markets of those who share the opinions or perspectives of the writer. Apparently “unbiased” writing has a larger market than biased writing since unbiased writing is acceptable to more readers. The original newspapers were very biased and could be so since the means used in producing them were so limited that only small markets could be served. (Presses were slow and rapidly transporting paper long distances wasn’t feasible.) As printing presses became capable of printing more cheaply and as technologies for long-distance news distribution (telegraph…) became popular, “unbiased” reporting became the norm — not because it had inherent “goodness” but rather because unbiased reporting enabled reaching the larger markets needed to pay for the new and expensive technology. Without the technology, unbiased reporting would never have become the norm or even considered a thing of value. Today, the Internet gives us virtually free printing presses and complete freedom from geographic limitations. This shift in technology leads inevitably to an increase in “bias”, “opinion,” “perspective.” Slowly, technology is allowing the marketplace of ideas and the public forum to work again.

    Technology, which once made perspective uneconomic, now returns perspective to its proper place. This is a good thing.

    bob wyman

  • Basil Berntsen

    Eric, the NYT is no worse than Fox News, but it’s on the other end of the political spectrum. Bias is impossible to ignore- people make moral judgments about what they write subconsciously, and any efforts they put into hiding or ignoring that bias will ultimately end in failure. The larger the volume of work you have written, the more obvious your bias will be, and the more exaggerated people will think it is.

    In the end, everyone’s political bias comes down to slightly different sets of moral guidelines. Conservative and liberal are just two flavors of a set of rights and wrongs, but they are closer to each other than they are to any non-western cultural moral framework.