Technology, Objectivity, the Death of Newspapers and Fox News

On The Media, new to Georgia Public Broadcasting and already a favorite find of a good many friends, spent an hour last week on the future of newspapers. In support of TMV Assistant Editor David Shraub’s excellent Sherrod-inspired post on the true failings of the journalistic enterprise, a few select quotes…

Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of the “magisterial” The Wealth of Networks (available here for free download), on the inherent bias of objectivity:

Objectivity as it’s been practiced um, in journalism as a profession ends up skewing the evidence. When you compare treatments of global warming in … peer-reviewed scientific papers to the treatment of global warming in newspapers, the sense that objectivity needs to be expressed by giving equal air time, as it were, to both, completely skewed the presentation of the quality of the scientific evidence. Second, the public perception of the ideal of objectivity led to a level of trust in newspapers as opposed to a continuous act of critical reading.

I take Benkler’s point on both counts. But let’s take a moment here to consider how that “ideal of objectivity” took its place as a central tenet of journalistic professionalism.

The Founding Fathers launched and subsidized America’s free press as a highly partisan one. A robust advocacy journalism, comprised of independently owned, small circulation hand-printed dailies, weeklies and semi-weeklies well served the 18th century electorate at a time when democracy in the United States was much more narrowly defined. (For all their wisdom, the Founding Fathers withheld the vote from women, slaves, indentured servants, aliens, and the non-property-holding poor. Would today’s originalists have us go back to that?)

Their vision of a free press to stimulate public involvement through a highly partisan and vigorous exchange of ideas put forward by an advocacy press held sway for nearly a century. It was the emergence of a 19th century technology, the steam-driven printing press, that made the large-circulation daily newspaper possible. With that large circulation, advertising would become the dominant source of income.

Yet another technology, the telegraph, brought a new timeliness to the news. The formation of the Associated Press in 1848 meant that one reporter writing a single faraway dispatch in a neutral, objective reporting style could be published in many member newspapers, even those with highly different political perspectives. Because telegraph services charged by the word, a spare reporting style made that remote reporter cheaper still. Objectivity had the added benefit of placating advertisers wary of offending potential customers.

Thus the sacrosanct neutral and objective journalistic reporting style was not born of any high-minded journalistic integrity. It was, rather, a function of market efficiencies brought about by new technologies and would only later earn its status as the guiding principle of journalism. We need not fear that today’s transformative technologies will destroy journalism. Benkler on “the newspaper as we currently know it” going away:

What are we lamenting? Are we lamenting the decline of a shared culture that’s relatively dominated by a small number of people who can decide what everyone needs to know? That’s not obviously a state that we have to yearn for. On the other hand, the fact that we have facilities for people who do want to be engaged to become much better informed, if it is easy – and here we have major questions of skills and education and socioeconomic status influencing who can and can’t access, and that is a major focus for policy to assure – but assuming that that needs to be solved, from the perspective of a democratic society, this new state seems to me to be not Utopia, but more attractive.

With the latest blog-fueled media storm we again hear calls for rules and standards for the millions of citizen journalists. That Andrew Breitbart caused this, or that the White House did, is false. Fox News, whose marginal claim to innovation is that it brought talk radio to cable and snookered audiences into believing its Trash TV is journalism, made the story what it is…


The rest of the media is trapped in the pack dynamic and blocked by their audience-pandering and objectivity bias from calling out Fox. James Fallows was also interviewed in that On The Media episode, for his counter-intuitive story in the June Atlantic on Google’s efforts to save the news business:

Krishna Bharat, who is the guy who invented Google News and who watches news stories from all the world flow through his little screen, he says it’s striking to him how you have a weird duplication of effort in the journalistic world; that when something big happens, 90 percent of the talent in the journalistic world will be writing about that one same story. He said that he thought over time there’ll be a kind of redistribution of effort to other areas where there’s not the same kind of piling on. And this, I think, illustrates a really interesting cultural split in our business. Every show you do is an experiment. Every article I do is an experiment. But the organizational structures we’re in have been relatively static. And so, if we think that the whole structures also need to experiment, then I think there’s a way we can get through this and find different ways to find revenue for news of a different sort, but it’ll be the same basic function.

Print and Broadcast media must reinvent itself; to do that they must experiment and innovate. I see that coming out of NPR, the NYTimes, the WaPo, and magazines like the Atlantic and Wired, and no doubt many others I’m unaware of. I don’t see journalistic innovation or progress anywhere on television, broadcast or cable — The Comedy Central line-up comes closest and that says something terribly sad.

The era of blogoshphere innovation — and here I am referring to the amateur blogosphere from which I came — is over. While the majority of blogs and bloggers are still unpaid operations, traffic and market share is overwhelmingly dominated by professional journalism. Conversation is largely a back and forth among themselves, with invited, heavily moderated and controlled commenters. (See Chris Bowers’ Amateur Blogosphere, RIP for more.)

Fox should go ahead and ride its moment in journalistic history. Of this I am sure: their day will pass.

You can find me @jwindish, at my Public Notebook, or email me at joe-AT-joewindish-DOT-com.