Brooklyn-based journalist Caitlin Curran was fired from her part-time gig at WNYC, the innovative public radio station, because her boss found out that she attended an Occupy Wall Street protest. She's written about her termination at Gawker, where she wondered whether experiences like hers will "dissuade people who have jobs they want to keep from expressing their opinions." It's a disturbing possibility, but reading her story, I couldn't help but focus on a disturbing fact.
As regular readers know, Curran and her boyfriend, neither of whom I know, made a sign that displayed an excerpted phrase from an article I wrote. While Curran held it aloft in Times Square, someone snapped a photograph; soon afterward the image went viral. "I thought all of this could be fodder for an interesting segment on The Takeaway -- a morning news program co-produced by WNYC Radio and Public Radio International -- for which I had been working as a freelance web producer roughly 20 hours per week for the past seven months," Curran wrote. "I pitched the idea to producers on the show, in an e-mail. The next day, The Takeaway's general manager fired me over the phone, effective immediately. He was inconsolably angry, and said that I had violated every ethic of journalism, and that this should be a 'teaching moment' for me in my career as a journalist."
Presuming the accuracy of this account, her boss is wrong.
For too long, managers at American newspapers and public radio stations have clung to this confused, corrosive notion of journalistic ethics -- that it is always a breach to participate in a protest or be caught expressing a controversial opinion. They talk about preventing "the perception of bias," though the model of journalism they champion is often perceived as biased, and almost never because of the activities staffers participate in during their leisure hours. There is a general argument about why this allergy to civic participation is flawed, and a specific argument about why it's wrong in this case. I'll lay them out in turn.
To borrow a phrase, every editor who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that propagating the myth of "objective journalism" is indefensible. A newspaper or radio program may try to hide or obscure the fact that the people responsible for its content have opinions, convictions, and biases. But it is impossible to function as a journalist without making subjective judgment calls about newsworthiness, relevance and emphasis, or covering issues about which you have an opinion. Pretending otherwise requires willfully misleading the public.
An ethical journalist ought to be accurate. She ought to be fair. Her aim ought to be reporting the truth or earnestly advancing a logically sound argument, rather than enriching herself or bolstering her reputation or shilling for her partisan or ideological allies. It is perfectly legitimate for a journalistic organization to decide that it is going to publish or broadcast work that presents verifiable facts as neutrally as possible, and avoid permitting its employees to inject statements of opinion into their professional output. If that's what you mean by "journalistic objectivity," you've not run afoul of my views.
What is objectionable is the View from Nowhere, a term popularized in this context by Jay Rosen, a professor at NYU journalism school, my alma mater. "In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer," he writes. "Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position 'impartial.' Second, it's a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it's an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance."
Journalistic outfits make a grave mistake by building their authority on the foundation of the View From Nowhere. I'll explain why as soon as Rosen makes one more point. "What authority there is in the position of viewlessness is unearned -- like the snooty guy who, when challenged, says, 'Madam, I have a PhD,'" he writes. "Real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. 'I'm there, you're not, let me tell you about it.' Illuminating a murky situation because you understand it better than almost anyone. Doing the work! Having a track record, a reputation for reliability is part of it, too. But that comes from doing the work."
That ought to be the pitch that newspapers and public radio stations make to their audience. It might go something like this: "Yes, the field of journalism attracts more liberals than conservatives, more Occupy Wall Street participants than Tea Party ralliers, more urban dwellers than rural Americans, more college graduates than people without degrees, more Democrats than Republicans, more English majors than math majors, more secular people than religious people -- and although we value diversity of thought, experience and world view on our staff, the core of our value proposition is that we're accurate in our reporting, fair-minded in setting forth arguments and perspectives even when we don't agree with them, transparent about who we are, attune to our biases and constantly trying to account for them, and insistent that we be judged by our output, not our political or religious or ideological identity, or what we do on weekends. Judge us by our work, and if you challenge it in good faith we'll engage you."
It may seem like a good idea to avoid the "perception of bias" by insisting that media employees hide who they are from the audience. Perhaps it was once even tenable. It no longer is. To build your credibility on viewlessness is to concede, every time an employee of yours is shown to be a sentient, opinionated person, that your credibility has taken a hit. To tout and enforce your viewlessness is to hold your own reputation hostage to reality; it makes your credibility, the most valuable thing you have, vulnerable to every staffer's Tweet, or incriminating Facebook photograph, or inane James O'Keefe hidden video sting operation. She claims to be neutral, but look, while out at a dinner with friends we caught her on camera saying that she thinks Obama is a better president than was Bush. See! She was hiding her liberal views from us all along!