A News Organization That Rejects the View From Nowhere

What would journalism look like without conventional standards of objectivity? An interview with Jay Rosen about the quarter-billion-dollar experiment he's joining
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The $250 million news organization that eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar is launching is still taking shape, but one of its characteristics is established: Unlike many American newspapers and TV networks, the startup won't insist that its reporters observe the conventions of what is variously called objectivity, impartiality, or viewlessness.

This is evident in part because its most famous hire, Glenn Greenwald, has always been outspoken about his beliefs, and subscribes to the idea that "disclosing rather than hiding one’s subjective values makes for more honest and trustworthy journalism." He'll presumably keep operating as he always has, perhaps with more resources and editing tailored to his needs.

What's less clear is how his colleagues and the organization they're joining will operate. But a clue came with NYU media theorist Jay Rosen's announcement that he'll join the startup as an adviser. For many years, Rosen has been a leading critic of what he calls The View From Nowhere, or the conceit that journalists bring no prior commitments to their work. On his long-running blog, PressThink, he's advocated for "The View From Somewhere"—an effort by journalists to be transparent about their priors, whether ideological or otherwise. 

Rosen is just one of several voices who'll shape NewCo. Still, the new venture may well be a practical test of his View from Somewhere theory of journalism. I chatted with Rosen about some questions he'll face. 

First, I want to let everyone know the most up-to-date info on this venture and your role in it, by way of introduction. Does it have any launch date? Do you have a title? Is it accurate to describe you as one knowledgeable voice at the table whose perspective they trust, but whose advice they won't necessarily be taking?

No launch date, no title yet, and yes to "one knowledgeable voice at the table whose perspective they trust, but whose advice they won't necessarily be taking on everything."

Good way to put it!

Great. You've been thinking about The View From Nowhere for a long time. Now that you've started to think about implementing The View from Somewhere, have you had any sudden insights about your old theory? Like, "Wow, now that I'm thinking about doing this, it's making me rethink this aspect of it"?

Yes.

What's an example?

It's in this paragraph from Sunday's post. The View from Nowhere won’t be a requirement for our journalists. Nor will a single ideology prevail. NewCo itself will have a view of the world: Accountability journalism, exposing abuses of power, revealing injustices will no doubt be part of it. Under that banner many “views from somewhere” can fit.

Is that in tension with what you've written in the past in a way that I'm missing?

I had not considered before that the company itself will have a View from Somewhere, but this is not the same thing as the View from Somewhere that individual journalists may have. How do they interact? Fit together? New problem.

Got it. Being at The Atlantic, I've often reflected on how it has navigated this tension from the beginning: It was founded as an abolitionist magazine ... and its motto was "Of No Party or Clique." It aspired both to a View from Somewhere and an openness to many voices. Are there any existing journalistic organizations that are already doing pieces of The View from Somewhere in a way you'd like to emulate?

Well, first a comment on that comparison. The way "objectivity" evolves historically is out of something much more defensible and interesting, which is in that phrase "Of No Party or Clique." That's the founders of The Atlantic saying they want to be independent of party politics. They don't claim to have no politics, do they? They simply say: We're not the voice of an existing faction or coalition.

But they're also not the Voice of God. So in that sense, yes, NewCo will emulate the founders of The Atlantic. At some point "independent from" turned into "objective about." That was the wrong turn, made long ago, by professional journalism, American-style. In my writings I have tried to correct for that. And I certainly hope NewCo will try to correct for that.

You've written that The View From Nowhere is, in part, a defense mechanism against charges of bias originating in partisan politics. If you won't be invoking it, what will your defense be when those charges happen?

There are two answers to that. 1) We told you where we're coming from. 2) High standards of verification. You need both.

Is "we told you where we're coming from" referring to the organization itself, or the journalists it publishes, or both?

Both. Like I said: NewCo will not present itself as the Voice of God. Neither will its contributors. NewCo will not always be in harmony with itself, either. It will be messier than that.

And what about individual editors? Should we know where they are coming from too?

Editors? I haven't thought about that yet. Maybe. See here. It says: "Editor: Joel Lovell." And the name is hyperlinked. But click the link at it takes you to an email program. Maybe it should take you to a profile and the profile has a "where I'm coming from" section. Which could be anything. Doesn't have to be politics, you know?

One question I imagine you'll confront, whether explicitly or implicitly, is NewCo's relationship to the United States. Is "we're an American news organization" or "we're a global news organization" where it's coming from?

Great question. Totally relevant. Don't know yet.

What about ideological diversity? The View from Somewhere obviously permits it. You've said you'll have it. Is that because it is valuable in itself? Or is it just an incidental byproduct of hiring the best people you can?

This is something we should dig in on, so excuse me if my answer is a bit long. ... I have been a closer observer of diversity efforts within the American newsroom. And I could be wrong, but I think these efforts are founded on a contradiction.

The basic insight is correct: Since "news judgment" is judgment, the product is improved when there are multiple perspectives at the table ... But, if the people who are recruited to the newsroom because they add perspectives that might otherwise be overlooked are also taught that they should leave their politics at the door, or think like professional journalists rather than representatives or their community, or privilege something called "news values" over the priorities they had when they decided to become journalists, then these people are being given a fatally mixed message, if you see what I mean. They are valued for the perspective they bring, and then told that they should transcend that perspective.

Yes, I see what you mean.

I think we can do better than that.

I suppose one could say that that they should transcend their perspective in their writing, but that it should inform the stories they decide to pursue. I think that's what Bill Keller ought to say when he defends the NYT model, rather than acting as if impartiality can possibly extend to things like story choice and framing.

But I get the idea that when you say "we can do better than that" you mean something more. What?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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