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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"Caveman Chuck" Coker/Flickr

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?

Keller is right about some things. I tried to summarize them in this passage:

Part of the reason I started using the term View from Nowhere is to isolate the part I found troublesome. About that larger contraption, newsroom objectivity, I have a mixed view. When people talk about objectivity in journalism they have many different things in mind. Some of these I have no quarrel with.

You could even say I’m a “fan.”

For example, if objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense. Don’t you?

If it means trying to see things in that fuller perspective Thomas Nagel talked about–pulling the camera back, revealing our previous position as only one of many–I second the motion. If it means the struggle to get beyond the limited perspective that our experience and upbringing afford us… yeah, we need more of that, not less. I think there is value in acts of description that do not attempt to say whether the thing described is good or bad.

Is that objectivity?

If so, I’m all for it, and I do that myself sometimes. 


Yes, me too.

By "we can do better than that" I mean: We can insist on the struggle to tell it like it is without also insisting on the View from Nowhere. The two are not connected.

It was a mistake to think that they necessarily are. But why was this mistake made? To control people in the newsroom from "above." That's a big part of objectivity. Not truth. Control. (Geek out.)

So that raises the question of how much control from above a journalistic organization ought to impose. For example: You have a talented, honest journalist whose oeuvre you're generally proud to support. But in the course of trying to hold the powerful accountable, he begins to cross from "just asking questions" to entertaining a theory that almost everyone else regards as a conspiracy. How much freedom should he or she have? How do you navigate the tension between supporting the independence of smart journalists and imposing standards?

Great question! I think this is where we have to feel our way, cautiously. But I would add to your portrait of contending forces: the users, the readers. They have a voice too. Certainly editors have to occasionally say to writers: You can't say this. We don't have enough to back it up. But writers have to be able to say to editors: Hey, it's my ass if I am wrong. All I can tell you is: Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald are both of the opinion that strong editors are needed.

What about the outer bounds of acceptable opinion? For example, despite being open to ideological diversity, I presume I'll never find a white supremacist working for your organization. But that's any easy case. How will the hard cases be adjudicated?

And will readers have a say about that?

About the outer banks I have no clue. Except to say: at the beginning we are thinking of NewCo as a news organization. These problems of acceptable opinion arise because we have been vocal about recruiting journalists who have subject matter expertise and strong points of view. One without the other is not where we are coming from. But let me say another word about that. Say your cousin was getting married and you met in the reception line a journalist who was just back from two years reporting on Afghanistan and the US project there ... if you are anything like me you would ask this person a lot of questions about what it's like there, and what he or she saw, and you would gather testimony that only an eye witness can offer. .... But at some point you would tempted to say ... what do you think we ought to do? Precisely because this is someone with first hand knowledge or "subject matter expertise." I feel this is common sense.

And I want NewCo to incorporate that common sense.

Glenn Greenwald, one of your most well-known employees, has done a couple different things in recent years: (1) reporting that breaks new information, as in the Edward Snowden stories, which impose less framing and contain less opinion than his prior work (and has often been outside his immediate expertise, which isn't a criticism—that would have been true of most journalists); (2) the opinionated analysis he did before that, which contributed to greater public understanding both through research—"hey, look at this already known fact, which you maybe didn't know about, but is relevant here"; and (3) reframing (what was ostensibly already straight) news from an outsider, civil-libertarian perspective. Is NewCo looking for its hires to operate in one of those modes more than the other? Or is it agnostic about how the good people it seeks to hire increase understanding? Put more succinctly, how do you define a "news organization"?

One of the most fascinating things (so far) about working with Pierre Omidyar is that we are far more focused on talent than role. Does that answer your question?

In part. I guess a followup question would be, what types of talent are you focused on?

We're looking for people who can operate like Glenn, yes, but in other domains. We are also looking for people who can help us create a news organization that kicks ass day-to-day in an innovative way, because you don't always have a Snowden-files blockbuster, right? I am personally interested in people who can help NewCo make good on the promise of "readers know more than we do" reporting, also called open journalism.

Okay, last two questions. Are you wrestling with any questions or tensions or moves from theory to practice that I haven't asked about yet?

Yes. The day after my post ran announcing that I was joining up with NewCo, I awoke feeling nervous, and when I got to my laptop I was still nervous ...

Because I realized something had changed that I was not prepared for ....
I had always operated as a critic who had not really thrown his hand in with any part of the media system ... I had relationships and consultancies, which I disclosed, but that still left me independent in some way.

This was different.

Understandably so. And that's a good segue to my last question. You've joined this venture in part because you believe its upside potential is significant. If it works out as you hope, if things are implemented well, etc., what's the potential payoff for readers?

I think it's three things: First, this is a news site that is born into the digital world, but doesn't have to return profits to investors. That's not totally unique (Texas Tribune, ProPublica) but it is unusual.

Second: It's going to be a technology company as much as a news organization. That should result in better service.

What does that mean?

I think technology companies—the good ones—focus more naturally on user experience. This is something we could use in news. Ev Williams, who had a founders role in blogger.com, Twitter, and now Medium, says that a good formula for innovation is to start with something people want to do and eliminate some of the steps required to do it. I want NewCo to operate in that spirit.

And the third upside for readers?

The third upside is news with a human voice restored to it. This is the great lesson that blogging gives to journalism. NewCo is trying to learn it.

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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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