Is the Quest for Objectivity Ruining Journalism?
There's no denying the current of disillusionment running through the Fourth Estate. Increasingly partisan niche-market outlets, an unquenchable 24-hour news cycle, and the specter of commercial collapse weigh heavily on today's journalists. For press critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen, the real issue facing political journalists today is the self-defeating "quest for innocence," a topic Rosen first discussed in a 2008 essay on campaign coverage:
The biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to play up their detachment. Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Ever noticed how spirits lift when the pundit round-table turns from the Middle East or the looming recession to the horse race, and there’s an opportunity for sizing up the candidates? To be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss. Of course, since trying to get ahead of the voters can affect how voters view the candidates, the innocence, too, is an illusion.
In a post on PressThink, Rosen revisits the notion of the quest for innocence in the context of a David Barstow article on the Tea Party movement in the New York Times. Barstow says that Tea Partiers are motivated by a "narrative of impending tyranny." But he fails to say explicitly whether or not this narrative is true. This oversight puzzles Rosen:
Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable? If we credit the observation that a great many Americans drawn to the Tea Party live in fear that the United States is about to turn into a tyranny, with rigged elections, loss of civil liberties, no more free press, a police state... can we also credit the professional attitude that refuses to say whether this fear is reality-based? I don't see how we can.
Rosen fears that the quest for unbiased, detached reporting has yielded journalism practiced in a vacuum, divorced from reality. Has the "quest for innocence" hurt the quality of journalism? And in Rosen's own words: "how the hell could this happen?"