Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept recently wrote a strong indictment of neutrality in journalism as helping the rise of Donald Trump. He was right about some aspects of this issue but also diametrically wrong about many other key points.
He argued that large media corporations have convinced or coerced journalists to remain neutral, or objective – and that they insidiously have been trained in this manner – as a way to avoid controversy. He added – in his online publication, created by Civil Beat’s founder, Pierre Omiydar – that U.S. media organizations try to avoid controversy because it alienates customers and offends those who wield power.
In fact, the opposite is true, and much of American journalism’s history refutes that point. The pursuit of neutrality, or “objectivity,” has been a defining characteristic of American journalism.
There’s another reason American media companies are gorging on Donald Trump and his antics – to work with the example Greenwald provided – and it’s this: The easy controversies Trump creates excite people to read and look at mass media, and that feeds the industry’s bottom line. Greenwald should really aim his ire against for-profit motives within the media industry. Blame the penny press, not the neutral perspective.
When Trump wildly attacks conventions and traditions, mass-media companies also have a chance to do another one of the activities they can do best (besides make money): To explain how far his behavior falls outside the norm, to reassure audiences of their sanity and of his craziness.
This phenomenon isn’t part of a mass-media conspiracy against liberal (Ralph Nader) or conservative (Ross Perot) thinkers; it’s a normalizing mechanism. The way news media filter and explain behavior can reflect or distort the way the general public judges outrageous behavior, bringing discussions and behaviors back within the commercial comfort zone.
In that respect, maybe Greenwald’s rant could be oriented toward discourse that upsets economic markets.
Most of the time this general filtering-and-normalizing mechanism serves society pretty well. It aligns the public discussion with the behavior and attitudes of the masses. (We all dislike crime, right?) Yet sometimes, this system fails horrifically, such as when the media’s leaders interpret general societal attitudes in ways that don’t accurately reflect reality.
Plenty of academic and popular literature examines the complex and evolving topic of journalistic neutrality, including David Mindich’s edited collection of “How ‘Objectivity’ Came to Define American Journalism.” That book includes a chapter about journalist and civil-rights advocate Ida B. Wells confronting the neutrality of journalism as it was applied to news of lynchings in the 1890s. Journalists clearly should not present both sides of whether people should be lynched, or not, as being of equal intellectual or moral value.
Another dramatic example of the problematic nature of objectivity can be found in the pre-World War II news coverage of the rise of Nazism as just an alternative political movement, the media ethics of which have been addressed by Evelyn Kennerly. Compared to those examples, Trump simply appears to be another blind spot in this objectivity paradigm.
What we don’t need in this world, though, is more partisanship in the media. Greenwald argued, for instance, that neutrality has neutered mass-media journalism, which he claimed has raised little journalistic alarm over Trump. Presumably, he would suggest journalists act more like The Huffington Post, which uses this postscript on every article involving Trump:
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
That is one gigantic piece of evidence that at least one American mass media organization has not remained objective in this case, is not trying to stay neutral and is “raising journalistic alarm.”
I have encountered countless articles and editorials about Trump and his seemingly dangerous nature over the past few months. So I’m baffled by Greenwald’s assertions about the lack of a media response to Trump and, in particular, by Greenwald’s focus on the evils of objectivity as the root cause of this Trump issue. I could argue instead that partisanship is the reason journalism has been neutered, because it can so easily be dismissed as such by those with opposing views.
In his piece, Greenwald broadly paints the mass media as politically neutered without even mentioning the heavily partisan Fox News empire, which for two decades has done what Greenwald is arguing should be done (though not for the political persuasion he favors).
Besides Fox’s liberal counterpart, MSNBC News, other partisan mass-media sources persist on radio (such as Rush Limbaugh and Thom Hartmann) and in print (such as Mother Jones and The Weekly Standard).
There is no evident shortage of partisan media in America today. Yet Trump is the GOP frontrunner, in arguably the most partisan media landscape since the 1800s.
Greenwald does correctly characterize partisanship and muckraking as cornerstones of the creation and development of American mass media. But contrary to what Greenwald argued, though, neutrality rules are not “newly invented concepts.”
The early printers of the first Colonial newspapers typically did have a specific perspective (often anti-British); and they shared that perspective throughout the news.
American journalism has used those core ideas to define itself professionally for at least a century, as documented by numerous scholars, including Michael Schudson, Richard Kaplan and Sandrine Boudana.
Yet journalists today also typically understand the fallacies of objectivity as a fixed and limited concept. They try to transcend its conventional boundaries by valuing and weighing information on its perceived merits, not by using objectivity as some sort of rigid scale designed to give equal time to unequal ideas. (Though, to be sure, coverage of climate change has proven a problem in this regard.)
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, a guiding document for American journalism, says nothing about pretenses of “neutrality” or “objectivity.” Instead, it calls on journalists to “seek truth and report it.” It proclaims “ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”
I have worked in the journalism industry and taught journalistic ideology for a long time, and I have never run across a journalism program or a journalism instructor who suggested avoiding controversy or conflict. In fact, the opposite is true: We encourage students to investigate and stress the points in a story that could involve disagreement. In other words, we don’t train people to prescribe thought but to promote it.
Instead of taking sides on issues, as Greenwald suggests – and many do today (such as Fox and MSNBC News) – the real solution to the Trump situation is better impartial journalism. Greenwald hammers journalists today as “stenography drones.” And many of them seem to be so primarily, I think, because they are constantly pressured to produce “news” with fewer and fewer resources. That, for the most part, is a business model issue.
To connect back to Greenwald’s legitimate concerns about corporate ownership, as journalism becomes more like a commodity, it gets twisted into easier to consume (and easier to produce) entertainment molds.
That dynamic changes the nature of what we should expect from journalism. Entertainment doesn’t have an ethical code. It is designed and created to be packaged and sold. As anyone who has watched a reality-television program knows, conflict drives consumption of that form of entertainment. If that’s not the type of discourse you also want from your journalism, it’s up to you to support better alternatives with your time and money.
American journalism hasn’t become conflict-averse, as Greenwald suggests; but it generally has become more shallow, profit-oriented and untethered from its primary missions of seeking and reporting truth, accurately and in a fair manner.
Those priorities are what I hope you, dear reader, will demand from your journalism. Such a choice does involve taking positions of consequence, though. Instead of staying neutral on this issue, people should pick a side.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.