Al Jazeera America asks: Shouldn’t news just give the facts? The false god of utter objectivity

In a promoted tweet today, Al Jazeera America asked “Shouldn’t news just give the facts?”

The problem is with that word “just”. It implies a pure, no-additives-here neutral objectivity. Real news, untainted by bias. It reduces the news organization to “just” a fact-checker and news reader. But given limited time and resources, choices must be made: which news items will be aired? Which facts will be presented? What to leave in, what to leave out…those are editorial judgments.

Those choices are increasingly perceived to be driven in some news organizations by ratings or ideology, rather than the public interest.  In a 2010 opinion published by the Washington Post, Ted Koppel decried the death of real news, calling cable news biased and calling for a return to facts:

We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly – individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.

and,

What we really need in our search for truth is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism: facts – along with a willingness to present those facts without fear or favor.

Actually, the op-ed piece was more about Koppel’s slightly bitter opinion that news organizations had transitioned “from a public service to a profitable commodity”, and that “company bean-counters” trimmed, cut, and eliminated foreign news bureaus (an obvious atrocity to a former foreign correspondent and bureau chief). The article was a knock against Fox and MSNBC’s alleged lack of objectivity, but it was also a serious call to invest in newsgathering as well as a call to report news without considering the effect on ad revenue – guarding against biased reporting of a different sort.

Koppel’s knock against cable news did not go unanswered. The following night on the news show Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Olbermann said in a ‘Special Comment‘ (an occasional feature where he expressed his opinion):

Fourteen consecutive months of nightly half-hours on the travesty and tragedy of 52 hostages in Iran, but the utter falsehood and dishonesty of the process by which this country was committed to the wrong war, by which this country was committed to dishonesty, by which this country was committed to torture — about that Mr. Koppel, and everybody else in the dead “objective” television news business he so laments, about that Mr. Koppel could not be bothered to speak out. Where were they?

Worshiping before the false god of utter objectivity. The bitter irony that must some day occur to Mr. Koppel and the others of his time was that their choice to not look too deeply into Iraq, before or after it began, was itself just as evaluative, just as analytically-based, just as subjective as anything I say or do here each night.

Koppel did not limit himself to presenting objective facts on his news program Nightline; ‘Closing Thought’ was an occasional feature where he expressed his opinion on the subject of the night’s broadcast. In the segment that aired on August 26, 2003 he suggested the possibility that either a monumental intelligence failure or a dangerous deception of President Bush led to the invasion of Iraq – at the time a clearly controversial opinion. Koppel has been accused both of having some serious (sometimes atrocious) liberal bias and of being a pro-Bush-administration conveyor belt for elite opinion. One columnist wrote that “Koppel has carved out a reputation for himself as perhaps the most effective and credible interviewer on television”, and then proceeded to castigate him for participating in a four-day awards ceremony called Liberty Weekend (“entertainment programming…disguised as news”) because it gave the appearance of compromising his journalistic integrity.

It would appear that the appearance of journalistic objectivity is a subjective judgment.

Even Walter Cronkite, considered to be one of the greatest and most respected journalists, did not solely convey facts. Cronkite spoke out against the Vietnam War, giving his opinion that a stalemate was the best option. Earlier in his career, he used a lion puppet as a foil to provide opinion about the news: “A puppet can render opinions on people and things that a human commentator would not feel free to utter.” In other words, he used an early-day sockpuppet to distance himself from his opinions…but the opinions were aired.

Focusing on the purity of presented facts is like weeding in the woods, missing both the forest and the trees. When we “seek the facts”, what we really mean is that we are trying to build, plank by factual plank, a foundation for understanding. We’re seeking accurate understanding in order to decide on some course of action. Facts may be true by themselves, but “just the facts” without context are not truth. There is also the danger of mistaking conclusions – previous understandings – for facts. The exact same set of underlying facts, when examined from a different perspective, can lead to a Copernican revolution in thinking.

News organizations are not and should not be uncontaminated cleanrooms or biosafety level 4 labs, neither letting in nor letting out those dangerous contaminants called opinions. But news organizations – and news journalists – would do well to think of themselves and promote themselves as scientists. Scientists start with a hypothesis. A hypothesis is not a bias, it is a point of view, a perspective, which is then researched and field-tested. Scientists start with assumptions and previous understandings, but they also question them.

Speaking of the great journalists, Olbermann said:

These were men who did in their day what the best of journalists still try to do in this one. Evaluate, analyze, unscramble, assess — put together a coherent picture, or a challenging question — using only the facts as they can best be discerned, plus their own honesty and conscience.

In other words, Al Jazeera, it’s not about just giving the facts. Of course, getting the facts right matters, but real value is derived when the skills of journalism are used to put the facts together and give them in a way that creates a picture that is as clear and honest as possible. Organizing, analyzing, and presenting a set of facts in the manner of a reproducible science proof, in a logical way that supports a conclusion or illuminates a truth, informs. Good journalism informs. And great journalism speaks truth to power.

The transcript of Olbermann’s Special Comment is here.

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