Journalism: “Objectivity” and “Neutrality” Aren’t the Same Thing

The Yellow Press by L.M. Glackens. Public Domain.
The Yellow Press by L.M. Glackens. Public Domain.

“With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in 1973, “there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

Someone forgot to tell George Washington law professor Jonathan Turley, who bemoans the rise of “advocacy journalism” (which he himself  prominently practices) in general and what he characterizes as Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin’s “call to abandon the foundational principle of impartiality in journalism” specifically.

Like many, Turley seems to long for a return to some Golden Age of journalism when journalists merely provided facts in a “neutral” manner, giving readers the necessary evidence to reach their own conclusions instead of inserting their own biases and opinions into the matter.

There are two major problems with Turley’s desire.

One is that the existence of such a Golden age is pure myth. The idea of “objectivity in journalism” is largely a product of Walter Lippmann’s 20th century call for a “detachment” he himself didn’t practice as a journalist, in reaction to a previous era (indeed, the entire previous history) of journalism in which reporters wore their biases on their sleeves and readers chose the newspapers most compatible with their own biases.

The “objectivity” of the post-Lippmann press didn’t consist of eliminating bias. It consisted of smothering bias under a bland gravy of pretended neutrality.

Which brings us to the second problem: Neutrality and objectivity are different — and, moreover,  completely incompatible — things.

Objectivity is about discerning reality as it actually is, or at least attempting to do so.

Neutrality is about not taking sides on issues.

As an example of the two approaches, let’s take the subject of Anthropogenic Global Warming. Earth is, or is not, warming. It is warming, or not, for particular reasons (including, possibly, human activity). And there are, or are not, specific consequences.

A truly “objective” journalist would work hard to find out (and tell us) whether or not Earth is warming, for what particular reasons it is or isn’t warming, and what the consequences of its warming or non-warming are or aren’t.

A truly “neutral” journalist would neither hold nor express any opinion on what ought or ought not to be done about the answers to those questions.

Objectivity doesn’t forbid us to form opinions. In fact, it usually requires us to do so. Trying to keep one’s opinions out of one’s communications is both unrealistic and counter-productive.

Rubin says we should “burn down the Republican Party.” Turley says we shouldn’t. Either or neither of them may have reached their positions “objectively.”  But neither of them owes us a pretense of neutrality, and both enrich us by showing their work.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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Should You Even Vote? Not Necessarily.

Ballot box in Denver, October 2020. Photo by Jami430. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Ballot box in Denver, October 2020. Photo by Jami430. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

As I write this, we’re 47 days away from the November 8 general election — voters will elect candidates to all 435 US House seats, 35 US Senate seats, and other offices that vary from state to state.

As close as that sounds, in some places it’s even closer. “Early voting” begins 46 days before Election Day in Minnesota and South Dakota, 45 days early in Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming, 40 days early in Illinois and Michigan, and with shorter windows in most states.

It’s time to start making some decisions. Not just on which candidates to vote for, but on whether to vote at all.

The usual answer to the question “should we vote?” is “of course!” Some consider it a “civic duty” and even suggest making it mandatory. It’s how the system works. If you don’t vote you have no right to complain about the outcome.

Some anarchists, libertarians, and other contrarians take things in the opposite direction. Voting, they say, signals consent to the results, and approval of a bad system. It’s a moral crime. If you vote you have no right to complain about the outcome.

Personally, I consider voting neither a civic duty nor a moral crime.

If I don’t like my choices (or the overall system), I’m under no obligation to pretend I do by voting.

On the other hand, the system does exist, and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future whether I vote or not, so there’s no reason I shouldn’t register my preferences as to how it operates and who runs it, if I feel like doing that.

I’m not going to try to convince you to vote. But I am going to try to convince SOME of you to NOT vote.

If you haven’t taken the time to familiarize yourself with the candidates and issues on your ballot, you shouldn’t vote.

If you’re familiar with some of the candidates and issues but not others, you shouldn’t vote on those latter candidates and issues.

Voting on things you neither understand nor particularly care about is just a waste of time, effort, and maybe gasoline. And while the chances of your vote being the deciding vote in any given election are about as good as your chances of winning a billion-plus-dollar lottery drawing, why take the risk of causing the “wrong” result by voting from a position of ignorance?

If you’re not sure you should vote, you probably shouldn’t.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION/CITATION HISTORY

Pentagon’s Information Warfare Review Should Cover the Domestic Side, Too

Satellite image of the Pentagon. Public Domain.
Satellite image of the Pentagon. Public Domain.

The US Department of Defense has ordered “a sweeping audit of how it conducts clandestine information warfare,” the Washington Post reports. The apparent reason for the review is an August disclosure, by Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory, that Twitter and Facebook, of social media accounts opened under fake identities and used to feed disinformation to “audiences overseas.”

That’s all well and good, but while they’re at it I wish the Pentagon would also review — and cease — its information warfare campaigns against the American public.

Among supposed American constitutional values are separation of the military from politics, and its subservience to civilian government. While those values have always proven more noticeable in the breach than in the observance in wartime, the post-World-War-Two national security state has turned that breach into a well-funded, 24/7/365, campaign of political influence.

Senior military officials routinely attempt to affect policy (and politicians, and voter sentiment) with public statements designating the next Enemy of the Week and begging for more money and more operational authority to fight the wars it chooses rather than the wars Congress declares (the last time Congress was willing to take that kind of responsibility was  in 1942, when it added Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania to its list of World War Two opponents).

The Department of Defense maintains an “Entertainment Media Office” to support filmmakers with military resources. Needless to say, only productions which glorify the US armed forces need apply. The most recent prominent example (involving no fewer than two US Navy aircraft carriers, multiple aircraft and military pilots, etc.) is mega-hit Top Gun: Maverick.

In 2015, the public learned that the National Football League’s apparently heartfelt love of military pageantry —  color guards, tributes to veterans, even aircraft flyovers and parachute jumps — was actually just a bought and paid for (with millions of taxpayer dollars) DOD marketing scheme.

And yes, they’re constantly coming for our children. I was recruited into the US Marine Corps in high school myself in the 1980s, but even I was surprised at the sheer volume of mail my own kids received from armed forces recruiters from about the time they hit the age of 16 a few years ago. They’re all over the public schools, not just to fill their recruitment quotas but to make positive impressions on future voters.

The up side for them is obvious: Spending millions of taxpayer dollars on psy-ops directed at Americans gets them hundreds of billions to spend on other things.

The down side for us is equally obvious: Instead of armed forces doing as the civilian government directs, we have armed forces using taxpayer money to influence how the civilian government directs them. That’s a non-trivial factor behind three decades of constant war.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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