A new objective for political media

There is a problem with our media. I’m not speaking of the blind obsession with balance—as if such a thing were possible. Nor am I speaking of the media’s advertising-based focus on sensationalism, violence and voyeuristic news. I am speaking of the media’s pathological need for objectivity at the expense of informational broadcasting. This bastardization of the fourth estate has resulted in a political climate supporting misdirection, falsehoods and a refusal to establish any sense of context. Any fact-checking is decried as an inherently biased activity, and so the media has absolved itself of this responsibility.

This is a politician’s paradise, for it gives them free reign to lie, cheat, and guide public discourse on a whim. The pressure to relay political statements verbatim comes from a couple directions. As Eric Wright and Joel Rogers describe in their book American Society: How It Really Works, in a corporate run media system, the very same owners who hire, fire, and set the direction of reporters have business with politicians that runs into the billions. It is in their interests to avoid pissing off their political associates, because doing so would invite some very expensive reprisals. On the other end of the spectrum sits the reporters themselves, who are naturally concerned with 1. Keeping their jobs and 2. Breaking a story that’ll look good. Herein lies the problem, for by sticking to these goals the reporter has little choice but to avoid real investigative journalism.

The reasons for this are twofold. For the last hundred years or so, professional journalism has been the driving force in reporting, the key rule of which is the objective reporting of facts. While the impossibility of this is a subject of another time, the conundrum faced by journalists concerned with keeping their position is figuring out what facts are and which ones to report. The solution is detailed by Paul McLeary of the Columbia Journalism Review, who explains that, for fear of being seen as biased—a guaranteed career killer, journalists have turned to government officials as a source of facts. This is where the journalist’s concern play a role. Any questioning or fact-checking of official sources would have two consequences: it would be seen as a biased, partisan activity threatening the journalist’s position, and it would piss off politicians and government representatives, who would close off access and limit the journalist’s ability to get a really juicy story.

As a result of this need for objectivity, government leaks and PR (essentially the same thing) are treated as a reliable and legitimate source of information. This is the politicians paradise I spoke of earlier. As John Nichols and Robert McChesney describe in their book Tragedy and Farce, this gives an unprecedented level of influence to those in power. Forget the power of money, for their ability to freely dictate national discourse has a devastating effect on the American public’s understanding of domestic and international problems. Unless an official figure brings up an issue, the media does not report it. Reporting on a story not already being debated in official circles—otherwise known of investigative journalism—is considered partisan hackery for which the journalist is promptly fired.

Look at Phil Donahue, the former host of MSNBC’s highest-rated show who was fired in 2003 for bringing anti-war voices into the debates. Politicians weren’t debating it, and so Donahue must be censored. Or, for a more poignant example, look to the wildly controversial Bush v. Gore election. So long as Gore contested the election (a subject for another time), the media was willing to report on a fraudulent election. Yet the very minute Gore gave a press release and stepped down as a candidate, the media dropped the issue despite very serious allegations. This journalistic objectivity and its subsequent reliance on official sources is not an esoteric issue. It is a real problem with real consequences to the accountability of politicians and awareness of important events.