"Stop Forcing Journalists to Conceal Their Views"

Caitlin Curran was fired from her part-time job at the WNYC radio show "The Takeaway" last week after the show's general manager found out that she attended an Occupy Wall Street protest. "Curran and her boyfriend, neither of whom I know, made a sign that displayed an excerpted phrase from an article I wrote," writes Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. My previous BB post on the matter is here.


  1. Music and movie reviews are more useful if you know how the author’s tastes compare to yours. Why shouldn’t other types of journalism work the same way? 

    And for the life of me, I can’t see who the GM of a public radio station is afraid of: they don’t have advertisers. 

    1. No, but they do have donors. And if the audience knew just how biased they are, they’d either lose popular support, or need to hire other reporters real diversity of opinion. This way, they can have the clubhouse all to themselves, and not have to pay the costs of maintaining it.

      1. One can have an opinion, even a bias, and still report factual information in an even-handed way. How money is spent is fact: why it got allocated a certain way can be a matter of opinion or the subject of commentary. 

        This wasn’t a case of someone reading the news and then segueing into a “fight the power” rap: it was someone who is not identifiable with a station or program holding a sign at a public protest. 

        And yes, they have donors but those are generally less volatile relationships than with advertisers. Hard to see this as something that make a foundation or large institution pick up the phone to ream out the GM.

        1. …holding a sign at a public protest, and then pitching herself as a story. That’s even more incestuous than the usual self-congratulatory love-fest at public radio. It’s nice to know someone there still has a small sense of self-preservation.

          1. What onereader said just now: she didn’t pitch herself as the story. But as the saying going, a lie is around the world before the truth can get its boots laced. 

  2. Objectivity is an unreachable goal but that doesn’t mean we should give up on it.  Journalists have an unusual power to define or even create the news.   Which is exactly what happened here: by making her own sign Curran created a story of a relatively literary and on-message occupy protest that may or may not have matched the reality.  Someone who see that photo and doesn’t know it’s a journalist is going to infer differently than someone who does know.  In a perfect world of rational news consumers, all would recognize that a single photo is meaningless _regardless_ of who is holding it.  In that world it wouldn’t matter if journalists air their own opinions.  But that’s not how most humans work; we assign too much weight to things we see.   Thus the journalist, who controls what we see, has tremendous power and therefore responsibility. 

  3. How can we tell a journalist to not have an opinion, and also tell them that they don’t have freedom of speech like the rest of the us non journalists? That would be dishonest and unfair.

    However, the journalists shouldn’t be creating the news stories themselves, that feels shallow and self promoting to me. I’m still wanting to know who took the picture… it’s too good to be an innocent accident.

  4. Bias is inevitable.  The solution is not to pretend that perfect
    objectivity is possible, but to examine one’s role and interests and
    be forthright about them. The rules of journalism don’t
    ensure objectivity:  as often as not they obscure bias.  Fox News is not simply biased – it is “fair and balanced.”

    While objectivity may be a worthy if unreachable ideal, this is not
    why news organizations pursue it so religiously.  The appearance of
    objectivity guarantees access to politicians and other authorities,
    it is inoffensive to advertisers, and it is armor against
    criticism.  The pretense of objectivity conceals the fact of
    inevitable bias.

    Journalistic practices serve the interests of
    business even when they fail the interests of truth and democracy. Journalists are trained in a number of supposedly objective
    practices:  covering both sides of an issue – even if there are
    three sides (or just one); quoting authorities without comment –
    even when they lie;  emphasizing “hard” facts and numbers even at
    the expense of essential context;  pretending no personal opinion.

    In their book Sustaining Democracy?
    Journalism and the Politics of Objectivity, communication scholars Hackett and Zhao’s book write, “The more
    ‘objective’ news becomes, the more it risks becoming a pure
    information outlet for established authority.”

  5. She wasn’t fired for being at the protest.  She was fired for pitching a story, FEATURING HERSELF at the protest.  There is a difference between objective journalism, opinion/commentary and  gonzo journalism and the differences have to be clear in the eye of journalists or they’ll never be clear to viewers.  

    I don’t know that she should have been fired – but anyone with a degree in journalism, SHOULD have known that pitching a story with yourself as the subject is called “reality TV”.

    1. That’s been widely repeated, but the pitched story, according to all we know, was THE UNUSUAL SIGN GOING VIRAL AND COMING BACK TO THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR, not who held it.

      1. that does make a difference, and my gut feel is that they over reacted, but without knowing the WNYC ethics rules or whether if she’s had prior issues with compliance, it’s pretty hard to know that for sure.

    2. She was fired for pitching a story, FEATURING HERSELF at the protest.

      Dude, every other fucking BBC story on Libya is about the reporter’s personal experiences going through a checkpoint or meeting some official who they knew ten years ago or sharing recipes with AK47-toting granny.

  6. It’s increasingly common in employment agreements to demand that the employee will not speak or write in public about any subject without clearing the speech or writing in advance with the corporate PR office. It’s generally enforced only when the employee has said something perceived to be inimical to the employer’s interests. (I happen to be able to post this message because my agreement specifically forbids me to discuss matters within the scope of my employment; I doubt very much that a case can be made that a political discussion of journalistic objectivity is even close to being the scope of an engineer’s employment.)

    For that reason, I can imagine an agreement between a journalist and the publisher that forbids the journalist to express political opinions in public. But I also see that as being a bad thing. Journalists have opinions; full disclosure of their opinions serves their readers better than a false objectivity. Moreover, a journalist must have opinions in order to present the best guess as to the truth of a story. A journalist who never holds an opinion, engages in “he said, she said” reporting, and never attempts to reach the truth of the story is not objective, but merely pusillanimous.

    First-person journalism has a long history.  Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Matt Taibbi, and Dave Eggers have
    all from time to time injected themselves into their stories. Some first-person journalism is fluff like Paper Lion, but some of it is probing and insightful, like Black Like Me. Would those who are strident champions of “objectivity” label John Howard Griffin as something other than a “real” journalist? If that is their definition, give me “false” journalism any day!

  7. I understand the part about trying to obtain some level of objectivity, but in this case, it’s kind of hard not to feel sympathy for people working to end a tyrannical monetary system run by an elite in direct conflict with some pretty basic tenets of our Constitution, shit, tenets of democracy.  Is she supposed to sit at home watching this on TV being resentful while she chokes back her beliefs? Boy, it’s a free country we live in.

    All I’m saying is it only takes one sentence in a publication to avoid the FOX News truth-void: “The author of this article has attended the rallies in solidarity with the Occupy movement”. Done. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I want varied, honest, forthcoming opinions and perspectives in my media; enough of this toeing-the-line BS that betrays our most basic sensibilities.

  8. Fox News is not simply biased – it is “fair and balanced.”  Over the past decade it has become obvious how badly journalism’s regime of objectivity has failed.  The rules don’t ensure objectivity.  As often as not they obscure bias.  Subjectivity is inevitable.  The solution is not to hide behind the pretense that perfect objectivity is possible, nor is it to wallow into partisanship and prejudice:  it is to examine one’s role and interests and be forthright about them.

    News organizations don’t pursue objectivity because it benefits the public.  They are religious about it not because it works for us:  but because it works for them.  The appearance of objectivity guarantees access to politicians and other authorities,it is inoffensive to advertisers, and it is armor against criticism.  Journalists are trained accordingly:  to cover both sides of an issue – even if there are three sides (or just one);  to quote authorities without comment – even when they lie;  to emphasize “hard” facts and numbers even at the expense of essential context;  to pretend they are free of personal opinions.

    These “objective” practices conceal the fact of inevitable and systematic biases in the news business.  They serve the interests of  privilege and profit even when they fail the interests of truth and democracy. 

    In their book _Sustaining Democracy? Journalism and the Politics of Objectivity_, communication scholars Hackett and Zhao’s write, “The more ‘objective’ news becomes, the more it risks becoming a pure information outlet for established authority.”

  9. She wasn’t fired because “the show’s general manager found out that she attended an Occupy Wall Street protest.” She was fired because she took part in a protest and then pitched a story about her protest. And for all we know, she might have a long history of pitching stories starring herself and this was the last straw for the GM.

  10. I do think that it is a service to readers to know a journalist’s political views, because it helps them unweave the distortions that those views bring to bear on the journalists reporting and understand where the journalist’s blindspots and areas of overemphasis are.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen very often, so the next best thing is to discourage participation in political events.  I want my journalists to either be openly partisan or striving for objectivity, even if the latter is an unattainable goal.  Journalists have a privileged position in shaping the ideas of the public so if they want to partake in political sectarianism, they should make their asabiyah known.

    1. Objectivity (being fair to all sides of the argument) is not the same as impartiality (having no skin in the game). While it would be nice to have perfectly impartial journalists, they would have to be some apathetic, pan-dimensional angel robots to truly be above the fray on everything they report on. 

      Thus, we should aim for objectivity even when partial, which actually is not that hard. Deciding outcomes in instances of partiality could be quite difficult (one decides on one’s own interests), but simply recounting what’s going should be reasonably simple to do for anyone with a decent set of ethics and some capacity for critical thought.

      1. I would prefer that those who participate in social movements actively disclose it.  One can be a partisan and still be even-handed, but partisans have a very different view of a situation than a neutral observer and that should be disclosed to the viewing public.

        To use your terminology, I think that reporters should strive for impartiality unless they are willing to actively disclose their political opinions.  Nothing annoys me more than listening to a partisan presentation in the guise of an objective newscast, and while Fox News is a particularly blatant form of this, but it’s hard to find a media outlet where this isn’t the case.  I prefer it when my source is upfront about its biases because most of what passes as “objectivity” is really an attempt to maintain a sheen of respectability when the partisanship is still there.

  11. You only have to hide your views if you refuse to turn a blind eye to the issues poor and working class. If you want to spew Flag Waving or Free Market gibberish they’ll give you the biggest microphone they can find…

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