Objective reporting and American politics

In "The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism on PressThink, Jay Rosen puts his finger on a major failing in American political journalism. Namely, that in the name of objectivity, political reporters shun evaluation of the objective truth of political claims. Rosen takes a recent and very good NYT story on the Tea Party movement, in which the reporter, David Barstow, describes the Tea Party movement as being built around a "narrative of impending tyranny." But, Rosen notes, Barstow shies away from writing about whether there is an actual danger of impending tyranny — whether it's likely that guns will be seized, concentration camps established, and so on. This despite the fact that these events — if real — would be major stories in their own right, but comments on their truthfulness are off-limits because political reporting must be "objective" and evaluating the truthfulness of these statements would be tantamount to taking sides.

In a word, the Times editors and Barstow know this narrative is nuts, but something stops them from saying so– despite the fact that they must have spent over $100,000 on this one story. And whatever that thing is, it's not the reluctance to voice an opinion in the news columns, but a reluctance to report a fact in the news columns, the fact that the "narrative of impending tyranny" is ungrounded in any observable reality, even though the sense of grievance within the Tea Party movement is truly felt and politically consequential…

The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus "prove" in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! As it did in Barstow's account. Now let's speed up the picture and imagine how this interference in truth-telling happens routinely, many times a day over years and years of reporting on politics. What's lost is that sense of reality Isaiah Berlin talked about. In its place is savviness, the dialect of insiders trying to persuade us that they know how things really work. Nothing is more characteristic of the savvy style than statements like "perception is often reality in politics."

The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism