Ding dong objective journalism is dead

I admit that I haven’t believed in “objective journalism” (in spite of attempting to practice something like it) at least since “The Manufacturing of Consent” hit the bookstores in 1988, and I also admit that I have never read the New York Times faithfully, and even less so since the paper led us into the Iraq War with bad reporting, but reading this story about Chris Christie’s presidential bid was a wake-up call for even me and a clear death knell for the era of so-called “objective journalism,” which the New York Times would like to claim it invented 100-odd years ago.

The article on Christie, whom I loathe and would like to see in a long traffic jam toward obscurity, is rife with adjectives, adverbs, apologies, innuendoes, and unvarnished op/ed-style opinions that any unlettered small-town editor would’ve red-penciled to the cutting room floor.

Here’s a sampling of bad journalism from today’s NYT story:

  • “the grim news he has awaited for 16 months” — Who says it’s grim, or that he’s awaited it?
  • “the bizarre case of traffic and revenge” — Who says it’s bizarre, or revenge?
  • “projected the air of a man thoroughly unbothered” — How do you “project” “unbothered”?
  • “trying to hold on to whatever chance Mr. Christie had” — What is this “whatever chance” they’re allegedly “trying to hold on to”?
  • “they squeezed whatever optimism they could from an ugly day” — Why “squeeze,” why “whatever,” why “ugly”?

In this flurry of editorializing, the Times “reporters” attempted to cover their arses, as “objective” journalists always do, by pretending that rock-solid reporting turned opinions into facts:

  • “But behind the scenes, his aides, his allies and even his wife were mobilizing…”
  • “In call after call…”
  • And the clincher, “In two dozen interviews over the past 24 hours, many of the most trusted allies and advisers to Mr. Christie acknowledged..” (We don’t know how long these interviews were, who talked, or how many is “many” or how trusted are the “trusted” or how allied the “allies” or how significant the “advisors”)
  • And the ultimate justification: “These people spoke on the condition of anonymity, to treat a delicate situation with a level of candor frowned upon in politics.” (So we’re just supposed to trust you on this, and applaud you for getting to the nitty-gritty?)

Apparently the Iraq War debacle, justified in large part by the “reporting” of the NYT, has taught them nothing about relying on anonymous sources or hearsay puffed up and exaggerated by purplish prose. It’s not that far removed from the latest National Enquirer rumor about Barack Obama’s gay Kenyan love child from Mars.

It continues:

  • “A political team long characterized by its self-assuredness now sounds strikingly subdued, sobered and, realistic about his odds.” — Oh, it “sounds” that way? According to whom? Compared to what? “Characterized” by whom, and why? And how is “strikingly” subdued different from “subdued”?
  • “an unlikely breakthrough” — Who says it’s unlikely, and why? (Why, the NYT, of course!)
  • “gentle descriptions” — What makes them “gentle” and what are they specifically?
  • “Instead of crowing about” — classic loaded term
  • “Christie’s team is in a sense starting over now” — wtf does “in a sense” mean?

In response to the claim that advisors are modeling their campaign after John McCain’s in 2008, the reporters editorialize by presenting this long “counterpoint”: “There are crucial differences, however, between Mr. McCain’s experience in New Hampshire and Mr. Christie’s situation today. Mr. McCain had already cultivated a base of support from his landslide win there in the 2000 presidential primary. Mr. McCain benefited from a timely issue that he had championed — the surge of American forces into Iraq — that was thrust into the debate as he was mounting his comeback. And, finally, in 2008, there were no flush ‘super PACs‘ to keep campaigns alive in New Hampshire, as there will be in 2016.”

And if interpreting the past isn’t enough, there’s this speculation about the future: “What’s more, the indictment against Mr. Christie’s onetime associates means months of split-screen television images, with one half showing Mr. Christie out campaigning, the other, the latest report on the legal proceedings of his allies.”

As the final “evidence” to make their “case” (which of course news stories don’t do) they present this: “Mr. Christie has tried to remain outwardly upbeat. But signs of frustration have been spilling out. Over a month ago, according to two people familiar with the exchange, Mr. Christie spotted Tim McDonough, an aide to Woody Johnson, the New York Jets owner, during a trip to MetLife Stadium. Mr. Christie told Mr. McDonough that Mr. Johnson, who had supported him as governor but was planning to back Jeb Bush in the presidential race, had shown his ‘true colors.’”

Nothing in that paragraph is necessarily a “sign of frustration,” nor is there any reason to believe that Mr. Christie “has tried to remain outwardly upbeat.” For all we know, he’s being sincerely upbeat and feels optimistic to his core. (Doubtful, but there’s no reason to believe otherwise, unless the herd of unnamed sources supposedly interviewed spoke directly to this topic, of which there is no evidence in the story.)

I could go on, but why bother? This is just one of many examples of a “hard news” story that isn’t by the standards of NYT or anyone else in journalism. No Capitalized Headline Words or “Mr. This” and “Ms. That” can make up for what was once decried as lazy reporting, clueless editing, and shameless editorializing.

I have great respect for fair and balanced journalism, and I believe I practiced it for many years (until it almost drove me crazy), but I also don’t believe in the “objective” journalism taught in American journalism programs and allegedly practiced by the so-called “great” newspapers of the U.S., none of which are any better than the minor local rags cheerleading for local interests for bad pay and no prestige, or the thousands of online sources not pretending to be objective but providing information and reporting that is no worse and often better (see War, Iraq) than the oh-so-serious journalism of the Timeses and Globeses and Newses and Tribuneses of the world.

One thing I like about small-town journalism is that many reporters and editors write opinion columns in addition to news stories, so people know their politics and can judge their reporting accordingly. News reporters for all major media in all major markets in the U.S. pretend to be apolitical, but there’s no such thing. As UK reporter/editorialist George Monbiot said recently,

When people say they have no politics, it means that their politics aligns with the status quo. None of us are unbiased, none removed from the question of power. We are social creatures who absorb the outlook and opinions of those with whom we associate, and unconciously echo them. Objectivity is impossible. The illusion of neutrality is one of the reasons for the rotten state of journalism, as those who might have been expected to hold power to account drift thoughtlessly into its arms.

As Chomsky and Herman argued, newspapers set the agenda by telling us what the “news” is, which trumps any attempt to be “objective.” They declare to the rest of us what’s important, choose sources from powerful groups, cherry pick facts, use the “inverted pyramid” to rank those facts in terms of what’s important (in their view), and if that’s not enough, they sneak in editorializing whenever and wherever they think they can get away with it and their readers and/or advertisers will appreciate it and keep supporting their businesses with circulation and advertising dollars.

I say good riddance to objective journalism, especially in the “newspeak” era when the media outlet most stridently claiming to be “fair and balanced” is the least so. If the Grey Lady has finally figured out that journalism is not, has not been, and never will be objective, then welcome to the party. Let’s all get on with telling the truth from our various perspectives and stop pretending that we’re something we’re not.

Addendum: Not only did they publish the story as was, but they couldn’t even get the basic facts right: “Correction: May 3, 2015 An earlier version of this article misstated the job title of Bridget Anne Kelly when she worked for Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. She was the deputy chief of staff, not chief of staff.”

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