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The view from the top

In the lead-up to the 2024 presidential campaign, the bosses are speaking out. In interviews and op-eds, senior figures in the world of American journalism are pushing back against critics of traditional “objectivity,” hoping to reset the tone as newsrooms enter a political season that will likely be more tainted by disinformation and more dangerous for reporters than any in recent memory.

In recent weeks, Marty Baron, the former editor of the Washington Post; Chris Licht, the CEO of CNN; and—in these pages—A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, have all sought to reclaim ground in a debate that will be central to how we cover a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, and a political party, the GOP, that persist in skewering the truth and threatening journalists who tell it.

Their word will not be final. At CNN, journalists have spoken out against the network’s recent town hall with Trump—and what seems to be a broader effort, on Licht’s part, to drag CNN to the middle of the road. Oliver Darcy, CNN’s chief media reporter, wrote on the evening of the town hall that it was “hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies” that his network aired. This week, Christiane Amanpour—the prominent CNN anchor, who had previously discussed the town hall privately with Licht—told graduating students at Columbia Journalism School, “Both-siderism—on the one hand, on the other hand—is not always objectivity. It does not get you to the truth. Drawing false moral or factual equivalence is neither objective nor truthful.”

Licht, for his part, has defended the town hall, which he orchestrated—including by stacking the audience with cheering Trump partisans. “The people in that audience represent a large swath of America,” Licht told staff on an internal call, according to an account in the Times. “The mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist. Just like you cannot ignore that President Trump exists.”

Sulzberger, in a detailed essay for CJR, sought to reframe the discussion beyond coverage of Trump; his argument had less to do with “objectivity” than independent thought: 

Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn—fully and fairly—regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be. Independence calls for plainly stating the facts, even if they appear to favor one side of a dispute. And it calls for carefully conveying ambiguity and debate in the more frequent cases where the facts are unclear or their interpretation is under reasonable dispute, letting readers grasp and process the uncertainty for themselves.

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In his piece, Sulzberger linked to an excerpt from a speech by Baron that was published recently in the Washington Post. Baron offered a straight-up defense of objectivity, framed partly as an exercise in humility:

I believe our profession would benefit from listening more to the public and from talking less at the public, as if we knew it all. I believe we should be more impressed with what we don’t know than with what we know—or think we know. In journalism, we could use more humility—and less hubris.

We of course want journalists to bring their life experiences to their jobs. The collective life experiences of all of us in a newsroom are an invaluable resource of ideas and perspectives. But every individual’s life experience is, inescapably, narrow. Life experience can inform us. But, let’s be honest, it can also limit us.

Across the industry, disagreements between management and staff may make journalists unlikely to accept edicts from their bosses. We may be in for a season of tension within newsrooms—all while reporters have to contend with attacks from outside.

What the moment calls for, it would seem, is conversation within news outlets about how to cover the election—and everything else. Amanpour, in her remarks at Columbia, hinted at paths forward, including different ways of covering Trump—not broadcasting him live, for example—and noted that being objective doesn’t mean giving noxious views airtime. 

Wesley Lowery, in another recent piece for CJR, observed that we’ve been here before. “For a century, the high priests of American institutions have proclaimed themselves objective when it is apparent to any thinking person that they are not,” he wrote. “‘We live under the myth of objectivity in legal research and writing,’ Arthur Selwyn Miller, a leading constitutional scholar, observed in 1969. ‘Is it not time that something was done about it?’”

For Lowery, that something lies in embracing, rather than dismissing, the very different lived realities of people inside newsrooms. There is no universally accepted set of journalistic priorities and principles; they vary among those in the room. Rather than seeing subjectivity as a weakness, he argued, we should view it as a strength:

Every story is, in fact, many stories. Despite our best efforts, very rarely does any one journalist or media organization tell any of them completely. The same question, asked several times, can yield different answers. Some sources eager to speak with you will refuse to talk to me. Our eyes are connected to our bodies, which often shape the way we experience the world and how the world experiences us. My eyes will see some things that yours never will. 

The “story” we seek to tell is in fact a mosaic that must be filled in piece by piece. While one journalist may supply many tiles, seeing the entire scene requires others to fill in the rest. Thus, understanding objective reality requires a diversity of contributors. As the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar observed: truth is symphonic—the only way to hear its totality is if each instrument contributes its distinct part. 

Hearing from journalism’s executives, one gets the sense that they are hoping to settle the objectivity question—or at least make it clear why, going forward, they are making the decisions they are. This week, Sulzberger began an internal and outward-facing campaign at the Times to sell his views on “independence” to members of the staff and readers. But what we know from Lowery—and from the restiveness inside the newsrooms themselves—is that the matter is far from settled. You can read Sulzberger’s essay here and Lowery’s here.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected a pair of cases attempting to hold major tech platforms liable for promoting terrorist content that, victims’ families said, helped inspire real-life attacks. As CJR’s Mathew Ingram reported in February, the cases had sparked tech-industry fears that the court could gut Section 230, a provision of the Communications Decency Act that has long shielded online platforms from liability for users’ posts; the verdict in the case was thus a relief for the platforms and many internet-watchers, but the court ruled on factual grounds—sidestepping the debate over Section 230 and perhaps leaving it for another day. As The Nation put it in a headline this morning: “The Supreme Court Has Decided Not to Break the Internet—Yet.”
  • Also yesterday, the Wall Street Journal’s Jessica Toonkel and Sarah Krouse broke big news in the TV world, reporting that ESPN is making active preparations to offer its main channel as a streaming service as traditional TV declines—though for now, the timeline for the switch remains unclear. “ESPN would continue to offer the TV channel after launching a streaming option, the people familiar with the matter said. Still, the change could have a major impact on cable-TV providers, since ESPN is one of the main attractions of the cable bundle,” Toonkel and Krouse report. “The providers pay to carry the ESPN channel and would have to compete with the new streaming service.”
  • Earlier this week, a pair of federal watchdogs outlined a range of unethical behavior on the part of Rachael Rollins, the US attorney for Massachusetts who, among other indiscretions, was found to have leaked to local media in a bid to damage the political opponent of one of her allies. Rollins is set to resign by the end of today. Some critics have charged that the papers to which Rollins leaked should have blown the whistle on her conduct earlier, but the Massachusetts media-watcher Dan Kennedy disagrees, arguing that no journalist should ever violate a promise of anonymity made to a source.
  • Sam Zell—the billionaire investor whose ownership, in the 2000s, of the publishing chain Tribune led to its bankruptcy and sweeping job cuts—died yesterday. He was eighty-one. The Washington Post noted, in an obituary, that Zell’s tenure at Tribune was “riddled by mismanagement, allegations of sexual harassment and financial calamity”; the AP, meanwhile, noted that Zell later “became irritated when reporters questioned him about the rare defeat,” urging them to focus instead on the jobs he created in his career.
  • And Naomi Klein announced that she will soon be out with a new book, Doppelganger, that will jump off the fact that she is regularly mistaken for Naomi Wolf—another writer with, erm, very different politics from Klein’s—to explore the world of conspiracy theories. The book, Klein said, will “explore what it feels like to watch one’s identity slip away in the digital ether, an experience many more of us will have in the age of AI.”

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

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