I will prove to you in two sentences that objectivity is impossible
This week's newsletter includes an essay about the pernicious myth of objectivity; a reader letter on Venezuela; and reading recommendations on everything from the Ilhan Omar controversy to bankers contemplating Trump vs. Warren in 2020.
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I will prove to you in two sentences that objectivity is impossible
About a week ago, I was invited to talk on a panel about media trends at the Newseum in Washington before a group of students. The following essay is an expansion on a response — well, more of a diatribe — I gave to a question about whether it is possible to avoid bias in media.
There exists an idea for which my reserves of venom are inexhaustible. An idea that I could write three long books railing against and still feel unfulfilled. An idea which can instantaneously inspire in me college-dorm-debate-at-3-A.M. levels of fervency.
This idea is one of great consequence. It makes adults look like children, deludes liberals into political impotence, and underpins the ideological incoherence of many of the most powerful media outlets in the Western world. Its expulsion from the sphere of reasonable ideas would enrich today’s politics and change the way schools approach history.
This idea is objectivity — the notion that there exists a way to capture capital-T truth that can transcend bias and depict the world as it really is. I believe that this idea is not only preposterous, but in fact deeply damaging to society.
Many critics have pointed out the foolishness of the myth of objectivity. But unfortunately a majority of them have focused on the idea that an individual journalist can only conceal their personal biases instead of discarding them. What this does is leave open the door for people to strive for objectivity as an ideal to be reached for even if it can never be fully realized.
The problems with objectivity run far deeper than the passions of the individual. There simply is no such thing as language that isn’t shot through with values and ideas, that can neutrally capture the essence of a thing, an event or a concept. Dealing with “just the facts” is no refuge from this problem, because facts can only be communicated through value-laden language.
Because embarking on a grand treatise on this issue would in all likelihood kill me — I simply always have too much to say on it — I want to attempt something more modest. I’m going to use a very brief exercise to demonstrate why objective media coverage is untenable.
Consider these two introductory sentences to an article, typically referred to as “ledes” in journalism:
(1) A young man accused of robbing a convenience store was lethally wounded after a struggle with a police officer in Ferguson on Saturday.
(2) A white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen in Ferguson on Saturday.
These ledes are not real (nor are they particularly elegant). But both sentences could be used to accurately describe the same event: the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
In the first sentence, the picture that emerges is of a criminal who lost his life after a fight with a police officer. In the second sentence, the picture that emerges is of a police officer who murdered a boy, quite possibly because he is a minority.
Let’s dig in a little more into why those different images emerge. In the first sentence, the main verb is in the passive tense, which dilutes the responsibility of the person who has carried out the shooting. The use of “lethally wounded” raises the question of intention — perhaps the shots were not meant to kill, but did so anyway. The accusation of robbery colors our perception of the victim — maybe his history of theft makes it more likely that he is violent or provoked the policeman who killed him. The actors in this scenario are both men, and could be of the same race. The death here seems possibly avoidable, but also possibly deserved.
In the second sentence, the main verb is in the active tense, imbuing the police officer with more agency — and potential culpability. The use of “shot and killed” suggests that the intention of the policeman may have been to kill the victim. We don’t know anything about the victim’s behavior, except that he did not have a weapon. And that’s just one of multiple imbalances in power. The policeman is an adult, and the victim is a teenager. (Michael Brown was 18 when he was killed, which is why he could be described as a young man in the first account and a teenager in the second.) The shooter is white, the victim is black. The killing here seems racialized and callous, and is more likely likely to elicit outrage on behalf of the victim.
That’s just the first sentence. The following lines of the story can intensify or add caveats to either of those images while remaining faithful to the facts of the situation. The next sentence could say that the incident “raises questions about police-community relations,” distributing possible blame widely, or it could say that the incident “raises questions about police misconduct,” placing the onus directly on the police force to explain itself. The article could cite a rising homicide rate in the area, perhaps suggesting a cop has reason to be nervous on the streets. Or it could cite data that shows that Ferguson’s mostly-white police force systematically discriminated against its mostly-black population, which could encourage the reader to be skeptical of the police force. It could describe the victim’s past fights with a neighbor, or it could point out his recent spiritual epiphany and perseverance in school. It could heavily quote Ferguson’s Police Department’s press people about how they stand against racism, or point out that Ferguson’s police department uses low-level citations against black citizens to generate revenue for the city and circulated emails depicting Obama as a chimpanzee. It could describe the event with little reference to antecedents, or mention that it’s part of a long-running national phenomenon. If the article was covering the riots that followed the killing, the descriptions could be used to note the smell of marijuana smoke in the air during standoffs with cops, or it could quote residents' stories about the history of the community's longstanding resentment of the police.
My intention here is not to create some kind of symmetry and say that pro-cop or pro-Brown narratives are equally reasonable or just, or to imply that there are only two paths one can take in describing the event. My point is that even factual accounts that avoid what’s commonly perceived as openly opinionated or inflammatory language can — and will — differ and showcase different worldviews. The facts cannot save you, because raw facts are only a portion of the expression of truth. Facts must be defined, described, arranged, linked to one another, and contextualized in order to be useful for the world. That process involves choices and interpretation, and the answers to which choices are best come not from the world “as it is” or “the data” but instead from the realm of values and ideas. Those values and ideas are not just held by the individual interpreter but also shaped by the institutions and cultures they’re embedded in.
Whether or not journalists admit it or realize it, when they’re writing a story they’re asking themselves questions such as: Is this event worth chronicling? What’s most important here? Who should I trust? Who should I be skeptical of? What history is most important to highlight? What really caused this event? What’s fair and unfair about this situation? Is this new or a manifestation of a broader trend? Who should I talk to about what this means? Who should I quote in the article? Which perspectives should be ignored? What solutions should be hinted at or discussed, if any?
It should go without saying that “quoting both sides” does not allow one to circumvent the interpretive work. It doesn’t change the fact that the every sentence of the article, and the article as a whole, tell a story, and that the very decision to quote or cite a certain set of figures in turn creates a spectrum of possible reasonable interpretations of the situation. (Are you quoting an academic sociologist or a member of the KKK when discussing racial tensions?)
When I covered police shootings and Black Lives Matter between 2014 and 2016 (among many other topics), I didn’t approach stories with the intention of trying to glorify or vilify any specific individual, but some of the values and ideas that underpinned how I wrote, both consciously and subconsciously, included: a general skepticism of concentrated power; a belief that the American carceral state is overzealous and uniquely punitive compared to the international community; an awareness that the degree to which American police are armed (compared to European counterparts) makes encounters with citizens more lethal; an instinct to highlight the deeply racialized history of American mass incarceration and its ties to the Jim Crow era; a tendency to think that racialized systems of policing born of ideas like Broken Windows theory explained police misbehavior more powerfully than racial bias of specific individuals; an appreciation for how scary it must be to be a cop in a heavily armed society; a sense that segregated neighborhoods and extremely uneven distribution of resources in cities creates pockets of crime that cause police departments to take on a role approximating a military occupation; an estimation that while a lot of individual police officers are authoritarian and racist, a lot of them also aren’t; a belief that regardless of the exact moments preceding a shooting that a trend of unarmed people of color being killed by the police is a sign of an uncivilized society.
How did I develop those values and ideas of the world? Well, that’s beyond the scope of this essay. But it’s worth noting that some of it came from research, some of it came from firsthand experience (I had many bad interactions with police officers when I was young, a number of them while hanging out with my circle of high school friends, who were almost entirely people of color and plurality-black), some of it comes from moral instincts to consider things from the vantage point of those lacking power, some of it is tied up in my broader life-long and constantly-evolving analysis of America’s political economy and carceral state. My hope is that my perception is always growing more expansive and nuanced.
While I don’t believe in objectivity and I possess a kind of pluralist theory of truth (facts matter but will rise to multiple interpretations of reality that can be debated), I do think good reporting doesn’t read like evangelism. I believe in fairness, dispassion, empirical rigor, agnosticism about conclusions, carefulness, modesty, self-skepticism, good faith dialogue with figures and institutions who deserve good faith, trying to understand things that I find disagreeable, and engaging with reasonable and ethical counter-narratives. I think ideology is always at play, but vulgar dogmatism is to be avoided. I'm not saying I actually achieve those when reporting, but those are ideals that I value.
The idea that there is such thing as objective reporting is an ideology, and a radical one at that. The foremost example in my mind is probably The New York Times, which presents itself as “the paper of record” and postures as if it is above it all when it reports on the world. Many of its readers believe the same. In reality, the Times has a broad ideological worldview — among other things, it is bourgeois liberal and liberal interventionist — and its claims to the contrary are an industry power play, an editorial prestige play, and a business model play. Perhaps I can get into more of that another time.
A letter from a reader regarding the Venezuela Q&A
"I really enjoyed your interview with Professor Velasco, and it's aggravating that there isn't more coverage of Venezuela like this. I was listening to the recent Daily podcast from the New York Times on Venezuela, and I think for most listeners the takeaway from that piece would have been, "Oh wow, look at how people here want US intervention, despite all the historical baggage" - the reporter himself says these words almost, not quite word-for-word. And the question that kept popping into my head was, "Are you just talking to the children of the people who've always wanted US intervention in Latin America?"
This is a common problem in "foreign correspondence," where an international journalist turns up somewhere, consorts mainly with the English-speaking elite of that country, and takes their generally self-serving insights and analysis at face value. It's always been a bit bizarre to me how all the nuance that you might expect or hope for domestic coverage is a non-starter for international stories — and coverage in publications like NYT are obviously important for politicians looking to cultivate support in the West."
Read the full Venezuela Q&A from last week's newsletter here.
What I'm reading
Cornell law professor Bob Hockett lays out the economics of the Green New Deal (audio clip). Vox's breakdown of the legislation.
The controversy over Ilhan Omar and AIPAC money, explained. (As I noted briefly on on Facebook, the Times did an unsurprisingly poor job covering this.)
What's at stake in Venezuela: a 31-point essay.
America's original identity politics.
Jelani Cobb on blackface in Virginia.
A profile of Bernie Sanders' 6-foot-5 foreign policy adviser.
African-Americans and Latinos breathe 40 percent more pollution than whites in California.
I asked Wall Street insiders whether they’d prefer Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump. It turned out to be a hard question.
Thanks for reading. If you want to give me any feedback or just want to share some thoughts, you can reply directly to this email and I'll be able to read it — and respond.
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