THE FADING MYSTIQUE OF
AN OBJECTIVE PRESS

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
October 24, 2004

In 1983, while working as a reporter for The New York Times, I wrote a story about a proposed telephone rate hike in New York State.

The story got on page one, and that night, as the paper’s news editor and I were walking to Grand Central Station, the editor asked me: “Now be honest, did you really understand the story you wrote on the front page today?” “Not a word of it,” I answered. And we both had a big laugh.

But inside, I didn’t feel so good. I was painting by numbers and I knew it.

I had written the story by calling up legislators who were sponsoring the proposal, and then calling up citizens’ groups who were raising hell about it, and then getting back to the legislators for their reaction. I then stitched all the quotes together under a grand-sounding theme and voila! I’d been dutifully “objective” and gathered both sides of the story and made a “fair and balanced” front page story for The New York Times.

The point is, if anything unfair or truly nefarious was being done by the legislators, lobbyists, or citizen’s group in the process of getting this rate hike passed, I would have been blithely unaware of it. The principle actors in this story could have driven a bribe or a lie or a loophole or a simple unfairness right under my nose, and I wouldn’t have suspected a thing. The “he said, she said” formula was all I needed to get on page one.

Some reporters, including me in my early days, actually wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. “Give me any subject and I can write a story within minutes,” they crow as, I said, did I. But of course, that just means they can paint-by-numbers really well. They can take a bunch of facts and press them into the daily journalism mold that makes a story, really fast. But as for nuance, as for complexity, as for truth?


I. The Professional Journalist’s Code

For more than a century, objectivity has been the dominant professional norm of the news media. It has at its heart the noble aim of presenting indisputable facts upon which everyone in society can agree, and build upon towards the goal of a better society. Unfortunately, the ideal of objectivity has in practice in today’s newsrooms become a subtle but powerful means of self-censorship. It’s a conglomeration of contradictory practices that serve the purpose of rationalization as often as investigation. It has become a crutch for journalistic practices that work against civic aims.

It is not any disagreement with objectivity in its ideal sense that I am expressing; but rather that, when I compare the ideal of objectivity to the observed practice of it, I see a great gap. I also believe that journalism’s failure to serve the public interest, which has been so pronounced in recent years, is in large part traceable to the breakdown of the norm of objectivity as a practical and ethical guide.

It is natural that the breakdown has occurred. Think of all the contradictory goals that journalists today are asked to serve in the name of objectivity. They are supposed to be neutral, but still to grab attention in a crowded media marketplace. They are supposed to be impartial, yet also crusading. To be a clear and unbiased conduit for the facts, and yet also to “follow their nose” – a clear call to the use of individual moral conscience -- to get the facts. My own personal experience as a reporter was that as time went on it became harder and harder for me to reconcile these contradictions.

The uncorrupted ideal of objectivity, in the sense of reporters driving to dig out verified facts and present them fully and fairly, is indispensable in journalism. Unmasking its nefarious twin -- an omnipresent and abused pseudo-objectivity – is what I would like to do.

                                               
“He Said, She Said”

In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, America’s great pop poet, Bruce Springsteen, recently talked about the state of our national news media.

“The press has let the country down. It’s taken a very amoral
stand, in that essential issues are often portrayed as simply ‘one
side says this and the other side says that.’ I think that Fox News
and the Republican right have intimidated the press into an incred-
ible self-consciousness about appearing objective and backed
them into a corner of sorts where they have ceded some of their
responsibility and righteous power.”

When Springsteen remarks that so much news reporting these days boils down to “one side says this, and the other side says that,” he spots the readily-identifiable hallmark of objective reporting as it’s practiced today. He could have been talking about my telephone rate hike story.

Are we served as citizens of a democracy when reporters feel their job is done, merely to report “both sides” of a given public issue? What if the reporter, himself or herself, was deeply convinced – or would be deeply convinced if he or she took the time to look into the issue more closely – that one or another of the side in the argument was right? That is, that one or the other side had the actual facts of the matter on their side? Would it be the reporter’s obligation then, to point this out?

If so, then why don’t we see more of this in journalism today? Why don’t journalists more often take a few extra steps per story, to find out the indisputable facts that support one or another side of a given public issue? True, this would not come across to news consumers as typical “objective” news coverage, but would it possibly serve readers as citizens, and the entire society, better than the standard “he said, she said” template for news?

                                                   The Historical View

Most journalism historians agree that the notion of objectivity as journalistic ideal began around the 1830’s, the antebellum era of Jacksonian democracy, when the increased participation of ordinary citizens, as opposed to the commercial and government elite, was very much ascendant. In the media world at the time, this trend was exemplified by the rise of the so-called “penny papers.” These were newspapers published by entrepreneurs unaffiliated with any political party, and were filled with local news and crime stories. They cost a penny, sold on newstands, were supported by circulation-based advertising, and were bought by the enlarging masses of working men and women, mostly urban, who for the first time in American history had a little money in their pocket.

The advent of the penny papers marked a break with the more prevalent newspaper types until that time, namely commercial papers and partisan papers. Commercial papers were filled with business news – commodity prices, shipping schedules, auction dates and the like – and partisan papers sold to social elites. The commercial and partisan newspapers were produced with party patronage and sold by subscription; cost six-cents-a-copy, which was out-of-reach to ordinary folk; and were handed around or read aloud to groups of office holders, wealthy merchants, and other elites at partisan clubs, pubs, and coffee houses.

                                                      The Penny Press  

Conventional journalism history ties the rise of the populist penny papers to the rise of political populism during the Jacksonian era. And it is true, the former arose in the historical context as the latter. But when penny paper publishers started extolling their “independent” point of view to their new legions of readers, their reason for doing so was more not so much populist as purely commercial. Basically their non-partisanship – the earliest progenitor of what today we call “objectivity” -- was a simple business strategy. They didn’t want to turn off any reader for any political reason. If they could get both Whigs and Democrats to buy their paper by proclaiming that each story told “both sides of an issue,” that’s what they would do. And that’s what they did.

The great penny press lord, James Gordon Bennett, grew rich by publishing papers written in the “nonpartisan” style. He explained his strategy many times in forthright terms to his readers:

“Almost everyone is getting full of beef and business, is growing fatter and wiser every day,” he wrote in his New York Herald in 1835. “And yet both North and South, east and west, are lashing themselves into a fury … Avoiding the dirt of party politics, we shall yet freely and candidly express our opinion on every public question and public man. [Merchants] are beginning to find out that a brief advertisement in our sheet is seen and read by six times as many as it would be in the dull prairies of the Courier & Enquirer.”

Nonpartisanship in his newspaper’s coverage worked for Bennett on other levels, too, including reducing the chance that his newspaper offices would be attacked by partisan mobs, or that he or any of his editors would be assassinated. These were occupational risks of the partisan papers that Bennett was, again, only too happy to be free of in his own enterprise.

                                                    Blood and Guts

But history remembers Bennett less for his nonpartisanship than for the blood-red sensationalism of his newspaper. He personally invented a new style of police reporting, going himself to crime scenes and describing them in vivid – and many detractors have claimed often fabricated -- detail. The most famous case was the murder of Helen Jewett, a New York prostitute, whom Bennett claimed to have seen on her deathbed. He wrote in his story:

“The countenance was calm and passionless. Not the slightest
appearance of emotion was there. One arm lay over her bosom.
For a few moments I was lost in admiration at this extraordinary
sight – a beautiful female corpse – that surpassed the finest statue
of antiquity. I was recalled to her horrid destiny by seeing the
dreadful bloody gashes on her right temple, which must have
caused instantaneous dissolution.”

It is worth noting that non-partisan (i.e., objective) reporting coexisted easily in the same penny papers with such pungent sensationalism. “Neutrality will sleep with anyone,” as the saying goes.

Right there at the creation of the modern press, paradoxes abounded. Bennett and other penny publishers touted nonpartisanship, yet on issues that were universally applauded the pennies were rabid advocates. Bennett for example was always super patriotic and always proslavery, both being conducive to pleasing his readers and thus to producing profits.

During the 20th century, the ideal of objectivity in news coverage went from strength to strength. But its adoption by newspapers was more often linked to its utility as a marketing tool than to any high-minded notions of serving the public interest. Adolph Ochs, the owner of The New York Times, put the idea of objectivity, which he called “impartiality,” at the center of his strategy to revive the struggling paper in the late 1890s. But Och’s “impartiality” was more a toning down of sensationalism than a rejection of partisanship, and it was transparently a marketing ploy.

As he then surveyed the competitive landscape, Ochs saw the sensational Hearst and Pulitzer papers, the New York Journal and the New York World, and felt that a cooler, more dispassionate presentation of the facts would appeal to a more upscale, professional readership. Ochs used the idea of impartial coverage to differentiate his paper from the scandal sheets, and the Times adopted the motto: “It does not soil the breakfast cloth.” Under that banner the paper’s daily circulation jumped from 25,000 to 75,000 in 1989, and by 1921 it was 330,000, half a million on Sundays.

                                                       Early Doubters

The rise of the famous “inverted pyramid” form of newspaper writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was linked directly to publishers’ growing belief that what readers – especially busy, educated, upscale readers – wanted was “just the facts.” The story form that the inverted pyramid smashed of course was narrative storytelling, the leisurely picture painting that included scenes, characters, a plot, and very often a satisfying conclusion in the form of a moral, spelled out for readers directly at the end.

Here for example is the last sentence in a police blotter item from The New York Sun in 1834. The story reports on a woman whose husband came home drunk and abusive once too often: “As every sensible woman ought to do who is cursed with a drunken husband, she refused to have anything to do with him hereafter – and he was sent to the penitentiary.” Compare that to the final sentence of a 1995 item from the Ann Arbor News, about a man who assaulted a prostitute after she refused to have sex with him: “Employees at the Ramada Inn Ann Arbor, 3750 Washtenaw Avenue, said the man and woman checked in around 2 a.m. Friday.”

                                             The Lynching News

But did this new kind of newspaper hewing to “objective” principles get any closer to the truth than before? The Times’ coverage of the lynching of blacks in the U.S. in the 1890s, suggested not.

Here for example is a line from an 1894 editorial in the Times, which shows how the paper applied the idea of “balance” to reporting about lynching: “The crime for which Negroes have frequently been lynched, and occasion ally been put to death with frightful tortures, is a crime to which negroes are particularly prone.”

Journalism scholars including David Mindich, in his book Just the Facts, have studied the Times’ coverage of lynching in detail and found that in virtually all stories, the horror of lynching was scrupulously balanced with the nearly equally horrible crime of sexual assault. And somehow, although the evidence was not often cited, the sexual assault was always known to be perpetrated against a young white girl. The frightful image of a marauding beast, feeding on society like an enraged Bigfoot, always loomed behind the supposedly objective “inverted pyramid” presentation of supposed plain facts.

A crusading black journalist of the time, Ida Wells, took it upon herself to study dozens of lynching cases in detail and published her findings in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice. She found that rape was rarely the legally cited cause for the lynchings. Plus, rape charges, when they were brought, were nearly always filed only after the lynching was made public. And in those cases
where rape was cited, evidence was often found that consensual sex had occurred between the white woman and the black man.

Nevertheless, despite a long and public campaign by Ida Wells directly aimed at The New York Times for the way it covered lynchings, the convention for writing the lynching story remained in place until well into the 20th century. The assumed fact of rape was balanced against the known fact of a lynching. It was a case of determining which of these two evils was the lesser, and which the greater. Even more, lynching was sometimes referred to in New York Times stories as a tragically misguided attempt to solve a nevertheless worrying and genuine social problem, i.e., how to tame the “savage” members of an “uncivilized race.”

This was neutrality of an insidious kind.

                                         Muckrakers, McCarthy, Vietnam

The role that objectivity played in the reporting of major public events of the 20th century has been studied by many journalism scholars. Some have concluded that, as it did with lynching, the norm of objectivity often has allowed serious social wrongs to continue unabated, while reporters misguidedly pursue the goal of “balanced” coverage.

Joseph McCarthy, for instance, exploited the news media’s insatiable appetite for charge and countercharge for many years, while the press, eager to retail such inherent drama, rationalized the reportage of “charge” and “countercharge” as “balance,” while at the same time declining to seriously weigh the factual evidence on both sides and reach its independent conclusions.

On the other hand, journalism’s greatest contributions to society have often been made precisely when the pretense to objectivity has been dropped. The muckraking journalist’s exposes of municipal and corporate corruption in the teens and 20s, for example, are considered to be standard-setting achievements in the profession even to this day. Yet in pursuing specific social wrongs with zeal, the muckrakers were the opposite of “objective” journalists.

Similarly, the public tide began to turn against the Vietnam War precisely when some journalists abandoned the effort to “balance” what they saw on the battlefield against the “spin” they got in Army briefing rooms. Steeped in the facts and the reality of the war, these reporters started to reach their own conclusions separate from the ones fed them by spinners, and that made all the difference.


II. James Carey's Critique of Objectivity

The best contemporary critique of the ideal of objectivity in news reporting comes from James Carey, a media scholar in the tradition of Marshall McCluhan and a professor of journalism at Columbia University.

For Carey, the key point is that journalism began not as a profession and critical democratic institution but rather as a branch of literature. As, in fact, an art – think Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman. It began as a popular art that had a very particular way of gathering and presenting facts as a way to make sense of this crazy world. Its technique was story-telling, the use of scenes and characters and plots to grab and keep a reader’s attention. “Journalists were classically conceived as independent interpreters of events,” Carey writes. “They were not viewed solely or even largely as technical writers, who served as links between governmental and other institutional elites and wider audiences.”

Today, the contemporary journalist’s main job, according to Carey, has transformed from this artistic and interpretive role into essentially one of translation and simplification – that is, translating the technical jargon of different government, business, scientific, and social communities into the common vernacular of readers and viewers. That is, transforming complex specialized matters into simple, palatable, and above all, the commercially marketable commodities called stories. It’s in this sense that Carey calls contemporary journalism “technical writing.” And it’s a perfectly natural, and in some ways necessary, response to the development of our highly complex industrial and multicultural world, the very world that Walter Lippmann once fretted could ever be adequately covered by journalists.

                                     Passive, Compromised Journalism

Surely, if we didn’t have these legions of translators from specialized languages into the vernacular, called journalists, our complex world would be very much more opaque and daunting, and possibly more dangerous, than it already is.

And yet, the transformation of the journalist from independent interpreter of events into a technical repackager of specialized facts into popular language came at a cost to journalism and to society, Carey says. Because objectivity, the non-partisan, neutral, offend-no-one professional code of the journalist-as-technical writer, in practice became a recipe for least-common-denominator writing. Objectivity insisted on seeing balance everywhere. But balance is not everywhere in life; and so objectivity missed seeing reality.

Carey’s specific objections to objectivity are threefold.

First, the objective journalist is passive. “The canons of objective reporting turn the journalist into a professional communicator,” Carey writes. “From an independent observer and critic to a relatively passive link in a communication chain that records the passing scene for audiences.”

Second, the objective journalist’s independence is compromised. When the journalist’s job is conceived as a neutral conduit between the various institutions of society and the public, his or her dependence on official sources of news is vastly increased, even to the point of total dependence. This is not unrelated to the rise of pseudo-events such as press conferences, “exclusive” interviews, leaks, “off the record” conversations, and all of the other means by which official news is controlled and packaged in the course of its delivery to journalists. In such an environment, the threat of removal of access of a journalist from his or her official sources is tantamount to a threat of career destruction, and is a mighty disincentive to independent analysis and criticism.

As a business reporter for the Times, I found my sources were unabashedly forthright about this. Once, after I’d written a story about Reuben Mark, the chairman and CEO of Colgate Palmolive, I got a call from his communications director the day the story appeared. The phone connection was scratchy and I asked where he was calling from – it was a limousine, and he was sitting next to Mr. Mark. Then he came straight to the point. “We really liked your story today and we will work with you in the future, as long as we like what you write. So we hope you keep writing good stories like the one today. And as long as you do, feel free to call Mr. Mark or me, any time you’d like, day or night. And by the way, Mr. Mark would love to have lunch with you soon. He wants to stay in touch.” Then he gave me Mr. Mark’s home telephone number.

When I put the phone down, I shook my head in wonderment. Six months later, I’d heard the same speech from so many flaks it was a matter of routine. And while it may not always be as direct as that, do not be mistaken, that the balance of power between sources and journalists these days in most realms tips far towards the sources. Reporters are routinely and openly bribed in this way. The perks of power – with access to the top of the corporate or political hierarchy being prime among them – are offered as a quid pro quo of favorable coverage.

                                                Fragmented Worldview

Third, Carey argues, the norms of objective reporting, by serving and strengthening the fragmented compartments of technological, industrial, and multicultural society as professional communicators, weakens the entire society. In such a society, he argues, a news media is needed that unites society through “integrating modes and styles of communication, of emotionally charged symbols of national community and general, integrating ideas and values.” He argues for a return of the storytelling mode, of news stories that look for connecting threads and points of sameness between culturally disparate groups and between the local, state, national, and indeed international realms. He argues for a journalism that serves all of society and not, as Lippmann prophetically foretold, merely the most powerful institutions and special interest groups in society. The sense of emptiness we feel even after banqueting on 78 cable news channels and a thousand other news sources, Carey suggests, is linked to the absence in this diet of the nutrient that is the making visible of the fact of our unity within diversity. News stories written in the “objective” mode do just the opposite.

“One can be content with ‘giving the facts’ where there are generally accepted rules for interpreting the facts and an agreed set of political values and purposes,” Carey writes. “Today no accepted system of interpretation exists and political values and purposes are very much in contention. Politics, culture, classes, generations, and international alignments are not part of an intelligible mode of life, are not directed by shared values, and cannot be encased within traditional forms of understanding. Consequently, ‘objective reporting’ does little more than convey this disorder in isolated, fragmented news stories.”


III. A Practitioner's View

Now that I have given an historical overview of the concept of objectivity, and summarized the classical critique of it by James Carey, let me offer a few thoughts on objectivity from a practitioner’s point of view.

The first thing that strikes me, on the basis of my 27 years as a working journalist, is that the ideal of objectivity in journalism, like the ideal of love in marriage, or the ideal of justice in society, is not an ideal whose essential nobility or desirability is seriously questioned by anyone.

At the same time, however, like the ideals of love and justice, neither is the definition of objectivity at all clear, nor shared by all, nor has the route to achieving the goals attached to any of the possible definitions of objectivity ever been clearly defined in practical, repeatable terms.

We think of objectivity as meaning neutral. But also balanced. Impartial. Non-partisan. Neutral. Accurate. Verified. Fair. Factual. Unemotional. Detached. Scientific. Reasoned. Unbiased.

Each of these definitions implies a very different essential quality or ideal, any two of which may be mutually exclusive. For example, a news report could be factual but unbalanced; or accurate but biased; or neutral but also unfair.

                                                    A Soothing Cliché

So this illogic is one indication that we need to clarify our language, which is a reflection of our thinking, when we talk about “objectivity.”

Another such indication is the mantra-like nature of the cliché that we journalists normally use to end every discussion that comes around, finally, to exposing the many obvious flaws in the professional code of objectivity.

“Of course it’s impossible to be objective,” we say to each other. “But it’s better to try and fall short, than not to try at all.”

But is it? Surely there is a grain of truth to this. But reaching moral destinations is not at all like reaching geographical ones. It’s a lot tougher to be a good parent, than it is to drive to, and successfully arrive in, Chicago.

Unlike successfully arriving in Chicago, if you are trying to be objective in the true and pure sense, you need to frequently check yourself that you are not rationalizing, not being lazy, not skipping over the tough bits with a high-toned excuse. Whenever you say to yourself as a journalist, “I fell short but at least I tried,” you need also to immediately ask, “Am I just rationalizing the fact that I’m sinning over and over and over?” Any of us here who try to maintain some kind of a spiritual or religious life will recognize the problem.

                                                     Tricky Morality

There is a tricky moral navigation, a continual process of brutal self-judgment that is necessary for any practitioner of objectivity to undertake, just as a tricky moral navigation is required of anyone who undertakes to love well, to lead well, or to dispense justice well.

A kiss is not just a kiss. It can be genuine or not. Heartfelt or not. Deceptive or not. A betrayal or not. But it will always look the same from the outside. And it’s not always easy even for the kissers to know themselves whether they are being genuine or just a tiny bit deceptive, is it? A slippery slope is always close by, and it’s a hard business to love truly and honestly and well.

Or as the religious or spiritual person would say, to serve God well.

Just so, it’s hard for journalists to stay consistently aware just where they are in this process, especially whether they are using or being used. Whether they are being honest brokers of the truth, or pawns of larger forces peddling bought-and-paid-for versions of truth.

Yet the consequences to society are so great, which of these roles the journalist is playing, it’s vitally important that the journalist try to remain as aware as possible at all times, to avoid being used as a pawn. In a sense, to extend a Walter Lippmann metaphor, the journalist is literally the last line of defense against special interests, which are always essentially trying to hijack all of society to serve their own commercial or ideological ends.

                                        Checking for Rationalization

It’s really important therefore to not only commit oneself to fulfilling a checklist of goals that fall under the name of “objectivity,” as a journalist, but also to continually ask if there is not some rationalizing going on in one’s heart of hearts. Because failure to reach the ideal sometimes sets in motion a chain of events based on rationalizations that works entirely against the original goal, while at the same time going completely unnoticed.

As a practicing journalist both at The New York Times and at Bloomberg News, I’ve faced innumerable deadlines of mere minutes and even of seconds on international stories. I’ve also faced many other external and internal pressures, especially the pressure to beat the competition, to get the interview, to advance the story, to get on page one, and so on. And I can tell you, there is all the incentive in the world to succumb to rationalization.

You say to yourself, “I’m on deadline, I did the best I could to … be fair … be accurate … be balanced … be factual …” etc.

Often as not, because the pressure is so great, as a reporter one simply doesn’t have the time to digest every fact or to test the line of argument that is professed by a source. So one reaches for a story mold, a story frame, into which to cram all the facts one is able to gather within the few precious minutes you have to make the story. The “he said, she said” story mold, as I described in the case of the telecommunications story, is one such frame.

                                                    A Handy Shield

But as that story shows, when you use the cookie cutter story mold, you can very easily be used by your sources. After all, you are using a cookie cutter, but they may actually be thinking, and planning, and strategizing. And so they may wreak the very unfairness, imbalance, or partiality that you rationalize your cookie cutter story mold is designed to prevent.

It really is time to ask in the journalism profession, are we doing things the right way?

Objectivity is a handy Swiss Army knife for reporters who not only feel besieged by the pressures of deadlines, but who also, quite frankly, are extremely vulnerable to the very sources whose access they need and seek every day.

Because deep down, the reporter knows that the sources have all the chips. They have the information. They have the power. And so the sources, once one’s story comes out in the newspaper or on TV, also have the ability to say to the reporter and the editor and even to the whole world, “Wait, Mr. Reporter, you got the story all wrong.”

As a result, most of the journalists I know, including me, are always in a state of near panic that they have somehow failed in the task of explaining or describing the material, often the very complex technical material that their sources have given them. They worry that they can be called on this at any time, with possibly catastrophic results. The advent of the blogosphere certainly has exacerbated this fear many-fold.

As a result of feeling this vulnerable all the time, reporters naturally look around for a shield. And the most handy protective shield of all is objectivity.

                                    Quotes: The Ultimate "Objective" Tool

Quotations of news sources themselves -- that is words placed inside quotation marks or actual on-screen TV interviews -- are the ultimate tool of objective journalism and the ultimate shield of objectivity. “But you yourself said it, and I quoted you accurately,” the journalist can always say to the source. But that doesn’t take into account the many alternative possibilities that would still allow for the source to manipulate the reporter – for example, the source might have been lying on purpose.

That is precisely one of the deep down self-checks – one of those steps in the tricky internal moral process that a good reporter must go through – before too quickly using the cookie cutter mold of an “objective” story. You must ask yourself “Am I being lied to?”

It’s a matter of routine that reporters feel or know they are being lied to. Yet they take the quotes and pass them on, unchallenged. And they rationalize this essentially corrupt practice – corrupt that is from the point of view of the democracy that the media purportedly supports -- any number of ways. “No time to check facts under deadline.” “Well, it’s a lie, but it’s directly from the mouth of the President of the United States (or CEO, or other Important Personage), which makes it newsworthy.” “Yes, it’s a lie, but billions of dollars are being spent right now based on this lie, which makes it a real and genuine story.”

And so on, and so on, and so on.

                                                    The Front Page

In my ten years as a reporter for The New York Times, I got on the front page a lot when I was working on the city desk, the culture desk, and the business desk. And over time, I learned a few tricks that always worked for getting a story on the front page. One trick was to reach an important figure in person, or on the telephone, such as a CEO or a prominent government official, and to get that person to say something. Almost anything would do. If that person said something dramatically different from what he or she had said before, or something quarreling with one of his or her public enemies, so much the better.

Once I called the CEO of the 7-Up company, which had recently come out with a new product that for the first time in the company’s history was colored brown, like a cola, instead of clear. I called him at home because I couldn’t get through his flacks at his office. “That product is a flop,” he told me frankly on the phone. “We were wrong to do it. We’re the Uncola. It’s our version of Classic Coke. It was just plain stupid.” That interview took me ten minutes and it went straight on the front page of the business section.

Another way to get on page one was simply to find a story that involved a certain amount of money. That amount, I discovered, was about $50 million. At The New York Times in the 1980s, I discovered that $50 million was sort of a benchmark that meant that whatever activity was involved, it was likely a “phenomenon” in society and thus was real news. The number was particularly helpful in the days I was covering the New York art market. If a painting sold for less than $50 million, that was passé. But if it sold for more than $50 million, something big was going on. I used this same benchmark later as a business reporter, too. If a corporation spent less than $50 million on an ad campaign, that was routine. But if it spent more than $50 million, that meant that whatever was being touted was going to be on enough TV ads, in newspapers, and other media that pretty soon all society would be singing that song or saying those words. I wrote about Nike campaigns selling new sneakers, tobacco company campaigns to counter anti-smoking efforts, and many other stories using that $50 million benchmark.

                                                  Buying the News

As a business reporter, the first thing we used to do in the morning, of course, was to read the Times and other major newspapers. And if somebody out there in the real world had bought full page ads in the papers, very often I was assigned immediately to cover that as a news story.

However, the fact that full-page ads had been purchased in the Times and other papers was not always mentioned, especially in the follow-up articles after the first story. For example, a wealthy consumer health advocate once took a full page ad pushing the idea that the fatty vegetable oils in processed foods were just as big a cause of heart attacks as animal fats. He aimed his ads directly at the country’s major food processing companies that used tons of coconut oil and palm oil. He bought ads one morning in the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. It cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. But note that reporters at these papers wrote news stories about his campaign, so that he had effectively bought himself not just ads, but also full news coverage of his issue.

Buying advertisement in the media costs a certain amount. And buying news coverage also costs a certain amount, which usually but not always costs a little more. A skillful publicist can get lots of news coverage just by staging attention-grabbing events, i.e. on the cheap. But the surefire way to get news coverage is to spend the money. Just as in the legal system, where money buys high-priced lawyers and thus buys justice, just so in the media system. Money can and does buy coverage of explicitly political and commercial campaigns as “news.”

In all of these cases, I could point to something “objective” that I used to rationalize the story to myself as “real news.” For example, I would say to myself, “the CEO himself said it.” That makes it news. Or, “more than $50 million was spent.” That means that amount of money objectively has a chance to push the society one way or another, so it should be covered. And so on. But the use of that objective standard implied at least two corollaries of great importance. First, that the truth of the claims being made in either case were not the major concern. The newsworthiness was the main concern, and the truth or the lack of it, while not irrelevant, was secondary.

                                       Want to Know vs. Ought to Know

The second corollary -- and on this I will end -- is that by choosing to write these stories that met these “objective” tests, the decision was also made not to write about something else. It’s in this sense that I say that objectivity leads to a subtle but really powerful self-censorship.

Indeed, by defining news as something that must objectively exist in society and, further, that must be so large as to have millions of dollars and thousands and thousands of people buying or acting in a certain way, the code of objectivity self-censors one of the most precious and necessary of society’s treasures – that is, new ideas, that while they may not yet have millions of dollars or followers, nevertheless are potent with hope and possibility, should conditions be right, to help society survive and thrive.

As Mia Doornaert, a columnist for the Belgian newspaper Der Standaard, said recently, the untold story in the media is most often a story not that the public wants to know, but ought to know.

Why is it, as the media critic John Nichols asked on NPR recently, that Americans know more about Laci Peterson than about their failing social security system? Why is it that likely the single most important fact to emerge from the presidential debate last week -- that both candidates agree that the problem of nuclear proliferation is the single most important issue facing the United States and the world today – has hardly been whispered about in the media in the two weeks since. Meanwhile of course we have plenty to chew on when it comes to the horse race -- Bush’s scowls and sneers, whether John Kerry spent Christmas in Cambodia, dueling polls on who won the presidential debates, etc.

Under the professional code of objectivity, reporters strive to be “disinterested observers.” “Neutral recorders.” “Impartial witnesses.” But the evidence of history and analysis shows that journalists work within, and therefore serve with their labor, a larger system that is anything but neutral or disinterested. This is true whether the individual journalist is aware of this fact or not. The larger system has very definite commercial and sometimes ideological values and goals that the journalism, as the commodity that is produced by that system, must serve.

                                                         A New Way

If journalists became more conscious of the larger commercial and social context in which they work; and more conscious, too, of the potential good they could do for society not by chasing the big scoop but rather the solid important story; and if they really steeped themselves in the details of matters truly worth exploring; then yes, I can well imagine they would start to form some firm and principled opinions of their own on public affairs. This would not be objective, but it would be useful.

And then I can well imagine that these opinions held by reporters, supported by factual expertise and connected to the wider society by the individual journalist’s engaged social conscience, might start to deeply inform our news media.

There are problems, of course.

Any journalist who tries this may not last long at his or her place of employment, under the current system. Reporters are skeptical of their sources, but editors are skeptical of their reporters. “Says who?” is the editor’s perpetual query, demanding of reporters that they “source” every scrap of fact and claim. Thus any reporter who exerts his or her independent expertise in writing or on air, is likely at the least to be questioned, at most to be rebuked or censored.

Not to mention an equally serious problem, which is that a reporter who too often challenges or quarrels with her sources will soon lose access to those sources. She will then be replaced by a neophyte to the beat who can be more easily manipulated once again by the sources, whether they are in the corporate or government world.

In my own case, I am really happy writing articles in this new and experimental journalistic style I here tentatively propose. This style calls on journalists to dig even deeper for the facts because they must not only fulfill the objective ideal in the sense of verified facts. They must also finally make some judgments on where they stand on the issue in question. They must form opinions, which to earn credibility need the support of indisputable facts.

Note, however, that my vehicle for distribution today is The McGill Report, my own web site with a membership e-mail list of 1,500, and not the mighty New York Times. Freedom to experiment has its price.

I used to joke when I was a New York Times reporter and people asked what I thought about this or that public issue, “I’m a reporter. It’s not my job to think.” But now, I am trying to.

Copyright @ 2004 Doug McGill