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The Twilight Of Objectivity

By Michael Kinsley
Friday, March 31, 2006

CNN's Lou Dobbs -- formerly a mild-mannered news anchor noted for his palsy-walsy interviews with corporate CEOs -- has turned into a raving populist xenophobe. Ratings are up. It's like watching one of those "makeover" shows that turn nerds into fops or bathrooms into ballrooms. According to the New York Times, this demonstrates "that what works in cable television news is not an objective analysis of the day's events" but "a specific point of view on a sizzling-hot topic." Nicholas Lemann made the same point in a recent New Yorker profile of Bill O'Reilly. Cable, he wrote "is increasingly a medium of outsize, super-opinionated franchise personalities."

The head of CNN/US, Jonathan Klein, said that Lou Dobbs's license to emote is "sui generis" among CNN anchors, but that is obviously not true. Consider Anderson Cooper, CNN's rising star. His career was made when he exploded in self-righteous anger and gave Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu an emotional tongue-lashing about the inadequate relief effort after Hurricane Katrina. Klein has said that Cooper has "a refreshing way of being the anti-anchor . . . getting involved the way you might." In short, he's acting like a human being, albeit a somewhat overwrought one.

And now on CNN and elsewhere, you can see other anchors struggling to act like human beings, with varying degrees of success. Only five months before anointing Cooper as CNN's new messiah (nothing human is alien to Anderson Cooper; nothing alien is human to Lou Dobbs), Klein killed CNN's long-running debate show "Crossfire," on the grounds that viewers wanted information and not opinions. Klein said he agreed "wholeheartedly" with Jon Stewart's widely discussed and uncharacteristically stuffy remark that "Crossfire" and similar shows were "hurting America" with their occasionally raucous displays of emotional commitment to a political point of view.

But that is just a personal gripe (I worked at "Crossfire" for six years). More important is that Klein is right in sensing, on second thought, that objectivity is not a horse to bet the network on. Or the newspaper either.

The newspaper industry is having a psychic meltdown over the threat posed by the Internet. No one seriously doubts anymore that the Internet will fundamentally change the news business. The uncertainty is whether it will change only the method of delivering the product or will also change the nature of the product. Will people want, in any form, a collection of articles, written by professional journalists from a detached and purportedly objective point of view? Or are blogs and podcasts the cutting edge of a new model -- more personalized, more interactive, more opinionated, more communal, less objective?

It might even be a healthy development for American newspapers to abandon the conceit of objectivity. This is not unknown territory. Most of the world's newspapers, in fact, already make no pretense of objectivity in the American sense. But readers of the good ones (such as the Guardian or the Financial Times of London) come away as well informed as the readers of any "objective" American newspaper. Another model, right here in America, is the newsmagazine, all of which produce much outstanding journalism with little pretense of objectivity.

Opinion journalism can be more honest than objective-style journalism, because it doesn't have to hide its point of view. All observations are subjective. Writers freed of artificial objectivity can try to determine the whole truth about their subject and then tell it whole to the world. Their "objective" counterparts have to sort their subjective observations into two arbitrary piles: truths that are objective as well, and truths that are just an opinion. That second pile of truths cannot be published, except perhaps as a quote from someone else.

Without the pretense of objectivity, the fundamental journalist's obligation of factual accuracy would remain. Opinion journalism brings new ethical obligations as well. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counterarguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or an argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

Much of today's opinion journalism, especially on TV, is not a great advertisement for the notion that American journalism could be improved by more opinion and less effort at objectivity. But that's because the conditions under which much opinion journalism is practiced today make honesty harder, and doubt practically impossible.

Unless, of course, I am completely wrong.

kinsleym@washpost.com

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