The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time for journalists to stop pretending ‘objective’ means ‘mindless’

Stephen K. Bannon is seen as President Trump meets with business leaders last week at the White House in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Last week, President Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, gave an interview bashing the New York Times (and those of us here at The Post) to the New York Times that was about as punchy and conniving as you’d expect. As tempting as it is to treat Bannon himself as the poisonous tree and to ignore the fruit that emerges from his lips and keyboard, his repeated references to the media as “the opposition party” in cadences that mirror his boss’s ought to point the press toward a new and reinvigorated understanding of its role.

One of the most pernicious ideas governing our politics right now is that everything fits into neat binaries. You’re either for Trump or you’re against him. If you have issues with Democratic strategy, you must be secretly rooting for the Republicans. The idea of the press as a “Fourth Estate” didn’t emerge from an attempt to situate journalism within a bipartisan political system, though, but rather from Edmund Burke’s efforts to describe the civic roles played by institutions such as the clergy, the nobility and the citizenry.

Bannon is, quite cannily, attempting to make a swap. He’s trying to turn the media into a political actor, rather than a civic one. This is a move designed to turn a substantial portion of voters against the press, a shtick that so far has dinged the public reputation of the media in general without doing much to harm the reputation of established media outlets (Bannon’s own former outlet, the openly partisan Breitbart, is considered about as credible as the deliberately satirical website the Onion). It’s also a gambit that obscures the very prospect of a world arranged around civic functions rather than partisan ones.

One outcome of the evil genius of insisting that the proper role of media is merely to produce limp stenography is bad journalism that provides no context or clarity about, say, the established facts on an issue or whether a politician is lying or merely ignorant and indifferent enough not to care about getting the facts right.

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It would be bad enough if we allowed slick sloganeers such as Bannon to strip us of our ability to do the parts of our job that have the greatest, most enduring impact.

That’s not all that’s going on here, though. This a way of thinking about journalism that dissuades journalists from thinking of ourselves as a class, with distinct values and priorities we need to defend. If we allow ourselves to be forced into a position where the choice is to be partisan or to be mindless, then it’s easy to be pushed into mindlessness.

But these aren’t our only choices. And the vibrance of civic institutions comes from the fact that they represent values, not teams.

The idea that it’s valuable to thoroughly expose incompetence and malfeasance isn’t partisan unless you believe one party is so incapable and corrupt that it can’t survive public scrutiny. The idea of objective methods of determining the truth isn’t threatening unless you don’t think the ideas that are most convenient to you can stand up to rigorous testing. And context and analyses are only your enemy if you depend on an ignorant audience for your assertions.

Standing up for these values isn’t effortless. It requires us to correct our errors of fact and be capable of recognizing when we’ve made errors in judgment. Those of us who work in the media won’t always agree: An “Estate” is a big, fractious, lively thing even in an age of shrinking budgets and declining staffs. But if we let Stephen Bannon, or anyone else, use a degraded vision of public life to persuade us that the principled thing to do is allow ourselves to be bullied out of existence and out of our values, then we don’t deserve to pretend that we represented anything meaningful in the first place.