This story is almost a year old but a friend posted a link to it on Facebook and it spurred me to write about a subject I feel very strongly about: The myth of journalistic “objectivity.” Last November, CNN suspended one of its reporters for sending out this tweet:
— Elise Labott (@eliselabottcnn) November 19, 2015
She committed what CNN apparently believes to be the cardinal sin — expressing a position on a “partisan issue.” As if there were such a thing as a non-partisan issue in this day and age. Jesse Singal did his best to defend CNN’s actions:
“Despair is a reasonable reaction to an opportunistic vote!” wrote TNR’s Alex Shephard. “But apparently not on Twitter.”
But that’s the thing: If you’re a CNN correspondent, despair — or any other emotion — is not a reasonable reaction to a partisan issue. CNN’s correspondents aren’t supposed to show any signs they favor one side of a debate over another. Over the years, various people have argued in various ways that this old-school approach to news reporting is outdated or dumb or unrealistic, but at CNN it still prevails, and Labott agreed to abide by it. She didn’t get suspended because the network was mad she expressed concern for refugees; she got suspended because she expressed an opinion on a partisan issue, which is something her job explicitly prohibits…
If you think these distinctions are a bit silly and arbitrary and might prevent journalists from doing their jobs well in certain situations, you’re not alone, and there are some arguably good reasons this model of reporting has been slowly dying out in the internet era. But the point is that everyone who works at CNN knows the deal, and that when you set aside the understandably passionate debate over the refugees, it’s not even a very close call. Labott clearly broke an agreement she had with her employer.
I would argue that those distinctions aren’t just silly, they’re dangerous. They’re part of a larger problem with the concept of journalistic objectivity, which has come to mean that everyone has to pretend not to have any beliefs whatsoever. It also has come to mean this fake notion of balance, where a reporter or host presents everything as a he said/she said — the Democrats say X, the Republicans say Y. Never mind that one side may be completely full of shit or lying through their teeth, you can’t point that out because that means you’re not being “objective.” Well to hell with “objectivity” then.
For four years I was the editor of the Michigan Messenger, a state news site created by the American Independent News Network (originally called the Center for Independent Media). We were an openly and unabashedly progressive news site. There are dangers involved in that, of course, dangers like tribalism and confirmation bias. We all have a tendency to filter out information and evidence that is contrary to our position and this is something that must be guarded against.
But the antidote to that is not to avoid ever taking a stand on anything, avoid ever saying “no, there are not two sides to this issue. This side is right and that side is wrong and here is the evidence that leads inexorably to that conclusion. You counter that tendency not with a fake and impossible “objectivity” that pretends that all claims are equally plausible but with a committed focus on accuracy in your reporting. And if you do that, a lot of good can come from it.
At AINN, we measured our success through what we called “impact stories” — that is, stories that led directly to some kind of change in policy that improved a situation in a measurable way. And Michigan led all of our state news sites in impact stories by a wide margin, due entirely to my two amazing reporters, Todd Heywood and Eartha Melzer. They were tireless and committed to getting to the truth. They held the feet of the powerful to the fire time and time again and got real change.
Let me give you one simple example. At one point, Heywood got a call from a kid at the University of Michigan who believed he might have been exposed to HIV during a sexual encounter. He had gone to a clinic but they had not put him on a course of treatment called n-PEP: non-occupational post-exposure prophylaxis. If someone is exposed to HIV, putting them on anti-retroviral drugs like Truvada within the first 72 hours is incredibly effective at preventing the infection as a result of the exposure.
The CDC has issued official recommendations for the use of n-PEP in any situation of exposure to HIV since 2005, but the Michigan Department of Community Health had not issued any guidance to doctors, hospitals and clinics instructing them that this is the standard for treatment in such situations. Heywood started reporting about this and hounding the MDCH about it. It went on for about three months before the MDCH finally issued the proper guidelines. This is the very definition of an impact story, one that will literally save lives.
We did not report the dodges and rationalizations offered by the MDCH at face value. We didn’t pretend to be “objective” and just report the things they were saying. We pointed out why those statements were wrong and were disingenuous, because they were. Our commitment was not to some ridiculous and fake “balance” but to telling the truth. That’s what real journalists do. That’s what they should do. But major news outlets punish them for doing that, for injecting something more than a mealy-mouthed he said/she said into important conversations.