On Sunday, Fox News’ MediaBuzz opened with host Howard Kurtz warning of “a serious threat to journalism.” A debacle that began with a New York Times op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and ended with the resignation of Times opinion editor James Bennet had shaken the media world. What made Cotton’s op-ed arguing for a military “show of force” against protesters stand out from the many bad and questionably dangerous pieces published in that section in recent years is that Times reporters, who steer clear of whatever’s happening in the opinion pages, shook the foundation of modern journalism by speaking up both privately and publicly about it.
To Kurtz, the reporters and Times employees who voiced concerns about Cotton’s piece were challenging the established order in American media, and that was simply unacceptable. Kurtz decried the “growing pattern of imbalance and intolerance at some of our top news organizations.”
“There are still many journalists, perhaps derided as old-fashioned, who believe as I do that for all our many flaws, fairness and balance are our highest values,” said Kurtz. “But these latest developments at The New York Times and elsewhere suggest we are losing to the social justice warriors in what I view as a battle for the soul of journalism.”
“Fairness,” “balance,” “objectivity,” “neutrality” -- these are words typically used to describe journalism and media as it should be, but they’re vague.
Later in the MediaBuzz broadcast, Kurtz and his guest, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace discussed what Kurtz called a “woke standard” for journalism. Wallace suggested that Times staffers upset by Cotton’s op-ed should have submitted op-eds of their own in hopes that the paper chooses to print them. That observation, that there’s a structure within media on both the news and editorial side to determine which views get heard and where, gets at the real problems plaguing media and serving as proof that journalism can never truly be neutral or objective.
Decisions about staffing, reporting assignments, and editorial submissions may have some basis in objectivity, but ultimately they play to the personal biases of the people making those choices. Journalism is a form of gatekeeping. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s true. Journalism without gatekeeping would effectively transform publishers into platforms akin to Facebook and Twitter, and that’s probably not something too many Times readers or CNN viewers are aching for.
Kurtz warned of the threat posed by what he called a “woke standard.” In The Week, Damon Linker wrote that he was disheartened by the “woke revolution” in American newsrooms, calling it a “victory for narrowness and dogmatism, for unearned certainty and facile simplifications.” “Woke” is a term that has its origins in African American Vernacular English, used to describe being socially conscious to injustice, but conservatives have repurposed it in recent years as an epithet. Use of the term by Kurtz, Linker, Piers Morgan, Ben Shapiro, and Andrew Sullivan, among others, aims to frame deviations from the status quo -- whether in journalism, entertainment, or politics -- as examples of what many conservatives refer to as “virtue signaling,” or insincere gestures meant to show the world that you think or act a certain way. Conservative media’s criticisms of “wokeness” and disdain for political correctness are sometimes more gently expressed as a longing for fairness, balance, objectivity, and neutrality, similar to what Kurtz did on MediaBuzz.
There is no such thing as neutrality in journalism, and the way we think about objectivity is all wrong.
The problem with objectivity is that it’s often discussed as a media outlet’s ability to not take sides in the news of the day, and to treat all things as equally worthy of scrutiny. The problem with that, and the push for a neutral position, is that there’s no such thing as a neutral reporter. People are not neutral. Algorithms are not neutral. A media outlet can loudly profess not to take sides, but, to paraphrase the band Rush, choosing not to take a side is still a choice. “The view from nowhere” is a term often used to describe journalists’ attempts to remove themselves and their perspectives from the stories they report. This is the objectivity media outlets strive for, but it’s all wrong.
Earlier this year, NPR’s Tonya Mosley wrote about the time a former boss of hers questioned whether she could objectively cover a story about a Black man shot by police.
This particular news boss wondered about my capacity for objectivity because I am black, and she held a common and misguided idea that I couldn’t be neutral or objective because my skin makes it impossible to see “all sides.” This is a common refrain, one many journalists of color have heard before — and it’s a deeply flawed idea that erodes our efforts to comprehensively cover the communities we serve.
Mosley went on to argue that there’s a distinction between objectivity and neutrality. Objectivity is the ability of journalists to report the facts regardless of their own personal beliefs. Neutrality, on the other hand, is an impossible ideal that, as Mosley wrote, “tries and fails to correct the real biases and prejudices of the journalist.”
The problem with pushing for neutrality in journalism is that it almost always results in coverage biased in favor of existing power structures. In American journalism, that’s typically meant disproportionately centering the experiences of white men, many of whom are clustered in a handful of major cities. This is not a neutral position; we’ve all just come to accept it as the default.
Mosley’s experience is hardly an outlier. Can Black reporters cover stories about police shooting unarmed Black men? Can gay reporters remain objective when covering a debate over an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance? Can women objectively report on issues involving abortion or violence against women? It depends on who you ask.
In 2009, then writing in The Washington Post, Kurtz dedicated an entire column to the objectivity question as it related to Black women covering first lady Michelle Obama. Kurtz observed that five members of the press pool at an event at a health center were Black women. He wrote, “Whether racial and gender identification produces a gauzier, more favorable portrayal of Obama is perhaps too early to judge. After all, no one raises questions when an Irish American male reporter covers a pol named Murphy.” At first, it seemed that he understood the double standard of what he was about to write, but he missed his chance at personal enlightenment, instead embracing the double standard set by his own observation about Irish-American men covering politicians named Murphy.
Well, yes, Obama is a black woman from the South Side of Chicago. It would be impossible for anyone to cover her without giving prominence to that fact. But are the beat reporters inadvertently invested in her success?
In 2018, journalist Rebecca Carroll wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review about her experience as a Black woman pursuing a career in journalism. She described how her worldview was shaped by reading The New York Times, and she reflected on “the extent to which the commitment of the Times to ‘objectivity’ upheld America’s status quo.”
And so, as I read, I was effectively learning to internalize the normalcy, as a black girl in this country, of not being seen. On its own, the meaning of the word objectivity is fairly straight-forward, demonstrating a lack of bias or prejudice. But when paired with journalism, it becomes a matter of priority: the selection of what’s worthy of coverage and whose stories are valuable. Setting priorities requires gatekeepers, and in the field of journalism, gatekeepers were—and still are—disproportionately white men. This worked out pretty nicely if you were a white journalist who wanted to push a white agenda because, in the rules of dyed-in-the-wool journalism, objectivity always was the white agenda. Less convenient for black journalists interested in, say, racial justice or a full representation of black life. To this day, black journalists are too easily dismissed as “race warriors” incapable of distancing ourselves from systemic racism. Meanwhile, choices about what gets covered of the black community too often perpetuate a notion that we are a monolith, connected to the same, singular experience.
Carroll went on to write about her experience at the University of New Hampshire school newspaper, where her pitches about a push for a Black student union on campus and racial profiling were rejected for not appealing to a wide enough audience. She noted that journalism’s largely white, male lens has resulted in flimsy language around race as it relates to someone like President Donald Trump. “The Times continues to use euphemisms like ‘racially charged’ to describe events that were clearly racist. It’s a demoralizing observation to bear as a black reader, and an almost impossible reality to navigate as a black journalist.”
In 2017, Lewis Raven Wallace, a transgender man working for Marketplace, published a blog calling objectivity “dead.”
One of the diciest issues as we reconsider our role as journalists in this moment is that of “objectivity.” Some argue that if we abandon our stance of journalistic neutrality, we let the “post-fact” camp win. I argue that our minds — and our listeners’ and readers minds — are stronger than that, strong enough to hold that we can both come from a particular perspective, and still tell the truth.
Wallace’s essay denounced the prevalence of “both sides” journalism, asking, “Can people of color be expected to give credence to ‘both sides’ of a dispute with a white supremacist, a person who holds unscientific and morally reprehensible views on the very nature of being human?” And he also shared a difficult truth about what’s frequently asked of people from marginalized groups, adding, “Obviously, I can’t be neutral or centrist in a debate over my own humanity. The idea that I don’t have a right to exist is not an opinion, it is a falsehood.” He called on media organizations to diversify management and to find a sense of purpose in what was certain to be a difficult time.
Marketplace fired Wallace for that blog, though he went on to write a book and host a podcast, both titled The View From Somewhere, about objectivity in journalism.
Just this month, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette barred two Black journalists from covering anti-racism protests on account of bias after one of them, Alexis Johnson, tweeted photos of a garbage-covered parking lot along with, “Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!! .... oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.” Johnson’s tweet, a criticism of how largely peaceful protests get framed as violent riots in the press, was enough to get her and photographer Michael Santiago, who shared it, taken off protest coverage.
The views expressed by Wallace, Carroll, and Mosley are precisely the types of views that often get derisively labeled “woke” by conservative commentators and champions of the status quo. It’s easy to brush off people who want to see change as engaging in activism, but it’s just as much activism to defend a status quo that privileges some voices above others. There’s a sense of entitlement in the belief that one’s own view is owed a massive public platform that others will never be able to access. Following the New York Times kerfuffle over Cotton’s op-ed, conservative writer Sullivan cryptically tweeted that his column at New York magazine would not be published that week. This was framed in some conservative circles as Sullivan being silenced or having his rights infringed upon.
Every day news organizations pick and choose whose words get printed, where they appear in the paper, and what their message will be. This is how it has always operated. Critics of “wokeness” and defenders of the ideal of neutrality are simply upset that they are no longer the only voice in the room, and that their ideas will be challenged. When The New York Times embarked on its “1619 Project” last year, conservatives had a total meltdown -- including Sullivan. The same people who cry out over the smallest criticism of factually inaccurate pieces like Cotton’s op-ed, calling it “cancel culture” and chiding critics for not being open to viewpoints they disagree with -- these are the same people who cannot handle the retelling of American history outside of the sanitized version taught in grade school history classes.
These are not people standing up for fairness or objectivity. These are people standing up for a caste system, in which their voices must be heard by all while dissenters must either keep to themselves or share their views on a much smaller platform. Objectivity, as it was originally applied in American journalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was about creating uniform standards for reporting. University of North Carolina journalism professor Phil Meyer has argued that there’s a link between journalism and science: Just as we use the scientific method to conduct scientific experiments, “we ought to emphasize objectivity of method” in journalism. In other words, people cannot be objective, but reporting methods can be applied universally across topics to the point where two different reporters investigating the same story will come up with roughly the same article. This, of course, still isn’t perfect, as whatever methods one follows will have been the invention of an individual, group, or organization with all sorts of biases baked in, but it’s a form of quality control and increased transparency that audiences may appreciate.
Today, the concept of objectivity has been perverted, serving only to uphold the interests of the powerful while drowning out the voices of the marginalized. Rather than simply throwing one’s hands up and yelling about “woke” standards or “woke” revolutions, powerful people in media should take time to consider the American press as it is, how it got that way, and ask why some people are so resistant to that sort of self-reflection. Perhaps it’s time to rethink rules and standards that have led to an untrusting public and brought on an increasingly dire outlook for journalism as an industry.