Tag Archives: Ambrose Bierce

Journalism’s obsession with objectivity

Objectivity is the key to good journalism. So they say. So almost everybody says.

I’m not here to deny the importance of objectivity. It’s one of the sharpest tools available for exploring the truth. But it’s not the only tool, and modern journalism is sorely limited by its strict adherence to objectivity.

I’ve been pondering objectivity for some time, and feeling a sense of disquietude about its dominance in the field of journalism. That sense came into sharp focus after I discovered “The View From Somewhere,” a podcast (and book) by Lewis Raven Wallace, a trans journalist who was fired in 2017 by public radio’s Marketplace over a post on their personal blog entitled “Objectivity Is Dead, and I’m Okay With It.” I highly recommend the podcast for those who care about journalism. Haven’t read the book yet.

Some of the facts and concepts in this post are borrowed, in whole or in part, from Wallace’s work. It’s my own interpretation, of course.

Let’s start with some history. The concept of journalistic objectivity is relatively new — almost exactly a hundred years old, in fact. It emerged, coincidentally or not, at a time when newspapers had become very profitable enterprises bought and sold by rich men and corporations. Objectivity was used by those owners as a cudgel against employees’ efforts to unionize. Reporters were often fired for a supposed lack of objectivity — solely because they were trying to organize their workplaces.

From that twisted acorn did our mighty oak of objectivity spring. That’s not the whole story, but it should be remembered that objectivity has been used, not just as a guideline, but also as a weapon.

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And now, a few words from the patron saint of vitriolic blogging

Before there was the Internet, before Facebook and WordPress and Twitter and WCAX.com’s comments section, there was Ambrose Bierce, the great American newspaperman, humorist, and Meisterslinger of political vitriol. Bierce is most famous for The Devil’s Dictionary, but his other writings are masterworks of overwrought prose. (If you are not easily offended, I suggest his joyfully over-the-top short story “Oil of Dog.”)

Bierce was, among many other things, no sufferer of fools. While writing my previous post about Gov. Shumlin’s hypocrisy toward public sector workers, I came across a Bierce essay called “The Game of Politics” that identifies, better than I ever could, the fundamental problem with the kind of politispeak practiced by Our Leader.

Every community is cursed with a number of “orators”–men regarded as “eloquent”–“silver tongued” men–fellows who to the common American knack at brandishing the tongue add an exceptional felicity of platitude, a captivating mastery of dog’s-eared sentiment, a copious and obedient vocabulary of eulogium, an iron insensibility to the ridiculous and an infinite affinity to fools. These afflicting Chrysostoms are always lying in wait for an “occasion.”

Ambrose Bierce was last seen alive more than a century ago, but to judge by that paragraph, I’d swear he had personally witnessed the political career of Peter Shumlin. By contrast, Bierce embraces the very kind of traditional American free-for-all politics that Shumlin casts as “hateful speech.”

Let us have the good old political currency of bloody noses and cracked crowns; let the yawp of the demagogue be heard in the land; let ears be pestered with the spargent cheers of the masses. Give us a whoop-up that shall rouse us like a rattling peal of thunder.

I don’t know exactly what “spargent” means, but I like the sentiment.