On Friday Bret Stephens of the New York Times devoted his column to a new report from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication entitled "Beyond Objectivity: Producing trustworthy news in today's newsrooms." The report was written by Leonard Downie, long-time editor of the Washington Post and one of the youngest members of the Silent Generation, and Boomer Andrew Heyward, formerly the president of CBS news. (For the record, although I'm pretty sure I have never met Downie face to face, he was for many years the boss and close collaborator of my brother Robert. I have purposely avoided discussing his co-authored report with my brother before writing this post for that reason.) In this piece these two venerable pillars of the journalistic establishment endorse the intellectual and social revolution that has swept their profession (and mine) over the last few decades. I call it the Woke Revolution and I am trying to explain, with their help, what it means.
I am going to begin by defining objectivity myself. I think that it means doing the best job that one can of basing statements on verifiable facts while avoiding the natural tendency to search for facts that validate one's own preferences and ignore ones that do not. I agree that no one, yours truly included, can do that perfectly, but some people can do it much better than others, and one will do a much better job of it if one makes an effort to do it. In addition, I think that in reporting the news or writing history, the words of people in authority--whether political, economic, religious, or anything else--deserve to be reported as they said them. They may not be true, and journalists also should introduce verifiable data to show that they are not, but they are news, because of the power of the people who uttered them. They inevitably have a real significance that the words of ordinary citizens (a category in which I include myself) do not. You cannot understand what is happening in the world now, or what happened in the past, if you do not pay attention to them. And we are not going to invent a world without authority.
Now let's turn to what objectivity means in today's newsrooms. Downie and Heyward interviewed a lot of editors and reporters in newspapers, television, and on websites, and many of them had something to say about this. In fact, most of them had the same things to say about this, and I'm going to quote them exactly--because what they had to say is news.
"The mainstream media 'has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses,” Wesley Lowery, an influential 32-year-old Black Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has written. 'And those selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers.'
"'I’m not arguing for subjectivity,' Lowery said in an interview for this report. “I’m actually whole-heartedly endorsing objectivity as properly defined; the argument is that, in practice, that’s not what it is.'"
"Kathleen Carroll, former executive editor of the Associated Press, said she has not used the word objectivity since the early 1970s because she believes it reflects the world view of the male white establishment. 'It’s objective by whose standards? And that standard seems to be white, educated, fairly wealthy guys,' she explained. 'And when people don’t feel like they find themselves in news coverage, it’s because they don’t meet that definition.'"
"Andrew Mendelson, associate dean of CUNY’s Craig Newmark School of Journalism, agreed that the standard of objectivity has been used to reinforce the status quo in news coverage. 'You could then throw a word like objectivity around and say, ‘Well, that’s not objective.’' he said. 'That’s a quick way of shutting down and sending a message that this is not suitable. That’s a very good power dynamic in the word objectivity. It’s the same as saying, ‘You’re being an advocate,’ and that quickly shuts down any dissent.'”
"'The journalist’s job is truth, not objectivity,' said Neil Barsky, founder of The Marshall Project, an influential nonprofit news organization that investigates the criminal justice system. 'It is getting close to the reality, notwithstanding that we all have biases and passions.'"
“'Objectivity' is news coverage “through the lens of largely white, straight men,” said Emily Ramshaw, 40-year-old co-founder of The 19th national news website, the stated mission of which is 'to elevate voices of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community.' 'The 19th is light years away from my early career clinging to the myth of objectivity,' Ramshaw said in an interview. 'The voices in stories were overwhelmingly white and male,' she explained, 'as well as the leadership and decision-making in most newsrooms.'
"When asked whether a relatively recent increase in female top editors and executives of news media has produced any change from 'white male' dominance of newsrooms, Julia Wallace, a Cronkite School professor and former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said, 'Not really. When women are in charge, there is not that much change. Women who made it to the top were operating by men’s rules.
"'Objectivity was wrong, a failed concept,' she said. “It was a mistake to head down the path of dishonest objectivity.'
"As an example, she cited a history of racist reporting about subjects like lynchings in the South. 'We pretended we were printing the truth when we were seeing the world through a certain lens.' Wallace added, 'Now, it has to be about changing the culture.'"
“'The consensus among younger journalists is that we got it all wrong,' Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor-in-chief of The San Francisco Chronicle, said in an interview. 'We are the problem. Objectivity has got to go.' The younger journalists in the Chronicle newsroom 'are a very diverse group,' Garcia-Ruiz explained. 'They are willing to share their lived experiences to call out bullshit, despite their status in the newsroom. There can sometimes be a chasm between them and the older veteran reporters.'"
And Sally Buzbee, Downie's successor as Executive Editor of the Washington Post, concludes a relatively balanced statement about balancing advocacy and journalism by stating that she no longer uses the word objectivity “because it has become a political football. If the term objectivity means the world view of middle-aged white men, it has become attacked as a word that is used to keep the status quo.”
The report also documents the increasing diversification of newsrooms, to which the rejection of objectivity as an older white male strategy is obviously closely related. Its photographs make the same point. Of 33 photos of newsroom personnel, only 8 appear to be white males.
It is clear, I think, that these quotes represent the same view that lies behind postmodernist literary and historical writing and critical race theory. Objective truth does not exist, because every demographic has its own truth, which it deploys in a contest for power. As Joan Scott wrote back in the 1990s in a passage I quoted a few weeks ago, we now "understand" contests about knowledge to about the interests of groups, not the opinions of individuals. Every particular group, defined intersectionally (if you'll forgive the expression) by race, gender, and sexual orientation, has its own truth, which is entitled to equal representation, regardless of the size of that group. And the only way to undo straight white male dominance is to lessen the numbers and influence of straight white males in newsrooms and universities and to let the remaining ones know that it is their turn to be marginalized.
Let me simply list a few things that I think are wrong about these views.
To begin with, the idea that straight white males have monolithically maintained their dominance over other groups--that that has been their main priority over the centuries--is historically ludicrous. Yes, for longstanding cultural reasons that can be observed all over the world, men dominated most institutions for many centuries in the western world. The change in that situation began and has gone by far the furthest within western civilization, and western civilization has done the most to spread it to other parts of the globe. If oppression were the first thing on their minds, white males would never have passed and ratified the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments. Meanwhile, the bulk of political conflict in the west has been among different groups of white males divided by religion, language, or, most commonly, by their ideas.
The same point applies to previously disadvantaged groups as well. The pressure on newsrooms and the earlier pressure on academic institutions comes from a minority of ideological activists among women, minorities, and those who are not heterosexual and who deny that gender is biological. Those activists often hold views quite at odds with the majority of their demographic group, as well as the majority of the US population. Coleman Hughes has just pointed out, not for the first time, that at the height of the protests over George Floyd's murder, far greater numbers of black Americans wanted more police in their communities, not less. Polls show a very small gender gap between men and women on the abortion issue. Some women, many of them lesbians, resent the claims of transgender women to female status.
That leads me to a third point. At the Dallas conference that I participated in last May I met the black conservative Shelby Steele, who insisted, not for the first time, that racism is no longer a serious problem in the United States and that the biggest problem in the black community is a refusal to compete with everyone else on equal terms. "When people talk about race in this country," he said--again, not for the first time--"they are talking about power." The same, I think, is true about gender.
Last, but not least, I think that woke historians and journalists are missing the point, really, of what their professions are about. They are opportunities to immerse one's self in something much bigger than one's self--which for me has always been a profoundly liberating experience. They are also an opportunity to put the true interests of a university or a newspaper--which I would argue are advancing knowledge and providing information--above one's own personal interests. Instead, today's activists--who now enjoy the support of plenty of straight white males who have decided to go with the flow--believe that their institutions must reflect their personal views and concerns at the expense of those of others. The accusation that that is how straight white males have always done things is a false projection. I would also point out that the era of the great progress for minorities and women in particular coincided with the greatest popularity of objectivity, the middle of the twentieth century. That progress depended on a single objective fact: that treating whites and blacks or men and women unequally was simply wrong. Most Americans came to accept that fact--but they will not accept reparations for slavery or the idea that gender is entirely a social construct.
In the end, two elderly straight white males--Downie and Heyward--endorse the new revolution. After recommending some specific guidelines for newsrooms, they close as follows:
"What we hope ties these guidelines together is our own core belief that journalism must address the needs and aspirations of our increasingly diverse society more effectively than it has in the past.
"That means striving to reach not only an audience, but all audiences, and no longer with one-size-fits-all, traditionally white male 'objectivity,' a journalistic concept that has lost its relevance. It means avoiding replacing that with some new rigid orthodoxy, which could also impede accurate and fair reporting. It means building a newsroom that reflects the communities it serves and embraces diversity to provide strong, more accurate and responsible journalism.
"Producing trustworthy news for the communities of today requires a new kind of news leader, committed to the kind of newsroom we have described and confident enough to replace yesterday’s top-down model with an inclusive culture in which ideas can bubble up from anywhere – and the best of them can flourish."
Unfortunately one cannot dispense with objectivity without giving way to orthodoxy. Those are the only alternatives. Objectivity, is is true, forced scholars and journalists not to yield to their own emotions, and often led to conclusions that they might prefer to reject. The alternative, however, is to ignore the facts, and that is what happens, increasingly, in the treatment of highly politicized issues like criminal justice and police shootings. About a dozen family members of black victims of those shootings attended the State of the Union address as guests of the President or legislators, but it did not occur to any major newspaper to ask why the much larger number of family members of white victims of such shootings were left out. Poverty and economic inequality are enormous issues in this country, but one cannot understand or correct them by focusing on race or gender because they affect all races and genders. These are facts which woke activism must ignore. I do not think that the remaining Orwellians among us--in the true sense--can stop the woke revolution. It has gone too far and it is particularly strong among the younger generations. It is linked to other broader trends in modern history. Christopher Lasch defined the "Me Decade" in the 1970s, and we are now in the Me Century. But I don't think it does any good to pretend that it is a good thing, or to deny that it has done a great deal of harm to western values and will do more. Things will eventually change, but it may take a very long time.