While it’s true that I’ve only been reading James Rosen’s blog for the past week or so, I’m beginning to realize that Rosen, and the other media blogs I’ve been turned to, actually express thoughts about journalism and its future that I’d been kicking around in my head for a little while now. Of course, Rosen is a professional journalist who’s dedicated quite a bit of his life to studying this field, while I’m a third year college student who writes about movies and cartoons for his school’s paper.
But all that aside, his post on CNN’s habit of “leaving it there” got me thinking about just where objectivity is supposed to fit into not only the 24 hour news channels, but also journalism in general, especially with the rise of openly partisan blogs and news aggregators. Objectivity has been something of a uniquely American goal in journalism. In Europe at least, almost every media outlet has some sort of bias. Readers of The Guardian know that they’re getting news from a left leaning perspective, and people reading The Daily Telegraph know that they’re getting their news from a conservative viewpoint. Yet they’re fine with this. News outlets in Britain are open about their biases, and as far as I’ve seen, the people of the U.K. are able to participate in a functioning democratic government. But in the U.S., open partisanship has been seen as a very bad thing. Even Fox News, a station that doesn’t really do much to hide its conservatism, spent years with the motto “Fair and Balanced.” But with the rise of the Internet, I’m seeing objectivity becoming less and less important for many news outlets. Talking Points Memo advertises itself as coming from a “politically left perspective.” Likewise, sites like Drudge Report make no effort to hide their conservative leanings. Objectivity is becoming less and less important to people, and if it isn’t handled right, it could very well slide into irrelevance. Which brings us to CNN.
For the past few years, CNN has prided itself on being the most objective of the 24 hour news networks. MSNBC might be liberal, and Fox News might be conservative, but CNN was different. According to Rosen, how CNN goes about being “different” is exactly the problem. They don’t cut through spin, or even really check the facts. Instead, they did something far more damaging, to both themselves and their audience.
According to Rosen:
“on-air hosts for the network will let someone from one side of a dispute describe the world their way, then let the other side describe the world their way, and when the two worlds, so described, turn out to be incommensurate or even polar opposites, what happens?… CNN leaves it there. Viewers are left stranded and helpless. The network appears to inform them that there is no truth, only partisan bull. Is that real journalism? No. But it is tantalizingly close to the opposite of real journalism. Repeat it enough, and this pattern threatens to become the network’s brand”
It should go without saying that this isn’t very helpful for the viewer, but it’s even worse for the network. CNN has been lagging behind Fox and MSNBC for years, and with an image like that, it’s obvious why. Stations like MSNBC might be biased, and use their reporting to their ideological advantage, but at least their doing reporting. One metaphor I had in my head for CNN’s type of journalism is that of a stenographer: someone whose work consists of taking down someone else’s words, not contributing anything to the conversation. But then I realized even that’s giving them too much credit. At least a stenographer does the copying. CNN acts more like a P.A. system for whoever they happen to have as a guest, with the anchor there mostly to tell them when it’s time to go to a commercial.
Of course, Rosen’s piece isn’t just about trashing CNN. He reports that Mark Whitaker, the channels new managing editor and executive VP, is trying to turn CNN towards objective reporting that entails reporting. Cutting through the opinions and getting to the facts, not letting two pundits talk at each other for 15 minutes. Rosen ends his post on a somewhat hopeful note: CNN realizes things have to change, and is finally taking action. I think that whether or not they succeed is going to be important for objectivity down the line. If they do turn things around, then there might finally be some semblance of objectivity on cable news again, which might actually help bring that standard back into style. But if they don’t, then I’ll be waiting to see where things go. Americans are still adjusting to the partisan news of the Web, but if Europe is any indication, I don’t think the end of objectivity would necessarily mean the end of the world.