Objectivity is Not the Opposite of Standing for Something

Words I never thought I’d write: Elias Isquith, my favorite liberal blogger in the entire history of the universe ever, thinks that Fox News is ultimately good for journalism and, I assume, democracy.

Writing over at Salon, Elias is taking aim at that triumvirate of dispassionate darlings, Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein, and Nate Silver.  Moreover, he’s slipping his blades into the very concept of objective journalism — the practice of which, to Elias, is “almost as bad” as a rolling back of civil liberties on African Americans (or worse, bringing back the Bee Gees).   Quoting Jay Rosen and Paul Krugman respectively, he dismisses this View from Nowhere with the famous joke headline, “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a point.”

He’s right about that last bit, of course.  Too much of our current so-called “objective journalism” format relies on taking quotes from opposing sides and placing them in juxtaposition prior to publishing.  Sometimes it feels like a newspaper reporter can’t run a story about how clear the science is on fluoridated water without calling around to get some kook to say that fluoride is being used to make the citizenry docile for “the next phase.”

Where Elias and others trip up, however, is that they assume the flaw in such reporting is objectivity.  It isn’t; reporting on the scientific findings of fluoridation without calling the John Birch Society is objective reporting.   You might not know that if you’re a scientist, however, which means in order to objectively report on it you have to read some science journals, and then have long conversations with people who know what the results in those journals mean, and do some research into whether there are other peer reviewed journals that disagree — and then go find people to talk to about those. No, the enemy that makes reporters call the kook isn’t objectivity; it’s laziness.  (And that’s an important distinction, because there isn’t a type of journalism more lazy than punditry.)*

There’s also the very valid point — made by Stillwater to me a lot over time  — that you can never truly be “above the fray.”  We all have our ideologies (even me); we all have our points of view (especially me).  There is very little in this world outside of pure mathematics that is truly objective — and some philosophers even quibble about math.  But, as with world peace, racial harmony, and liberty for all, sometimes the pursuit of the impossible is worth doing all the same.

Because if you decide that objective journalism is bad, then you’re only a few steps away from deciding that the Fox News model of just making s**t up is what good journalists do.  Here’s Elias:

And while it inspired gnashing of teeth and rending of garments from elite journalists more comfortable with the old guard, the ascension of “partisan” media like Fox News, the Huffington Post, “lean forward”-era MSNBC and group blogs on the left (Daily Kos) and right (RedState) was ultimately a good thing. There were drawbacks to ideological news sources, sure; but even if the range of stories covered by a lefty blog was more circumscribed than what you might find at CNN.com, readers could have more of a sense of the biases undergirding any given news source’s reporting and could apply grains of salt accordingly. They wouldn’t have to wonder if a glowing profile of Noam Chomsky gave short shrift to his critics, because they could note the political orientation of the news provider, and get further information from its opposite, before forming their own opinion. It’s not a perfect model, by any means, but it has one huge advantage over the previous standard: It’s honest. 

I’m not sure quite how to respond that this, so I’ll simply say that, after three years of covering Fox news and other conservative media sources, Elias and I have a very, very different definition as to what counts as “honest.”

Ironically, even as Elias points out the potential flaws inherent in The View From Nowhere, he blindly succumbs to those same flaws himself.

Elias sees but two possibilities: the “ultimately good” partisan whips of Fox News, Red State, MSNBC and Daily Kos, or the embarrassingly terrible, white-splaining piece by Chait.  “Shape of the Planet” indeed — in the world of partisan punditry, there are indeed but a Brooks-and-Broderish two sides and two sides only, and if Chait has slipped up this badly then surely Fox News is good for the nation.

Except, of course, that no matter what pundits say there aren’t just two ways to look at anything.  You can actually stand for something and hold objectivity to be precious; you don’t actually have to choose.  Indeed, one can look no further than Chait’s most recent race-matters sparring partner to find such an example: the great Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Responding to Chait’s “black culture” remarks over the past few weeks, Coates explains in multiple posts why, while firmly taking a side, the Way of Murdoch is an empty one:

The primary goal of this space is to promote clarity and understanding. The sonning of all interlocutors must always play the back. That is because those of us who seek clarity know that even if we son today, we almost certainly will be sonned tomorrow. Sometimes—in fact often times—the greatest clarity comes in being sonned. My greatest lessons have come to me on my ass, with someone—my dad, my mom, my professor, my editor, my friend, a commenter—standing over me. Seeking clarity is not the business of being right. I hope to often be right. But I know inevitably I must, at least sometimes, be sonned…

It’s tough to remember that you must never do it for [a team]. It’s tough to remember why you came. Why you came was not to be lauded for “destroying,” “owning,” or otherwise sonning anyone. You must always define the debate and not allow the debate — and all its volume and spectacle — to define you…

What I hope to take from this … is something beyond dueling rhetoric. A writer is, mostly, a professional amateur. Part of the job (the least important I’d argue) is fighting with other writers. Certainly what they report back cannot be definitive. But it can be informative. And it can take us away from the land of thought experiments and theorizing, into the world of real people doing real things.

I put it to Elias that there’s more truth in those three paragraphs than a week of Fox News programming and Daily Kos postings combined.

 

* I should note that while I’m standing up for objectivity, I’m not necessarily standing up for Chait, Silver or Klein.

Our disagreement about objective journalism aside, I agree with Elias that Chait’s recent race stuff is both terrible and tone-deaf. I also agree with him about Silver’s new project; it’s kind of boring to my taste.  And I have yet to check out Vox and was never enough of a Klein fan to read him regularly, so I really have no opinion on Ezra’s new joint.

 

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55 thoughts on “Objectivity is Not the Opposite of Standing for Something

  1. I really like Jon Chait. He is one of my favorite liberal bloggers/writers. He got a bit over his head in the latest blog sphere fight though.

    That being said, I don’t think Salon is judging him correctly. I’ve stopped liking Salon.com a long time ago. In many ways, they are the Foxnews and Michelle Malkin of liberals or not even liberals but representative of the anti-liberal left. Joan Walsh strikes me firmly as always trying to hard and being rather proud of being oh so radical. Elias just seems to do a reader’s digest version of Paul Krugman columns. They still have some good features but I am largely now in the Michelle Goldberg camp, we’ve discussed this previously:

    http://www.thenation.com/blogs/michelle-goldberg

    I think Salon.com did a bit of strawmaning with Chait.

    Salon.com is part of the problem of what a recent Atlantic article called The Culture of Shut Up. They are the types to use check your privilege as a shut up term. Epic Fail is another variant of “shut up, you are wrong, bad, and should feel bad.” Epic Fail is how Walsh described Chait’s New York article.

    That being said, there is a nice refreshingness to partisan journalism. I would hardly call Chait an objective journalist. He is a very openly partisan Democratic writer and possibly the best skewer of Republican and Libertarian pundits and politicians in his generation. I suspect that in a few weeks, Chait will relentlessly skewer a GOP person again and be linked to on LGM or Salon.com with a right on.

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    • Re: Chait being over his head, I don’t think that’s quite the right way to phrase it. Or not the way I’d phrase it. From what I’ve gathered reading TNC’s posts on the debate (and only a little of Chait’s writing itself), it’s a matter of Chait being wrong, TNC correcting him, and Chait more or less conceding the argument to TNC. So it’s not a matter of Chait being in over his head, I don’t think. It was about Chait voicing views from a place of unexamined privilege and getting called on it. One of the side benefits is that people like Sully have admitted the exchange revealed uncomfortable aspects of his own unexamined privilege that he otherwise wouldn’t have become aware of.

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      • that’s exactly how I read it.

        It was actually sort of fun to watch some big-name writers go through what I, as a member of the horde, went through reading and commenting there a few years ago. TNC runs one of the best liberal-thought schools out there; and I’m particularly fond of his chosen moderator, who first showed up as Corkingiron.

        TNC’s blog demonstrates the value of good moderation; that we do we do need authority figures to tell us all to settle down; too. I think, too often, calls to be respectful to disrespected groups (which is what the whole PC thing was about, no?) get confused with calls to be criminal.

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      • I was thinking more of his feature piece for New York magazine than the general Chait-Coates debates where Chait did concede a lot. He is still standing by his New York feature.

        http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/04/obama-racism-and-the-presumption-of-innocence.html

        I wonder if I should write a piece for OT on Jews and privilege. There are only 14 million of us in the world. There are plenty of places in the United States where Jews are still considered to be non-white even if the general assumption among urbanely-inclined liberal folk is that Jews have “become white.”

        This is not to say the privilege is not relative but complicated. Privilege is a very useful concept that has been steamrolled by the internet into easy simplicity.

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  2. Intentionally or not, Elias ends up praising lack of fact checking and the placement of partisanship above honesty.

    I suppose it says something that Salon pays for that kind of argument.

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    • I don’t think that’s quite true. Not if one takes it as a matter of fact that (given reality’s left-wing bias or some similarly self-gratifying perspective) that partisanship is honesty. If one believes that the current political struggle is against one side that is mostly honorable and the other outright destructive, than any attempt at fairness is a concession to the destroyers. If reality is a constant vindication of a leftward worldview, than truth and honesty are partisan.

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      • Yeah, I sorta agree with this. Elias is arguing that constructing arguments from the Nowhere View is misguided and reveals a lack of honesty on the part of the arguer, honesty that ought to be lauded in individuals who wear their POV on their sleeves. What he’s not arguing for, it seems to me (and is arguing against insofar as he’s adopting Rosen’s definition of the term), is that objectivity is rendered irrelevant or that dishonesty in reporting is justified:

        Indeed, journalism is impossible if its practitioners don’t acknowledge the existence of at least some kind of baseline objective reality. But the view from nowhere is more often a self-flattering and ass-covering gimmick, one that is intended to protect the journalist from receiving criticism for partiality but often leaves the reader less informed as a result.

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      • I think you missed the “or not” part. Elias is praising Fox, or at least what leads to Fox, and we know Fox’s difficulty with empirical facts. So, yeah, he’s praising that.

        If reality is a constant vindication of a leftward worldview, than truth and honesty are partisan

        Self-deception doesn’t get a person off the hook.

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  3. I’m sort of stunned that he equates opinion writers (Noonan and Will) to journalists.

    The line is blurred a lot in journalism that imbed opinion, but professionally, they are two different skill sets; though they’re often intertwined. But an opinion-page writer is NOT a journalist. A pontificating babble-head on cable news is not a reporter.

    Sorting those things out would be a nice place to start.

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      • Nob, I think it goes all the way through. The Chiat New Yorker piece is an analysis, yes, but it’s written as an opinion, not journalism. Were it journalism, Chiat would have been taking his analysis to shape questions for others to answer.

        It’s built on bits like these three paragraphs:

        By the outset of Obama’s presidency, they found, the gap in approval of the president between those with strongly liberal views on race and those with strongly conservative views on race was at least twice as large as it had been under any of the previous four administrations. As Tesler delved further into the numbers, he saw that race was bleeding into everything. People’s views on race predicted their views on health-care reform far more closely in 2009 than they did in 1993, when the president trying to reform health care was Bill Clinton. Tesler called what he saw unfurling before him a “hyperracialized era.”

        In recent history, racial liberals have sometimes had conservative views on other matters, and racial conservatives have sometimes had liberal views. Consider another measure, called “anti-black affect,” a kind of thermometer that registers coldness toward African-Americans. Prior to 2009, anti-black affect did not predict an individual’s political identification (when factoring out that person’s economic, moral, and foreign-policy conservatism). Since Obama has taken office, the correlation between anti-black affect and Republican partisanship has shot up. Even people’s beliefs about whether the unemployment rate was rising or falling in 2012—which, in previous years, had stood independent of racial baggage—were now closely linked with their racial beliefs.

        Racial conservatism and conservatism used to be similar things; now they are the same thing. This is also true with racial liberalism and liberalism. The mental chasm lying between red and blue America is, at bottom, an irreconcilable difference over the definition of racial justice. You can find this dispute erupting everywhere. A recent poll found a nearly 40-point partisan gap on the question of whether 12 Years a Slave deserved Best Picture.

        He makes an assertion, sites some research to back up the assertion, and then offers his analysis. (I’m distubed that the sourcing of the ‘anti-black is circumstantial, based on the previous paragraph, and not attributed.) Now I in no way mean to suggest this is a bad thing to do; but it’s opinion writing, not journalism. If it were journalism that third paragraph would be him taking that analysis, finding an expert or multiple experts in the field, and framing the question so that the expert(s) could give their analysis. A really good journalist would make clear that the research to support the story was shaping the questions to the experts; the journalists analytical skill matters here; it shapes the work, but he opinions are from sources, not from the journalist. You find people to tell the story for you.

        An opinion writer, on the other hand, analysis the information, and interprets it for you; it’s their opinion on what it means you’re hearing. And here, the writer’s bias should definitely be revealed, because that’s the context from which the opinion flows.

        It saddens me that we so rarely recognize the difference; that we confuse the two.

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  4. I think his point is summed up in the sentences:

    By choosing to get things started with a piece about the inescapable nature of subjectivity, Klein seemed to be making a subtle recognition that no one can “explain the news” without having their own biases color their explanation.

    Elias is saying rather more Slate-ishingly than I’d expect him to, that Subjectivity is the rule in human interactions, and it’s the practice of pretending one doesn’t have subjective binders that’s so pernicious in modern journalism. And I happen to think he’s right. The self-deluded smugness of the wonkish journalist is one of the things that makes being a policy analyst so frustrating.

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    • Sure, but so is the ideologically blinkered pundit who thinks no empirical fact can be true unless it fits what they want to believe.

      You were trained to be empirical, not just values-based, right? In suggesting the Fox way, Elias is advocating anti-empiricism. And look at this bit Tod quotes:

      readers could have more of a sense of the biases undergirding any given news source’s reporting and could apply grains of salt accordingly. They wouldn’t have to wonder if a glowing profile of Noam Chomsky gave short shrift to his critics, because they could note the political orientation of the news provider, and get further information from its opposite, before forming their own opinion.

      So Elias’s view is that reading opposing ideologues–opposing abusers of facts–is a good way to get at the truth? If we listen to a person with a left bias, then a person with a right bias, we’ll know what’s truly what?

      And how many people will even listen honestly to the pundit with the “other” bias?

      Elias seems to be positing that our only choice is between those who put their bias above all, and the smug self-deluded wonk. I don’t think anyone serious about policy should prefer either one.

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      • I’m trained in empiricism, but I’m also trained to be skeptical about data I’m presented, as qualitatively trained as I am quant.

        I just find the whole lack of Bayesian self-awareness on the part of journalists like Silver or Klein to be a bit troubling.

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      • Elias seems to be positing that our only choice is between those who put their bias above all,

        That’s not how I’m reading Elias. His argument seems to me to be this:

        1. There is no view from nowhere.
        2. Given that there’s no view from nowhere, we’re better off with pundits honestly expressing their biases right up front (rather than pretending they’re “objective”, or “above the fray”, etc).
        3. We’re better off with pundits expressing their biases right up front.

        1 is doing all the work here, it seems to me, and whether or not we accept the conclusion will depend on how we view premise 2. Tod’s claim doesn’t follow from the argument I just made tho. For that to be the case, we’d need a different premise 2.

        2′: given 1, we’re better off with pundits who honestly express their biases right up front and dishonestly argue for those biases.

        I’d have to read Elias’ piece again to make sure, but I don’t think he said anything that strong in the article.

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      • There’s a crucial difference between being skeptical about data and selective about it. I’m less bothered by people who lack appropriate skepticism than I am by those who are selective. The former are just naive, while the latter are dishonest.

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      • It seems to me that rather than have this discussion surrounding some abstract universe, when we have a very real and concrete case study we can observe.

        Consider: Is there a side/party that has been substantially more embracing over a longer period of time of the idea that there is no objective journalism, that the very attempt to be objective should be suspect and “other,” and that citizens should consume journalism that is honest about which side/party it specifically is there to endorse?

        If so: How’s that working out for them? Do their consumers strike you as more or less falling into the traps of “self-deluded smugness” and misinformation?

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      • I think when viewed solely in a binary of party politics, you have a point, Tod, but there’s also the simple fact that the US has a very long and storied history of alternative news sources outside of the mainstream media which have long worn their sympathies on their sleeves while still trying to present empirical arguments. And it was often those sources that pushed for social justice issues when mainstream media outlets were unwilling or too complicit in working with an unjust status quo.

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      • I guess, then, it kinda feels like we’re talking past eachother, Tod. I think there’s space (and even a need) to acknowledge subjectivism in data and knowledge without abandoning empiricism. That is: to move beyond positivism. I think positivism in journalism is a dangerous thing, particularly since the demographics of news media trends white, middle class and male.

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      • Nob,
        I don’t think the issue is having a particular viewpoint, but how one relates to empirical evidence within that viewpoint. Of course everyone has a bias, but do you allow the evidence persuade you when it doesn’t match your biases, or do you use evidence dishonestly to prop up your bias? By saying Fox News is, overall, a good thing, Elias staked his claim on the side of people who use evidence dishonestly.

        Elias could have praised being honest about one’s biases without saying Fox is good, because it’s possible to be honest about one’s biases without being dishonest with the evidence. But he didn’t.

        And frankly, when he objects to letting the facts take you where they do, I’m appalled. Facts don’t dictate your response to everything, but you still have to follow them and let them shape your understanding. Having a committed POV is no substitute for being open to continuous learning, intellectual challenge, and willingness to change one’s mind when the evidence dictates you do so.

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      • Yeah, I think Elias does go too far in saying Fox is a good thing, given the myriad problems it has with empiricism. It seemed to me, at least, that the first half of the piece was more focused on noting that subjectivity colors everything and a good empirical writer will be able to compensate for that 1.by stating their own priors and 2. being self-reflective of that.

        I think TNC does an incredibly good job of both 1 and 2.

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      • I’m in general agreement here, but I would add on that I think it’s possible to be a neutral reporter with respect to both sides, while still being objective about the truth.

        Not every journalist has to be, or ought to be, a pundit. I think it’s entirely appropriate to have one portion of the media saying, “I’m not taking a side on whether everyone has a right to health care because that’s a values issue and different people have different values–so we’re going to report what those with different values say–but I will note factually incorrect claims and not let them pass unchallenged.”

        I think Elias wouldn’t agree. I think he would call that “the view from nowhere.” I would call it being a mediator, of sorts. But Elias cares about punditry. He does it well enough that he’s worked himself, apparently, into a paying position with an influential media organ. Good for him, I guess, but of course his own claim about this issue is coming from a perspective with its own bias. (I’m sure he would agree with that–he’s a pretty honest fellow, in my experience.) My bias is different. So as Elias has encouraged, folks can look at his position, note the bias, look at my position, note the bias, and then presumably work out what’s true. ;)

        Unless, perhaps, there is no objective truth, only bias. I don’t think Elias is saying that, and I certainly hope he’s not.

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  5. I think we are talking past one another, then. I (pretty much) agree with everything you say here. But, as with Elias, I don’t think it’s an either/or choice; that is, I think it’s possible to acknowledge your point of view *and* make an attempt to look at data rationally and objectively. In journalism I think doing so is necessary.

    To take an overly black-and-white example that has nothing to do with math, consider birtherism. You need not embrace positivism, I think, to acknowledge that there is a very definitive and objective data point as to where the President was born. Reporting on birtherism as something which either was or very well might be true is good example of eschewing objective data for the purposes of your political point of view. (Indeed, I think we all agree that pretty much no one outside of a few whack-job bloggers who were “reporting” the story really thought that the president was born in Kenya.)

    If we could go back to the Orbology book club, there is a great scene where Vorbis is explaining to Bruthah how the truth often gets in the way of the Truth, and so the truth must be buried in order for the Truth to be revealed. This, I would argue, is what demanding that journalism becoming a sea of pundits battling for supremacy leads to.

    I would argue that Fox News doesn’t become Fox News because of the ‘binary of party politics.’ Rachel Maddow and Ira Glass still operate in that same binary, and they are not Fox’s mirror image. Especially Glass’s people, who I listen to far, far more than I watch Maddow. Glass and company constantly produce some of the best journalism available today, and they absolutely come from a point of view that is known. But it isn’t the point of view that makes what they do great journalism, it’s the dealing with actual facts and objective data, even when those facts and data don’t led them where the audience might have preferred the story go. (I still maintain that TAL is the ONLY vehicle in the country that did a decent job report in on what health insurance companies do back in 2009.) More importantly, they try to make sense of what that data means in a way that isn’t partisan — even if they themselves might be liberal to their core. That is not what Fox News does.

    Fox News is Fox News because they decided that the point of view they were promoting was more important than whatever the objective facts told them — that the Truth was more important than the truth.

    And that’s just as likely to happen with any independent press organ that makes the same fateful decision — though the damage Fox does is obviously greater than the damage, say, AV4M does, based on scale and reach.

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    • One of the problems I think this debate is suffering from is a conflation between objectivity and neutrality.

      Neutrality is where you take no position on what you are reporting. Objectivity is when you take a position of factual-related matters that is consistent with the available evidence. Neutrality reports that “Opinions differ on the shape of the Earth”; objectivity reports “While opinions differ on the shape of the Earth, the best available evidence (summarise evidence) suggests that it is an oblate spheroid”.

      Furthermore even if true objectivity (and true neutrality) are impossible, we can still discuss whether more or less objectivity is desirable. I can well believe that there is too much neutrality in the media, but I have a hard time believing there is too little objectivity. In fact, I suspect a diverse range of reporters that are clearly non-neutral but trying to be as objective as possible may be optimal.

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      • ….which reminds me of Thomas Haskell’s book “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality.” A professor I had in a history research seminar had us read it. I agree with the title (and with you). My main problem with the book (and not with you) is that Haskell seems to be addressing a straw person as it applies to history. But it’s been about 8 years since I’ve read it.

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    • Tod,

      Fox News is Fox News because they decided that the point of view they were promoting was more important than whatever the objective facts told them — that the Truth was more important than the truth.

      Sure, that’s a valid and I’d say pretty accurate description of Fox News. I don’t think the analysis you provide here is disputed by anyone who’s been paying attention and hasn’t drunk the kool-aid. In particular, I think Elias would agree with it. More importantly, tho, what you write above isn’t inconsistent with anything Elias has said in his piece. When he talks about honesty in the passage you quoted in the OP, he’s referring to the honesty of wearing your ideological or partisan bias on your sleeve and not pretending to be above the fray as an appeal to some sort of “higher reason”. So the type of honesty he’s talking about is limited to the meta-level: being honest in admitting that one has an ideological pov or even agenda.

      That type of honesty is distinct from a different type of honesty – the one you’re talking about here – which could (and often does) exists independently from the type of honesty Elias is talking about. That is, it’s perfectly possible for a person honestly express that they’re an X and to intentionally construct false and misleading arguments to support Xist positions and policies. Likewise, it’s perfectly possible for that person to construct honest arguments supporting their preferred views.

      The two things are just flat out distinct, it seems to me. I mean, the whole topic of his post exists at the second order (meta) level of analysis and critiques a few media folks’ for claiming to adopt a view from nowhere and is specifically not defending or advocating or justifying dishonesty simply because a person admits they have a pov.

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      • Maybe, but I think there’s something else there that isn’t unique to Elias.

        Like I think there is a growing conflation of journalism and punditry, and nowhere do I think this as prevalent as with pundits themselves. I have noticed over the past decade a growing trend for pundits to point not toward news (or science, or academia) but other pundits when making arguments. A lot of people criticize “kids today” for getting their news from the Daily Show, but no one seems to notice that the source so many “serious people” as well as “people who are serious about criticizing serious people” get their news from these days is pundits, who in turn get their news from other pundits.

        I’m pretty sure if Elias made a short list of his 10 favorite journalists, that I would in turn argue that at least half of them don’t actually perform any journalism whatsoever. Indeed,I think it’s telling that his three exemplars of how scary journalism can be when reported “from nowhere” aren’t actually journalists at all: two are pundits, and one is a combination stat-cruncher and media critic. (And again, I don’t think this is just an Elias thing.)

        So when he talks about journalists who do or don’t wear their stripes on their sleeves, I think he’s talking about something very different that what I consider to be journalism — and which, not coincidently, promotes Elias, and me, and DougJ, and Jonah Goldberg to being “journalists” of varying import even though we really aren’t. And I think this is a very dangerous trend.

        That, of course, might well be my age showing.

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      • It’s pretty easy to construe Rosen’s meaning that way — that journalists ought be pundits. From the link Elias provided:

        Because it has unearned authority in the American press. If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it. The View from Nowhere doesn’t know from this. It also encourages journalists to develop bad habits. Like: criticism from both sides is a sign that you’re doing something right, when you could be doing everything wrong.

        I actually agree with a lot of what Rosen’s saying here. But the answer is not expressing your opinion in your writing, which essentially turns it into punditry, it’s letting your bias shape your work, and the balance comes when you push hard against your biases.

        The insights and beliefs (ideologies) you hold should shape the stories you pursue, the questions you ask, the sources you seek out; including the sources who will challenge your bias.

        Good journalism does not hold an opinion, it’s informed by an opinion and seeks to explore it by questioning others, and fairly reporting what they say within context.

        I think Rosen’s comment is somewhat correct, when there’s a both-sides-do-it sort of reporting that pretends this is providing real insight; it’s not, it’s lazy; and that’s the view from nowhere.

        Punditry is not the answer; better reporting and writing is the answer; more willingness to put context to the various opinions reported is the answer.

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      • And the next question to explore is, Why? Why has “journalism” become what it is and is there a way to get it back on the track zic describes?

        Money. It’s the same reason we have so much “reality” TV. Those shows are incredibly cheap to produce compared to scripted dramas or even sit-coms. Since the advent of the internet and Craigslist newspapers can’t figure out how to make a buck. And with the removal/weakening of community-service standards on broadcasters, the News division has been rolled into the Entertainment division. These outfits simply don’t have the resources or impetus to fund real reportage. Pundits can provide much more “content” at a fraction of the cost.

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      • Exactly Rod. I was going to answer the same thing but was too lazy. ANd I knew you’d be able to say it better. :)

        But really, when Tod says that this trend is “dangerous” I apparently can’t quite feel it the way he apparently does.

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      • I think you’re right on ‘money,’ but the money answer is like an onion, with layers to peel.

        First, good reporting is expensive.

        Second, for-profit media needs ratings, and particularly when it comes to politics, ratings come from maintaining the political sphere as a sporting event. Your audience starts vanishing when the outcome isn’t balanced on the edge of a 50/50 vote.

        Third, media-ownership bias; the wall between the news department and the business department is crumbling, and has been for decades. I tried to push a story on how realtors were inflating prices during the housing boom in several different markets; I had good statistical evidence for this. But every place I pitched the story heavily depended on real estate advertising and turned it down. I was able to write a limited-focus piece on real estate speculation for commercial real estate, but this was a very small piece of the overall story.

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      • “So the type of honesty he’s talking about is limited to the meta-level: being honest in admitting that one has an ideological pov or even agenda. ”

        Which is, in fact, the reason Fox News exists in the first place; the philosophy that people are going to report news from an ideological viewpoint, but that the existing reportage is overwhelmingly liberal, so there might as well be a conservative-ideological viewpoint source.

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  6. I’m reminded of a piece here sometime back by Jason K. about strong and weak facts. In the journalistic trope of “who, what, when, where, and why” the first four are strong facts and we should expect professional, objective journalism to supply those for us. But the “why” of things necessarily involves a degree of interpretation and so that’s where a kind of honestly acknowledged bias starts to kick in.

    And by that last bit i would refer to our criminal justice system as a loose model. Going into a trial you’re starting with a known set of strong facts and the opposing counsel present alternative theories (weak facts) around that evidence. While we expect them to present diametrically opposed interpretations we also expect them to respect certain rules of evidence and process. Not just “anything goes.” It’s not a perfect process, nor a perfect analogy, but I think a useful way to think of these things.

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  7. Douthat goes here today; his claim is that ‘progressives’ lie because they don’t express their ideology; though he’s speaking non-news orgs — Mozilla, Harvard and Brandeis are his examples.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/opinion/sunday/douthat-diversity-and-dishonesty.html?hp&rref=opinion

    The defect, crucially, is not this culture’s bias against social conservatives, or its discomfort with stinging attacks on non-Western religions. Rather, it’s the refusal to admit — to others, and to itself — that these biases fundamentally trump the commitment to “free expression” or “diversity” affirmed in mission statements and news releases.

    His closing graf galls:

    I can live with the progressivism. It’s the lying that gets toxic.

    It is very much the same call Elias is making: declare your ideology.

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    • Douthat, as usual, glances on a decent point while missing most of it. He is into calling out elites but is fuzzy on what that means Mozilla is a elite but somehow conservative businesses don’t’ seem to be elites. He sure as hell avoids noting what raised peoples ire about Ali. It was explicit statements saying all muslim schools should be closed. Advocating one religion should be singled out for a crack down does miff people slightly.

      If he has concrete point about how liberals have used the term diversity it is surely that liberals never really understood diversity to mean bigots get the right to be bigoted at their victims. Depending on the context that is either free speech which we have to deal with however much we disagree or a ridiculous bending of common sense. In general life people can say what they want no matter how horrific or offensive and the rest of us get to say how nasty what they said was. That doesn’t mean every trigger warning or desire for a safe space is an affront to free speech.

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      • I’m thinking this is sort of a back-handed compliment. The norms that created calls for diversity and politically-correct speech didn’t need defining before; now those norms are becoming so not-the-norm that Douthat’s sounding someone in a minority group calling for a seat at the table. But he forgets: the only reason conservative ideologies are clear about their bigotry is because the PC crusaders worked hard to define it, not the conservative-holders.

        So he’s essentially asking ‘progressives’ (sorry, Ross, I’m a proud liberal), to say, “we won’t tolerate people who are intolerant; our concept of diversity does not make room for people who embrace limited rights.”

        /and this did make me feel like asking him to put a disclaimer on every post he writes: women’s rights are secondary concerns; and to be truly diverse, you have to accept my notion that they cannot have equal voice in my religion or control of their bodies. Just to live up to his own standards.

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      • You know, if this hadn’t come up, Douthat would be complaining that she’s getting the degree because she’s a woman of color and why can’t progressives admit that for them race and gender trump merit.

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    • Yeah, I will admit that that’s what he’s arguing here, even if I don’t think his arguments support his conclusion. Eg,

      It would be a far, far better thing if Harvard and Brandeis and Mozilla would simply say, explicitly, that they are as ideologically progressive as Notre Dame is Catholic or B. Y.U. is Mormon or Chick-fil-A is evangelical, and that they intend to run their institution according to those lights.

      I think there are types of ideology that matter here. A long time ago I mentioned to Tod (in his post on principled pragmatism, I think) that what defines a certain type of ideologue is the absence of an algorithm which takes that person back to the empirical world. For some folks, their ideology prevents them from evaluating the truth (or correctness) of certain beliefs against empirical evidence. And this is especially troubling when that person’s beliefs have empirical content (rather than purely normative stuff).

      I also mentioned that one of the consequences of being intensely ideological is that *that* person will look at their own views as being entirely obvious and self-evident and whatnot (that is as not being ideologically driven) and because of that will account for the apparent craziness/falsity of everyone else’s views as resulting from *their* embrace of ideological thinking.

      Seems to me that’s a bit of a trap since one person’s embrace of robust ideological thinking will result in the attribution of ideological commitments to others which may or may not be the case but which are held by the ideologue in any event (a priori, so to speak). THe only way out of the trap, it seems to me, is to appeal to evidence – empirical evidence as well as sound argument – and the role evidence plays in shaping the two people’s views. But if that’s the case (and I don’t know that it is) then when Douthat ascribes the same type of ideological thinking to both progressives and Mormons/Catholics, he’s making a mistake since the core ideology of religionists is at odds with inclusion of empirical evidence as a shaper of beliefs. That is, religionists tend to not have precisely the algorithm taking them back to reality by which differences in ideologies – and various ideological commitments – can be evaluated.

      Granted, in another sense, one in which ideology is limited to the values people hold and promote, he’s entirely correct. But I think he’s incorrect when he says that liberals don’t admit that those are the values they’re basing policy decisions on. In fact, I think liberals have been pretty damn clear about those values for quite a while now.

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      • I think it’s even simpler — he’s using the language of liberalism (diversity and inclusiveness) to claim victimhood, being left out of the diversity and inclusion.

        That kind of rhetorical turnaround is pretty powerful; embrace the pejorative. In the world according to Douthat, calls for diversity that don’t accept bigotry are not diverse.

        He goes a step to far in calling this a lie, he discredits his own argument; he cannot stand ‘progressivism’ because he believes it a lie, and he believes it a lie because there’s not much room for his expressed preferences and its lack of diversity.

        Very circular. A liberal is only true to his or her ideology if they embrace illiberal arguments.

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    • Douthat’s being disingenuous (as is his modus operandi) by turning the refusal to privilege his position over others into a sign of intolerance.

      Further, at least in the case of Brandeis, the very position espoused by Ali regarding the treatment of Muslim schools is antithetical to the foundational concepts of western liberal society. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if she weren’t calling for the persecution of Muslims. If she had said all Catholic schools should be closed down or all Jewish institutions should be required to register with the government, there’d be a firestorm on his blog about how the very invitation to let her speak is showing the bias toward anti-conservatism or religion or whatever.

      It’s disgusting.

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  8. Hey all,

    First off, thank you to Tod for such a thoughtful and earnest response to my column, and thanks to all of you for reading it and discussing it, whether you agreed or not. It’s a privilege, taking up some of someone else’s finite energy and time, and I’m grateful.

    That said, a few points, not so much push-back as an attempt at clarification:

    * I think it’s important to draw a distinction between punditry and straight reporting, and many of you rightly pointed out that those lines got a little blurry in my piece (and are blurry in the discourse more generally). However, I think it goes too far to say pundits are not journalists. I’m obviously more than a bit self-interested in that position — so take it with whatever amount of salt you think best — but I do very much believe that good punditry categorizes, organizes, analyzes and clarifies information, which is at its root the essence of journalism. So, punditry is journalism, imo; opinion journalism.

    * I don’t think Fox News has been a good development for our republic (though I consider it a symptom of wealth-concentration more than a disease in itself) and if I were able to do another round of editing on the article, I’d try to make that section a bit tighter and more specific. I think it’s a good thing that there are outlets which do not pretend to put forward “just the facts,” because while I don’t believe there’s no such thing as objective truth, I do believe that the human capacity to perceive and communicate that objective truth is extremely limited. (Something I often think about is how the words “rush” and “scramble” can mean the same thing while carrying with them profoundly different implications.) So if Fox actually held itself to some ethical standard that says information should be presented transparently, if not “without bias,” I *would* consider it a good thing, despite hating its politics. Fox doesn’t do that, however; it frequently distorts data and lies by omission.

    * But to lay my cards fully on the table: Someone in this thread — I think it was James — argued that on, say, the issue of health care, there’s value in having a neutral reporter. I think that’s true; but I don’t think it’s possible. While there are absolutely different degrees here, I do believe even a reporter trying her very best to be objective will be unable to keep her bias from influencing how she presents information. My favorite health care wonk is probably Jonathan Cohn of TNR, who I think does a great job of presenting the other side’s perspective as fairly as he can without ever pretending he’s something other than what he is: A supporter of the ACA. I would say that it’s impossible to do much better than that.

    Anywho, thanks again to everybody for reading and sharing your thoughts. As a proud-alum-turned-lurker, it’s always great to see how this remains one of the more thoughtful and intellectually curious political blogs out there.

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    • Thanks for the update. I’m happy to see you coming down against Fox’s fact-fudging. I didn’t think you believed pundits should do that, but I worried you didn’t give it proper weight, and worry that you might underestimate the risk.

      I’d say I have greater faith in objectivity than you have. I think it’s certainly a goal that should be pursued in many cases. E.g., whatever one thinks of ACA, I think one can objectively explain its features, why some want it, why others don’t want it, why the initial website was not ready, and how the administration managed to reach the 7 million signups target. In fact I worry that putting your bias out front and center makes it harder to do a fully honest job of that, because it loosens the constraints and lowers the standards for reporting.

      There’s a place for punditry, sure. But the implication that there’s only a place for punditry is overbroad.

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  9. I’ve said repeatedly here (and in previous posts over my time commenting here) that I think recognizing your biases and pushing against them is critical to do good journalism.

    Blogging is often opinion and journalism wrapped together. But even there, that push-back is crucial. I found an excellent example of it today from Kevin Drum, posting to a link to a Brad DeLong piece that answered some economic questions he had after reading Capital in the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Picketty:

    POSTSCRIPT: I’ve gotten a couple of questions about why I seem unduly skeptical, or even harsh, about Piketty’s book. It’s obviously a landmark work, I don’t really mean to be unfair. But it’s a book with innovative and untested ideas that has obvious appeal to anyone left of center, and I think this is precisely the time to avoid unquestioning hosannas. Affinity bias makes us all sympathetic to Piketty’s arguments, and that’s why we should instead question it carefully and thoroughly.

    Source: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2014/04/economist-answers-some-my-questions-about-capital-21st-century

    He’s asking questions trying to understand stuff in a field beyond his usual beat, and publicly saying he’s pushing hard because he finds the argument sympathetic. I wish I saw more of this in Blogland.

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