The mainstream media have given up on truth
The Washington Post is openly calling on news outlets to abandon objectivity.
At the end of January, one of the most experienced and well-respected figures in American media authored an op-ed in the Washington Post. In it, Leonard Downie Jr essentially throws the entire idea of objective truth under the proverbial bus.
Downie was executive editor of the Washington Post for nearly two decades, and was one of the editors who worked on the famed Watergate story that led to President Nixon’s resignation. In the op-ed published last month, he writes that ‘truth-seeking news media must move beyond whatever “objectivity” once meant to produce more trustworthy news’.
I thought I couldn’t get any more disappointed in or cynical about the mainstream media, but even a jaded old-timer like me finds it difficult to accept how far this industry has fallen. According to Downie, the way to gain trust from the public is to abandon objectivity – an argument Downie makes while still calling the media and journalists ‘truth-seeking’. I suppose he just assumes we will take him at his word. Orwell would be proud.
Of course, the media industry had already abandoned all pretence at objectivity quite a few years ago. So, while Downie’s article is hardly surprising, there is something deeply unsettling in watching experienced journalists so cravenly capitulate to the woke mania of the millennial generation.
Downie quotes Kathleen Carroll – former head of the Associated Press – who, like him, questions the very possibility of objectivity in news reporting. ‘It’s objective by whose standard?’, Carroll asks. ‘That standard seems to be white, educated, fairly wealthy… And when people don’t feel like they find themselves in news coverage, it’s because they don’t fit that definition.’
‘Don’t find themselves in news coverage’? Since when do I have to find myself in a news item before I can comprehend it? What an infantilising idea.
You can positively hear the desperation in Carroll’s voice. Desperation over the fact that almost half of Americans say they don’t trust the news. Desperation over the unrelenting narcissism that she obliquely refers to as a defining characteristic of her remaining readership. Imagine thinking that a reader has to personally identify with a story in order to make journalism a worthwhile endeavour.
According to the Washington Post, journalists should contort a story so it affirms every pre-conceived notion your reader has. Telling your readers how something really is, even if it risks disabusing the reader of those notions, is no longer necessary.
Journalism’s brief period of objectivity was an interregnum between the rough-and-tumble newspaper class wars of the early 20th century and whatever you want to call the pantomime hellscape of today. Now, that period of objectivity is officially dead and buried. It is clear from Downie’s article that the industry has been wholly captured. What used to be thought of as a workman-like job, in which you dug up facts and presented them to your readership, has been taken over by an elite clique of pampered millennials. Members of this clique went to all the same schools and have all the same opinions. Their sworn mission is to make sure their shrinking readership knows how ideologically pure they are. Factual reality – once the king of the newsroom – doesn’t come into the equation. The king is dead. Long live the king.
In fairness to Downie, he does make some half-hearted attempts to maintain the veneer of professionalism that used to come as standard. For instance, he quotes a fellow veteran, Joseph Kahn of the New York Times: ‘You can’t be an activist and be a Times journalist at the same time.’ And Downie himself also makes a feeble attempt at basic professional integrity: ‘Newsroom staff diversity should reflect the communities being covered – not just gender and ethnic diversity, but also diversity of economic, educational, geographic and social backgrounds.’
But such milquetoast observations feel like a fig leaf covering up the media’s obscene derelictions of journalistic duty. Just one recent example of this is the collusion between Big Tech and the security apparatus of the United States revealed by the Twitter Files last year, which merited barely a sidebar in the liberal media.
Funnily enough, that episode goes unmentioned by Downie. But he does find the column inches to opine: ‘Responsible news organisations need to develop core values by having candid, inclusive and open conversations. Making these values public could well forge a stronger connection between journalists and the public.’ But this has already been done ad nauseam by the great and the good of the media. By now, news must surely be the most navel-gazing, self-regarding industry of all time.
There is a silver lining in this op-ed, and I found it in the comments. Judging from the people commenting under the piece, even the ultra-liberal, vote-blue-no-matter-who readers of the Washington Post were not buying what Downie was trying to sell them.
One commenter wrote:
‘What’s really happening is young reporters are using emotional blackmail and not-very-sophisticated [postmodern] sophistry to excuse themselves from professional standards. I understand why new reporters would like to be liberated from dull, but necessary, professional standards, but I don’t understand why the grown-ups go along with it to the detriment of their profession.’
The biggest problem with journalists may not even be their recent swing to the left, their intolerance of differing opinions or their backstabbing newsrooms – all characteristics of younger, woke media staff. Instead, the biggest blindspot for journalists of generations new and old is their tendency to vastly overestimate their own importance, and vastly underestimate just how few people share their outlook outside their media bubbles.
Jenny Holland is a former newspaper reporter and speechwriter. Visit her Substack here.
Picture by: Getty.
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