Yours isn’t either. And if you say otherwise, you’re lying.
By Shaun Poust
[do we need the italics?]
Sam Peterson is a journalism major at Miskatonic University in Massachusetts. Dressed in a brown fedora with a matching trench coat, notebook in hand, he is something of a cliché. He wanted to be a journalist since he was a child—in case that wasn’t already clear—but lately he has been having some difficulties.
“It takes me forever to write an article. Last night I barely slept writing a story that was only 500 words long.” That explained his haggard voice. “Even when I finished I was unhappy with it. I tried my best, but the article was still full of falsehoods. I just couldn’t be objective enough,” he said, resigned.
Sheila Perez is a journalism professor at Miskatonic University concerned for Peterson’s health. She said she doesn’t understand his trouble but is sympathetic. [source check?]
“Perfect objectivity is impossible,” she said, “though it is something we should aim for as journalists.” Perez’s sentiment is shared by many journalists, but it doesn’t seem to do much for Peterson.
“On the Society of Professional Journalists’ blog, they say that you should ‘Seek truth and report it,’” said Peterson. “Their code of ethics says to ‘distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.’ I am just not sure how to do this.”
The ideal of objectivity Peterson strives for is generally taken to be reasonable: The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Ithacan strive for it, too, while Rolling Stone and Buzzsaw have articles with both “news reporting” and “opinion”—“together.”
One might suggest that Peterson’s neurosis could be cured – as could, by consequence, the neuroses of the papers aforementioned—by adopting the freer style of, say Buzzsaw. [a bit too self-complimentary, I think…] In suggesting that, however, we accept as given something we should not: the stability of the concepts of “opinion” and “objective reporting.” Maybe Peterson isn’t fucked up because he can’t be objective; maybe he’s fucked up because the notions of “objective reporting” and “opinion” are fucked up.
As I write about not mixing news reporting and advocacy, I am reminded of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s essay “The Law of Genre:”
“If a genre is what it is…then ‘genres are not to be mixed;’ one should not mix genres, one owes it to oneself not to get mixed up in mixing genres… And if it should happen that they do intermix…then they should confirm, since, after all, we are speaking of ‘mixing,’ the essential purity of their identity. This purity belongs to the typical axiom: it is a law of the law of genre, whether or not the law is, as it is considered justifiable to say, ‘natural.’” [so long-winded, haha]
No wonder, then, Peterson is so frustrated: he is a fugitive of the “law of the law of genre.” He rebels by questioning the very possibility of distinguishing between fact and opinion, for he thereby dismantles the social science of journalism that is based on the acknowledgment that such a distinction is “real.”
Peterson’s idol, famous journalist Stephen Pramson [I love how all of these people share your initials, haha], said he could only find truth if the truth would stop moving. He later jumped off a building chasing the truth, which met him at the same time he met the ground. Or so they say.
Journalists like Peterson want to believe the “truth” is out there for them to grab. They take a look at it, they describe it—they’re done. Journalists like those at Rolling Stone or The New Yorker also want to grab the truth; they look at it, describe it and then they say something hip or liberal. At the same time, however, they rigorously maintain the essential separateness of opinion and news reporting. But what if truth is not just an object and an opinion is not just your voice?
Every field of objectivity is established by an opinion and every opinion depends upon facts. In order to report “just the facts,” there needs to be a decision as to what will count as “the facts,” while, in order to be communicable, every opinion relies upon language and logic that belong not only to the speaker and are “objective.” News reporting and opinion writing are always already contaminated and it is impossible to exorcize them from one another: facts are constituted by an opinion, and opinions are constituted by facts. [solid argument]
“Every word in my article seems to slant this way, then that way,” Peterson said. “Writing news articles never ceases to be stressful. Every word seems to be charged in a way I can’t control. There is always some mood which I miss, or which I add accidentally.”
Radio journalist Serino Preston visited my News I class the other day. Preston wrote a series of stories on workers from around the world. Some were very wealthy and had cushy jobs; others were day laborers making barely enough to live. He said he really wanted to tell the stories of the poorer workers without being an advocate for them. Asked what he wanted if he didn’t want political or social action, Preston said that he really wanted to tell their stories without being an advocate. Instead, he wanted to bring to light our common humanity… from there his response went to dribble. [Are we embellishing too much? Will readers get it?]
The people whose stories Preston covers are often living in terrible conditions, working hard to live (to suffer through) another day. He wants to report on their lives, to “bring to light our common humanity;” he does not want to be an advocate for political action. This is the paradox: if “bring[ing] to light our common humanity” is supposed to have material consequences—i.e. charity, voting a certain way in elections, etc.—then it is by definition advocacy; if “bring[ing] to light our common humanity” does not have any material consequences—and is not supposed to—then it is pointless, and the world would be exactly the same were no one to hear the story at all. He is, by his own terms, either advocating for something or wasting his life.
So isn’t striving to be objective simply striving for pointlessness? Objectivity denies praxis—and for that reason it is wrong. Undoubtedly, having an opinion—indeed, living—depends upon things objectively existing, but we do not need people simply listing “there ares:” “this happened,” “so and so said this,” “President of whatever did that.” Such facts mean nothing outside of some sort of reasoned argument or action. Strangely, whenever someone makes a reasoned argument, it is put into the “opinion” section—which is somehow supposed to mean it is less true than “news reporting.”
I defy any journalist [at The Ithacan – haha, sorry, couldn’t resist] to answer the question of “So what?” as a response to their “objective news piece” without: 1) advocating for a particular cause; 2) resorting to abstract terms (that is, empty signifiers) like “democracy” and “justice” and “freedom.”
“There are pros and cons to all types of writing,” Peterson told me, “but no matter what you do as a journalist, no matter how much you love your craft, you will never have been upfront with your readers. They will never have been sure that you didn’t just make me up. And if you did just make me up, then there would have been no truth in all of your words.”
[Shaun, great work...I understand that you're "making up" the sources and their quotes to prove that it doesn't matter if they actually exist...I'm a little concerned that the readers won't understand that and your point will be lost.]
Shaun Poust is a sophomore journalism major, and he loves reading the Associated Press because he admires its adherence to telling both sides of the story. Even if one of the sides is bullshit. E-mail him at [email protected].