Have heart.

I watched a lot of movies while I was on vacation with my parents. The full list is this: Iron Man, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Last Chance Harvey, and Good night, and good luck. Iron Man is a great movie, BB was also good, but long and troubling, Harvey was mostly adorable, but what I really want to talk about is GN,AGL.

Good night, and good luck. is a movie about Edward R. Murrow and his conflicts with Junior Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. The history lesson is short: McCarthy founded the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and unconstitutionally tried people for Communist ties. Murrow, perceiving the illegality and immorality of the Senator's actions, did a series of specials covering the hearings on his show, See It Now. The Senator responded by attacking Murrow without refuting any of Murrow's allegations. An investigation into McCarthy and his actions occurred shortly thereafter.

The message I took away from this concerned a topic that is very prevalent today: what is good journalism? Part of this question revolves around the idea of the "purpose" of journalism. A friend ponders it here, and Andrew Sullivan often does it here. For my own part, I view the purpose of journalism as I view many things, as a spectrum, no pun intended.

On one end is objective journalism: news delivered with as little bias as possible and as accurately as possible. Most news sources attempt to deliver this type of news. The idea is that the news should be one step removed from the event, and that the reporter is a collator, or a curator, if you will. In this case, a reporter is analogous to a mapmaker - the best map is the land itself, but that doesn't fit in your pocket, on your doorstep, on your television, in your browser, so a map is made, a news story written.

On the other end is subjective journalism. I don't have a ready definition for this, so I'll give examples. Socialist newsletters are subjective journalism. Hannity is subjective journalism. Andrew Sullivan is subjective journalism. Perhaps a good word for all this is simply, Editorial. It's the word used in GN,AGL by Murrow to describe his show and his department at CBS.

Is one of these "better" than the other? Arguably, yes. If I want to find out what happened in Ghana today, I would turn to objective news. If I wanted to know how well the American economy is doing, I would turn to objective news. But say I want to know what the American far right thinks about the War on Terror: I would turn to WaPo editorials.

The assumption in answering affirmatively to that question is that news without bias, news written for as wide an audience as possible, is better news. News can still be accurate and biased. Look at John Stewart: the Daily Show is a nightly program that does a very good job of covering the daily news, but it does so with a leftist bias. MSNBC does much the same thing, albeit a lot less entertaining. Sean Hannity also does a daily program that covers the news, with a far right bias. I'm not sure entertaining is the right word, but there's my opinion showing. It's affirming. I don't hold the same beliefs, but I can sense that.

See It Now was an editorial program. The nature of the program was subjective. But it's segments on the McCarthy hearings were revolutionary. For really the first time, the media directly affected politics. Murrow's journalism was solid. It was deep. It was thought provoking. It was accurate. Was it objective? Possibly. His intentions were objective: he was trying to tell the truth.

And that's the rub. Truth is subjective. Watch the interviewhere. Both of these people believe fully that they are right. They are argueing their positions with a passion that cannot be denied. Yet the text agrees with only one of them.

Where does this put journalists? I think you can safely say that journalists should tell the news as accurately as possible. What they tell will be based on their bias. How they tell it should not be. Ideally, people should seek to consume news from multiple sources: good journalists will give out accurate news that they care about, and each news consumer will receive news from a variety of biases. That is a news world I think we could have.


  1. The idea of truth being subjective bugs me. I don't disagree that the way people perceive truth is absolutely subjective, because people's viewpoints are clouded by their own life experiences, deeply held moral beliefs, what have you.

    To me, that seems the be the difference between "personal truth" (my term, afaik), and "actual truth" (objective truth, public truth, something else, the "real" truth"). Clearly, only one series of events happened, and clearly the person/people/market/whatever acted a certain way for either 1 or many reasons. This even is _what happened_, there's no subjectivity to it. The way people interpret the event, and the way people decide the events affect on the rest of the world, this is all subjective.

    I'm doing a poor job of explaining myself, and this example isn't going to help a whole lot, but hear me out.
    Holocaust deniers are _wrong_. In their interpretation of the series of events, the readings they've done, the conspiracy theory they ascribe to, the holocaust never happened, and they're _sure_ of it. This doesn't mean they're right. The events of the holocaust did happen, people experienced it. Some survived, many didn't, but those that did were there. To me, it's very clear cut, the holocaust, as horrific as it was/is, is true.

    The holocaust denier, while in their "personal truth" may be absolutely convinced that the holocaust never happened, are provably wrong.

    It's similar to the Stewart/McCaughey interview, as you said, the text only agrees with one. Therefore, one persons "personal truth" is wrong.

    I'm just talking out loud(in text, on the internet), and voicing my opinion on something I'm not sure I have an answer to yet.

  2. One thing to keep in mind with this, is that objective journalism is not quite the gold standard that we have been told that it is. It did not evolve as a way to give people the truth, unadulterated by opinion or bias. It was a way to sell more news. It allowed media (newspapers at the time) to sell their work to a broader audience, because by framing their work as objective they didn't offend any particular sensibilities. Unfortunately for news now, innoffensive is not the same as true. The strength of subjective journalism, in my mind, is that it wears its flaws on its sleave. Whereas the danger of objective journalism is that it still has bias, its just not as immediately self evident.

    Thats my Two cents

  3. Jay, I agree completely.

    JTS, I want to talk about an unrelated event in history, the discovery of relativity. To all of science before then, Newtonian physics and gravity were absolutely true. They were true to Newton, they were true to Einstein, they were true to Einstein's contemporaries, they were true to random people on the street. Then relativity was worked out, and they were wrong. And some people didn't believe it. Eventually they did. Now we have atom bombs and clocks in our pockets that update from anywhere and shit.

    The point being, if someone along the way hadn't had a stroke of genius to use one certain set of equations, or if Einstein hadn't been suggested to retry using general covariance for his equations on gravity, Newtonian rules would still be with us. Moreover, they would still be true.

    Belief in a subjective truth and belief in an absolute truth are just as strong, and belief is such that it is often unclear as to which type of truth it is. The difference is that you believe your subjective truth to be right.

    The other difference, which is what McCaughey is lacking, and is what science in general holds as its greatest asset, is flexibility when your belief is shown to be empirically false. This is why science progresses, and why the far right continues to alienate the majority of Americans (well, one of the reasons).

  4. glad you finally got to see the movie. when you're up for it, i have murrow's biography,and that's well worth the read, too. the guy was pretty incredible.

    so to throw in my thoughts...

    i've heard journalists described as gatekeepers to information before, and there's something i like about that. not so much the grandeur of "oh look i have the power", but the idea that by opening the gates you unleash a flood of information that you share with the readers and let them decide. like a greek tragedy i suppose (and sadly, some days that's what the front section sounds like...) ideally, i think a reporter (and their editor) should try to present the facts, but also give each side their say. this may mean conflicting stories, but if you widen the lense and present more angles, it not only makes for a better story but a more accurate one. they say a good article should have at least three quotes in it. and this, i believe is similar to what you said about a reporter being a cartographer or curator- it's steping aside and letting the subject present itself while subtly weaving it together to make a tight and comprehensive informative tool.

    i guess what worries me sometimes is subjective news on the internet. call me old fashioned, but it scares me just a little that anyone can put up a page and pass it off as informational and newsworthy. whiel it can be a nice way for media giants to be kept in check, the internet isn't held to the same standards of slander and libel, and while some subjective news sources do "wear [their] flaws on [their sleaves]" not all of them do. it's easier on the internet to mask the source of the news, as well as the informants.

  5. Heh, Jamie, Read the Washington Post edditorial section some time. I promise you, not all mainstream media hold their writers to the standards you might believe. And, as some of my favorite bloggers note, Mainstream media is capable of massive oversights (see calling torture advanced interogation when Americans do it, but torture when it happens anywhere else in the world.) What the Mainstream media is really good at doing, perhaps more than anything else, is selling people on its relevance and nececity.

  6. Oh, and going back to McCaughey, there are more problems than her personal inability to recognize and adapt when she is wrong. However, the problems are (at least in part) not hers. The problem is that the media engages people like her. And this is where having FOX spewing nothing but partisan BS is massively detrimental. See, the NYT or other respectable news sources would never cover someone who is demonstrably nothing but a liar. However, once another news network has decided to listen, and present their views as controversy, other, more respectable news agencies feel free to cover someone like McCaughey, not because they think she has a credible argument, but because someone else has made her argument into a story to cover. And then suddenly she is covered by everyone, and engaged as though she has a credible viewpoint. And so even if John Steward solidly buried her argument under an avalanche of reason, he still has lost ground, because he lent her a stage to begin with. However, the problem is, what else can he, or any respectable news group do? By not engaging, they allow FOX to completely dominate the conversation, and by engaging they lend lies credibility.

    It is, like so many other problems, a classic tragedy of the commons. FOX's sheep are constantly eating that grass, and while it is to the detriment of all for others to go into the same territory, they really have no other choice. Any single reporter does not control the political dialogue, and so their only concern is to cover a story which might be read more than yet another Global Warming story.

  7. jay-
    you know, i don't think i mentioned mainstream media anywhere in my post, actually; though i'm glad it gave you a platform. if you were referring to the standards of libel and slander, then those tie in to laws that have been made, and not "mainstream media". that's just a source of good and legal journalism. it's easier to make a complaint against an established paper or news network because there's an established source behind it. while there are internet news sites that do have physical premises and a board behind them, (for example mnpost), it is easier to be anonymous on the internet. that doesn't mean that internet news is bad and mainstream is good- i hate fox just as much as the next person, and enjoy reading various blogs. the reporter method i described is an ideal, (like i said), but one that i think is very possible to actually carry out. murrow would do stories like that, and i think that's why they were successful.