What journalists aren’t – but could be – debating

The debate between former NYT executive editor Bill Keller and NSA revelations celebrated journalist Glenn Greenwald on the pages of the New York Times on October 27th received much coverage, including on this site (“Can Greenwald be trusted with journalism’s future?” by William Freivogel on Nov. 1).

The debate skidded to a highbrow conclusion when heavyweight-thinking journalist John Judis (Ph.D. in philosophy from UC Berkeley) contributed his thoughts in the pages of The New Republic, where the headline to his Nov. 6 piece proclaimed: “Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller Are Wrong about Objectivity in Journalism.” Many commentators agreed that the either-or nature of the debate—Keller’s impartiality vs. Greenwald’s advocacy—did indeed render both positions “wrong,” or were at least based on assumptions easily rejected.

Judis starts off well, by informing readers that at a conference in Australia he was asked several times “whether I thought journalists should strive to be ‘objective’.” He had a simple answer for them, he wrote: “yes.” The rest of his argument will be much harder to follow for anyone not schooled in philosophical reasoning.

Readers will have to plow through sentences like these:  “The discussants (Keller and Greenwald) are transporting terms that have understandable meanings into a metaphysical realm where they do not. If you say that there is no such thing as objectivity because we ‘process the world through subjective prisms,’ you can only have known this if you were able to compare objective reality with what you perceive through your subjective prism, but you can’t know this because by your own formulation objective reality is unknowable. This is not just a puzzle or a paradox, but an indication that the assertion itself is nonsense.”

Got it? If not, you understand why participants at academic conferences spend quite a bit of their time doodling or shifting the weight of the body from one buttock to the other.

Most of us understand that the human brain does not act cleansed of preconceptions and prejudices, or as one sharp observer put it, “acts as a calculator on the basis of evidence presented to it. “ He added: “…only the mind of God could attend equally to everything at once.”

So the “objectivity” debate looks like a debate beating a dead horse one more unnecessary time. If Judis had chosen to take a look at the very magazine in which his article was printed, he would discover many pieces of this kind:

–  “I Hate Halloween, Especially in Washington”

–  “Ever Wonder What It Would Be like to Go On a First Date with Ted Cruz?”

–  “America Keeps Electing Politicians Who Have Girlfriends”

–  “Not All College Men Are Sex Crazed”

–  “Here Are All the Chefs the ‘Double Down’ Authors Thanked”

–  “What Jane Austen Would Have Thought About the Kardashians”

Some remember that this kind of “journalism” was stuff for the National Enquirer.

The New Republic, founded in 1914 by, among others, public intellectual, famous reporter and columnist and advisor to presidents Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) always hovered around a circulation of 50,000, but was known as the publication read by everyone who was anyone in Washington and championed the liberal agenda in serious and thoughtful articles and editorials.

In 2012 majority ownership was acquired by Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook. Since then, the magazine seems intent on acquiring a larger and younger readership and is gearing a substantial segment of its articles and posts toward this Seinfeldian audience. It’s the magazine’s own version of PEOPLE for Ivy League graduates, the campy touch aimed to disguise the junk content just a bit. While the New Republic feeds this new fare to its eager readers in Washington and New York, a few TNR old-timers write letters of protest.

Many readers may indeed want this kind of journalism. It’s entertaining or enjoyable. But journalists might want to debate how good it is for informing readers and adding to their understanding of politics and culture.

After all, you are what you read.


George Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, and served as staff reporter for the St. Louis Business Journal and as senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has published three academic books and contributed articles to the Washington Post and the American Conservative.

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