Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Invention of Objectivity

Big media pundits are always wringing their hands about how upstart partisan bloggers are destroying the neutral objectivity our country was founded on. (If there’s one thing pundits love to do, it’s hand-wringing.) Without major papers giving everyone an objective view of the facts, they insist, the very foundation of the republic is in peril.

You can criticize this view for just being silly or wrong, and many have, but there’s another problem with it: it’s completely ahistorical. As Robert McChesney describes in The Problem of the Media, objectivity is a fairly recent invention — the republic was actually founded on partisan squabblers.

When our country was founded, newspapers were not neutral, non-partisan outlets, but the products of particular political parties. The Whigs had their paper, the Tories theirs, and both of which attacked their political opponents with slurs that would make even the most foul-mouthed bloggers blush. This behavior wasn’t just permitted — it was encouraged.

You often hear the media quote Jefferson’s comment that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” However, they hesitate to print the following sentence: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them.” In particular, Jefferson was referring to the post office subsidy the government provided to the partisan press.

In 1794, newspapers made up 70% of post office traffic and the big debate in Congress was not over whether the government should pay for their delivery, but how much of it to pay for. James Madison attacked the idea that newspaper publishers should have to pay even a token fee to get the government to deliver their publications, calling it “an insidious forerunner of something worse.” By 1832, newspaper traffic had risen to make up 90% of all mail.

Indeed, objectivity wasn’t even invented until the 1900s. Before that, McChesney comments, “such notions for the press would have been nonsensical, even unthinkable.” Everyone assumed that the best system of news was one where everyone could say their piece at very little cost. (The analogy to blogging isn’t much of a stretch, now is it? See, James Madison loved blogs!)

But as wealth began to concentrate in the Gilded Age and the commercial presses began to lobby government for more favorable policies, the size and power of the smaller presses began to dwindle. The commercial presses were eager to be the only game in town, but they realized that if they were, their blatant partisanship would have to go. (Nobody would stand for a one-newspaper town if the one paper was blatantly biased.) So they decided to insist that journalism was a profession like any other, that reporting was an apolitical job, based solely on objective standards.

They set up schools of journalism to train reporters in the new notion. In 1900, there were no J-schools; by 1920, the major ones were going strong. The “church and state” separation of advertising and reporting became official doctrine and the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) was set up to enforce it.

The entire foundation of press criticism was rebuilt. Now, instead of criticizing papers for the bias of their owners, press critics had to focus on the professional obligations of their writers. Bias wasn’t about the slant of a paper’s focus, but about any slanting put in by a reporter.

So that was the line of attack the house press critics took when the world of weblogs brought back the vibrant political debates of our country’s founding. “These guys are biased! Irresponsible! They get their facts wrong! They’re unprofessional!” they squeal. Look, guys. Tell that to James Madison.

You should follow me on twitter here.

October 19, 2006


I think the flaw here is imposing the social system of the past onto the present.

“Objectivity” is a bad way of thinking about it - I believe a better way is “nonpartisan”.


Got it, heard it, got it, heard it, don’t have to have it repeated uncounted times.

The question is whether destroying the nonpartisan model in favor of a partisan model is such a good idea. I have a deep mistrust of the motives of may of those who advocate this concept, and consider many of them (not you) extremely manipulative and deceptive.

There’s a lot of institutions invented in the past century, from Social Security to financial market regulation, where it could be said “But wasn’t like that in 1776!” - and people using arguments of that type to attack them.

See also an old piece of mine Blogging, Democratic Convention, and Reaction

posted by Seth Finkelstein on October 19, 2006 #

Yeah, everyone is biased. It’s those who pretend they’re not who are most dangerous.

posted by Scott Reynen on October 19, 2006 #

Not that I totally disagree with your reasoning, but I’d like to see examples of media pundits who actually claim that objectivity dates back to the founding of the Republic. Any good media student - whether employed in media or not - knows that objectivity is a relatively recent phenomena.

In addition, there are towns even today where the paper is less than objective and proud of it: consider Manchester’s Union-Leader in New Hampshire. And, I can think of several major J-schools that were not in existence in 1920 (the Univ. of Florida, for example).

None of this excuses any publication, whether paper or weblog, for getting the facts wrong. Hypocrisy (or ignorance) may be an accurate charge on occasion, but sometimes it really is about the facts.

posted by Derek Willis on October 19, 2006 #

A subjective statement from a a source with a stated bias is more valuable than a supposedly objective statement from a source with no stated biases.

We are all biased, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but it may become a problem when a source claims objectivity.

The notion of ‘balance’ in reporting is similarly dubious, as can be seen in attitudes to Capital punishment. You can be for or against it, but I don’t see how you can adobt a balanced view.

Balance and Objectivity in reporting tend to actually support the status quo, taking the bite out of critical comment and dissembling on important issues which need action. They are tools which are employed to quiet debate not further it, stall action rather than support it and are employed by reactionary forces more than radical ones.

posted by Niall on October 28, 2006 #

There is yet another way of looking at this (from an objective viewpoint). As post-modern theorists have been suggesting for some time, there no longer is such a thing as ?objectivity? in our information age. The problem is, we are now awash in a sea of information and opinions. Not only are there an infinite number of them, but they can?t be escaped. Consider something simple and fairly straightforward, for instance, like the shooting at Virginia Tech. One view of the story is that this guy was insane and should never have been allowed to walk the streets. One version was that the school?s hands were tied because of liberal laws that prevent locking people like this up. Another version says if only the students had had handguns. Another version says if only there were better guncontrol. Another pundit blames the school?s technology. Another says technology wouldn?t have helped. Some suggest that the student was the victim of too much teasing by roommates and other students. Which is right? Ultimately they are all right, and they are all wrong. TRUTH can no longer be pinned down because ? as a result of new media ? we?ve lost touch with reality in some fundamental way. And it may always have been the case that papers could not avoid partisanship, but there?s something slightly different at work here.

posted by fragrances on July 13, 2007 #

The important question for me isn’t how our present system came to be. The important question is what the best system is, and how can we get there?

I firmly believe that it’s possible to become less biased. It seems obvious to me that if people are less biased, then they are more likely to have opinions that are aligned with reality. And that has to be a good thing, right?

Here is a political strategy for busy people: Change your position to fit that of the smartest, least biased, most trustworthy, and most informed person you know. Statistically, I think you’re much more likely to have opinions that are aligned with reality. Imagine if 90% of the population did this, while 10% carefully, thoroughly, and objectively thought through political issues and advised the rest on how to vote. I actually think the world would be a better place if we did this. I mean, think about it. Would you rather have a large number of people making badly informed decisions, or a small yet diverse group of people making well informed decisions?

posted by John on November 6, 2007 #

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