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“The Danger and Sham of Journalistic Neutrality” – Really?

March 14th, 2016

 There was a mini-firestorm in the US media world this morning when National Public Radio (more or less, akin to the CBC in Canada) found itself explaining the important difference between reporting the news and offering opinions about the news on its flagship national morning radio program.

Cokie Roberts, one of NPR’s most revered voices for 40 years, found herself explaining – awkwardly and under orders from senior management – that while she started as a staff journalist at NPR, she became a commentator in the early 1990s.

And as a commentator, her job is to offer her opinions on what goes on in the US, as distinct from her former role of just reporting the facts.

The problem for NPR is …. who knew? I’ve listened to NPR for decades and till today, I would have bet good money she was a journalist.

In recent weeks, Roberts has published critical opinion pieces about the dangers posed by Donald Trump to the Republican Party, politics and democracy in the US.

NPR apparently felt it was necessary to make her role crystal clear to its millions of listeners. Hence her appearance on Morning Edition (listen here) akin to The Current on CBC Radio.

Then, this afternoon, Glenn Greenwald – he of the Pulitzer Prize for publishing Edward Snowden’s leaked emails on our collective governments’ massive secret surveillance of citizens – stepped up to offer a stinging criticism of the iconic importance of journalistic neutrality, or impartiality.

In effect, a rebuke to NPR and the rest of the mainstream US media.

“The Rise of Trump Shows the Danger and Sham of Compelled Journalistic Neutrality”  appears on his blog, The Intercept.

According to Greenwald, it is a complete delusion to think that mainstream media (both commercial outlets and public broadcasters such as NPR / PBS; I am quite sure he’d include CBC as well) can be impartial.

Greenwald terms the reverence for impartiality as “the embodiment of the ethos of corporate journalism …. and a potent illustration of why its fetishized reverence for “objectivity” is so rotted and even dangerous.“​

In other words, argues Greenwald, it is perfectly okay (even necessary!) for journalists to be harshly critical of the clear danger to public democracy posed by the obviously fascist dreams and maniacal political strategies of Donald Trump – at the very same time as they report the hard facts of what Trump actually said at this campaign rally or on that TV talk show, because ….   well …. because Trump is clearly  a threat to democracy.

​ ​This is a very dangerous circular argument.

It completely blurs fact and opinion, which is also a real danger to a democracy.

i.e. Did Donald Trump / Hillary Clinton /Bernie Sanders / Justin Trudeau say “X” at a campaign rally?

Or did he actually say “Y” (something quite different) at that rally, but in the journalist’s opinion, he really meant to say “X”

There is a huge difference. Don’t you need to know what it is?

And sorry, comforting oneself with the nostrum that Trump is, of course, irrefutably awful doesn’t cut it.

(Journalism in Canada has been discussing the rise in the blurring of fact and opinion in recent months. See my HuffPost blog)

I’ll stand by the view that as best as humanly possible, journalists should stick to reporting the facts.

Then, the commentators can “let slip the dogs of … opinion.

 

One Response to ““The Danger and Sham of Journalistic Neutrality” – Really?”

  1. Ken Rockburn says:

    Sorry, Frank, I can’t agree. I think the role of the “dispassionate” journalist is to provide context. This is not “advocacy”, it’s perspective. And you know as well as I do, that “objectivity” is like trying to catch snipes on a beach; you’re told they’re there and yet you can’t ever catch the little buggers. So just doing “He said, she said” doesn’t cut it. So the world of journalism that you appear to be suggesting seems to be one in which, to be not quite theoretic, journos ( to use the Brit slang) would just “report” on the machinations of, say, Hitler or Mussolini et al., without providing context.
    Let the debate begin.

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