I was interviewed last year about an event in my life, and willingly participated. I deeply regret that now, feeling like Charlie Brown as Lucy holds the football for him to kick. I am featured, somewhat, in a series of podcasts that can be found here and which covers the event in detail. To this day I have not figured out what happened that night, or why. The event, which happened in 1987, has been covered now by three generations of journalists, and they still are no closer to the truth than in that year when we all were in shock, like me, having no clue why it happened to my family.
My subject here is not that event, but rather the profession of journalism, and why it is of no use in pursuit of truth. Journalists are taught to be professional truth avoiders, though they do not know it. The means by which they avoid truth is called “objectivity”.
I once knew a professional journalist in my second home town of Bozeman, Montana, a very nice and competent man. I am not going to name him, as I am not in a mood to defame anyone, even in the slightest. I will call him “Jerry Fox” instead of using his real name. He is now retired. He worked one time for a small newspaper chain. He got tired of it and pulled out, starting his own newspaper, now defunct, but only due to his retirement. He opted out not so much because he was chasing big bucks provided by a small weekly, since that does not happen. He was one of the good ones, but still, a journalist.
Jerry once wrote about a friend of his who had died, also a journalist. He said that this man, whom he had known for years if not decades, was very good at his job. He said that in all of the years he had known him, he had no idea what his personal political opinions might be. In that profession, this is high praise, a paean to objectivity.
Part of the charade of politics is the candidate debate. Each person running for office is put behind a podium. They have weeks to prepare, and probably know the questions in advance, though officially they do not. They cannot afford to be exposed as the charlatans they are, and so for protection only certain people are allowed to ask questions. They choose carefully, and the questioners are always journalists. Being the person asking the questions in a political debate is considered a high honor in that profession. Only the best are chosen. The affairs are usually an hour or so, and are boring beyond belief. The journalists asking the questions are ever so professional, never giving off a spark of honest inquiry. It is a charade.
In our country, in our world, with so much deceit as we now see with Covid and Climate Change, how is it that journalists never manage to ask the right question? For one thing, if they did, they would lose their jobs. But for another, their training does not allow it. They are paid to be neutral, to never get “emotionally” involved, which is how editors and publishers label honest searching for truth. They are housebroken. Were that not the case, they would be driving Ubers or putting shingles on houses in the heat of summer, or both.
Let’s have an example: Say that in Bozeman there was a fire that burned down a building in the downtown area. Everyone knows about it, as a fire cannot be hidden. Let’s say that a person died in the fire, and that police are investigating for possible cause. Arson that results in death is murder. We are all curious about the fire and how it started. Rumors abound.
Suppose that the fire was caused by a vagrant who dropped a lit cigarette on newspapers he was using for warmth one night. He might have died in the blaze too, but let’s say he woke up and ran away. He was seen by a passerby who recognized him, as Bozeman is still a small town even during the current coastal migration. He is ID’d, arrested, and put behind bars pending trial. His name is publicized in the newspapers. He is appointed a public defender, and good luck with that. He is tried publicly, and found guilty by a jury of negligent murder, or manslaughter. He will live out his sad remaining life behind bars.
Journalists did their job, reporting fairly on the event and the perpetrator and the trial. But there is an underlying reason for the honest reporting: Nobody powerful was involved. A vagrant has nowhere to hide, and journalists have no restraints on reporting on him.
Let’s take a different turn on this event. Say the building is an office complex owned by a very powerful local man, and that he and his son had a squabble. The son, who is well known in town, deliberately set the fire to make his old man pay a price for being a lifelong asshole. We will never know this, as the police will not do a real investigation, and the town journalists, TV and newspaper alike, will not report anything beyond a fire with unknown causes. The editors, the newspaper publisher, the TV news executives, will have their suspicions, but knowing that the building owner is a prominent man, a member of the country club and personal friends with everyone of note, there will be no real investigation. No journalist will leave the reservation and search for the truth. That is career suicide, Uberville.
There are suspicions, of course. and maybe even “tips” given to police and to the news outlets. But reporters are trained to remain objective, not to get emotionally involved, and so no real and honest reporting is done EXCEPT by a new hire, a young and wet-behind-the ears reporter for the newspaper. He is curious and on his own time investigates the matter. Using a keen sense of intuition, he figures out the matter, and coming to work after hours writes up a story, submitting it to his editor.
The following day he is called in to the editor’s office. Thinking Pulitzer, he anticipates the meeting with some excitement. But the editor sits him down, and tells him the story will not be published. He lost objectivity, he is told, and got emotionally involved. The profession of journalism does not allow for anything beyond an objective reporting of “both sides” of the story, forming no conclusions, and certainly not naming names. The work is unprofessional, he is told, and the story dies.
That is my rendition of an old Ben Bagdakian example from decades ago, which I have long lost. Ben went on to give another example, the same reporter again getting excited about a story, investigating it in detail. But rather than writing it up, he instead approaches the editor with it. He is told not to write it, not to get emotionally involved, to maintain objectivity, and to by all means stay on his beat.
In the Bagdakian example, there is no third story. The reporter settles into his profession, writes thousands of objective stories, even wins an award or two (as that profession hands out awards like a troop of cheerleaders with t-shirt cannons). The bottom line, according to Ben: He never again has an original idea.
By the way, in the news business those with the weakest minds and least curiosity, but who have a strong sense of where power lies, become editors. They serve with dignity, and at the end of their undistinguished careers add the word “emeritus” to their title.
What then is objectivity? It is a hiding place, a way to have a small career without jeopardy of the Uber option. Journalists, even in the most prestigious schools like Columbia, are defanged, all time bombs defused before entering the real profession. It cannot be any other way. The upper reaches of our society are corrupt beyond measure, and so cannot be threatened by honest reporting. If by chance someone powerful is undone by reporting, as with Watergate, it is all by design. Woodward and Bernstein were (are) actors reading their lines in an event scripted in advance. At least part of the mythology of Watergate is that journalists are pests to power, and it sticks to this day.
“Objectivity” surely came about as a necessity in journalism, put there by powerful forces in order to protect powerful forces from exposure.
In closing, have you ever noticed that in TV and movie drama, journalists are always portrayed as aggressive and pesky nuisances to power? Have you ever heard a lead actor in a police drama, say Bosch for instance, utter the words “If the press gets hold of this it will blow up in our faces”? In the Bosch series, actor Eric Laden plays LA Times reporter Scott Anderson. Scott is unrelenting, working independently and always sniffing out lies. Bosch, J Edgar, the entire police force all hate and fear him. Scott has an editor, but he doesn’t edit anything. They meet privately on a rooftop and decide what to do with stories, the truth always front and center. Scott is always left to his own devices, never told what to cover.
Bosch is not the exception. Journalists are always portrayed as heroes on TV. For me, that always ruins my willing suspension of disbelief. That’s when I know I am seeing a work of fiction, even fantasy. Journalism is not about pursuit of truth. It is about protection of the powerful from that truth.
PS: In Montana, the most powerful man in the state is (or once was, as he is now 87) Dennis Washington. I’d be very curious to do a newspaper search to see how many times his name has turned up over the years. He (supposedly) owns the Berkeley Pit adjacent to the original, now flooded pit. He also supposedly owns Montana Rail Link, which he purchased, as I recall, from Burlington Northern, now BNSF. It is not that he lacks power and wealth. But he is rarely, if ever mentioned in news reporting. As far as journalists are concerned, elected officials are the source of power.