It was always the case that principled neutrality — a commitment to following the facts wherever they might lead and regardless of which side of the political tug-of-war they might strengthen — was more of an honored value than a rigorously enforced policy. But playing it straight used to be held out as the ideal. Even if that ideal was frequently honored in the breach — even if human nature all too often led reporters, editors, professors, or researchers to spin their findings in ways congenial to their ideological predispositions — it used to be accepted at least in theory that truthfulness and impartiality were fundamental to the missions of journalism, teaching, and scholarship.
No more. Now objectivity is not only not honored in the breach, it is widely disdained. The change had been coming on for a while, but in the Trump era it became open and unabashed.
"For years, I've been among a chorus of mainstream journalists who have called for our industry to abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard," reporter Wesley Lowery proclaimed in a lengthy New York Times essay last June. He called for "reporters instead to focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts," and argued that journalists should not pledge to keep their personal opinions out of their reporting.
For example, he wrote, "moral clarity would insist that politicians who traffic in racist stereotypes and tropes — however cleverly — be labeled such with clear language and unburied evidence. Racism, as we know, is not about what lies in the depths of a human's heart. It is about word and deed. And a more aggressive commitment to truth from the press would empower our industry to finally admit that." In other words, it isn't enough to straightforwardly report what a politician says and allow readers and viewers to draw their own conclusions. A disfavored politician should be referred to explicitly as racist, or as a liar, so that there's no ambiguity about the conclusion the newsroom wants its readers and viewers to draw.
As Lowery noted, his isn't a solo view: "a chorus of mainstream journalists" have been clamoring for the explicit rejection of objectivity.
"Objectivity is dead, and I'm okay with it" wrote journalist Lewis Wallace in an online essay one week after Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017. "Neutrality is impossible for me, and you should admit that it is for you, too." Far from dispassionately reporting the facts without taking sides, Wallace insisted, journalists should go out of their way to incorporate their politics into their reporting:
We will be called politically correct, liberal, and leftist. We shouldn't care about that nor work to avoid it. We don't have time for that. Instead, we should own the fact that to tell the stories and promote the voices of marginalized and targeted people is not a neutral stance from the sidelines, but an important front in a lively battle against the narrow-mindedness, tyranny, and institutional oppression that puts all of our freedoms at risk.
If you have been reading a major daily newspaper or watching one of the main network or cable news stations for more than a few years, none of this will come as a revelation. The same is true if you have subscribed for more than a few years to the popular science journals, or if you follow what is taking place on college campuses . The displacement of objectivity as an ideal in scholarship and fact-finding is by now an entrenched element of elite opinion. That is especially the case when it comes to issues of group identity — those involving race, gender, ethnicity, and class. To mention just a single egregious illustration, one of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution promoted a document last summer that listed "objective, rational linear thinking" as one of the "assumptions of whiteness and white culture."
Yet objectivity still has its defenders, and not only on the right.
In an essay introducing Liberties , a new quarterly journal of arts and politics, the renowned critic and editor Leon Wieseltier makes an impassioned case for "steadiness in the midst of turbulence" and argues that while subjective emotions and the acknowledgement of others' pain are important, they must not be allowed to take the place of facts and sober deliberation. "Objectivity," Wieseltier writes, "is the sturdiest ground of justice, and the despisers of objectivity are playing with fire."
Feelings are a reedy basis for reform. After all, the other side also has feelings — which is how we wound up with the revolting solipsist in the Oval Office. In a democratic society, reform comes about by means of persuasion, and the feelings of others may not do the trick. I may not feel what you feel. I will not be convinced that you are right by the fervor of your feeling that you are right. I need reasons to agree with you, that is, appeals to principles, to rational accounts of preferences, to terms and values larger than each of us which, unlike feelings, we may share.
Without objectivity, without the practice of detachment that makes genuine deliberation possible, without tearing ourselves away from ourselves, justice in our society will mean only what the majority, or the crowd, or the media (all of them fickle) want it to mean. . . . Our system of disagreement will continue to be degraded into a system of umbrage, in which a dissenting opinion may be dismissed as "tone-deaf." Empathy, where it exists, will be remorselessly selective and most often reserved for one's own kind. (Down with himpathy! Up with herpathy!) We will remain stalled in our excitability. But none of the questions that we are asking as a society can be answered with a scream or a scowl.
Some of what I have written here will please progressives. Some of it will please conservatives. I call it liberalism.
Wieseltier, who was fired from the Atlantic in 2017 after his history of #MeToo offenses came to light, acknowledges that there can be much to learn from other people's reactions to our behavior. He was embarrassed and perhaps chastened by the exposure of his crude behavior toward women. Still, he maintains firmly that other people's judgments are not cloaked in truth by virtue of their group identity.
The enlightenment that one acquires from the judgments of others is owed only to their accuracy. It is certainly not warranted by the belief that a person's identity or socio-economic position or experience of hardship confers an absolute authority, a special relationship to truth, a vatic privilege. What a simple world it would be if pain were a sufficient guarantee of credibility. But it is not — indeed, the opposite is the case, pain is myopic and sees chiefly itself, which is one of the reasons it hurts. . . . No whole classes of people are right and no whole classes of people are wrong.
The erosion of conservative values on the right in recent years — the turn toward nativism and isolationism, the overthrow of fiscal responsibility, the Trumpian cult of personality — has been matched by an equally fetid erosion of liberal values on the left. As liberalism has given way to progressivism, the nation has lost a strong traditional defense of core American principles: that individuals should never be judged on the basis of race, that the United States should promote democracy and human rights in the world, that free speech must be defended and censorship opposed, and that market economics, suitably supervised, should be embraced, not destroyed.
The goal of his new journal, Wieseltier writes, "will be, by argument and by example, in politics and in culture, the rehabilitation of liberalism." It is an admirable project, and I wish Wieseltier and his allies (the first issue of Liberties includes offerings from a venerable lineup, including Michael Ignatieff, Helen Vendler, Sally Satel, and David Grossman) much luck.
Liberalism was a mighty force for human progress in the past, and perhaps it can be again. At the same time, Wieseltier says, Liberties is not meant as an exercise in nostalgia:
The restoration of liberal ideas and practices — a social equality based not on venerations of identity but on universal principles; an economic equality based not on a delusion of dirigisme but upon a rigorous regulation of capitalism; a faith in government as one of the great creations of human civilization and the protector of the weak against the strong; an affirmation of American power in the world because of the good that American power can do in the world — is entirely forward-looking. To curse liberalism is to curse the future.
Can principled liberalism — and, with it, a renewed respect for objectivity — make a comeback? Here's hoping.