On August 5, 2006, Reuters published a photograph of smoke rising over Beirut from buildings hit by Israeli bombs. It was one of many pictures the news service circulated in covering the month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Within hours, bloggers noticed that the two plumes of smoke looked suspiciously alike: a single plume had apparently been duplicated by photo-editing software, making the bomb damage seem worse than it was.
Within another few hours, Reuters had acknowledged the error and fired the photographer, a Lebanese free-lancer named Adnan Hajj.An innocent error? Perhaps. Reuters publishes some 2,000 pictures per day and, by the nature of the news it covers, must often rely on local stringers such as Hajj. But many people—including Charles Johnson, the conservative blogger who discovered the manipulated image—took this as yet another confirmation of what they see as Reuters’s leftwing, anti-Israel bias. The blogosphere lit up with further discussion, debate, accusations, and speculation. Soon, another of Hajj’s photographs was shown to have been doctored. Before the verbal shooting stopped, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other mainstream media had published stories about the incident.
The Hajj affair was one small skirmish in another war: the perennial—and, mercifully, less violent—war about media bias. Over the course of the last generation, as the scope and immediacy of media coverage of events has increased dramatically, and the sheer volume of information available through cable, satellite, and the internet has exploded, criticism of the media has increased apace. Like a comet, every news event that streaks across the front pages seems to drag behind it a long tail of accusations that the coverage was inaccurate or biased. Every year brings a fresh crop of popular books on media bias, most of them arguing that the media are biased against the author’s point of view.
Bias is a major research topic among media scholars in the social sciences, and there is now an immense body of academic literature: surveys of journalists’ political views; content analyses of news reports about elections, wars, business, and many other topics; sociological studies of journalism as a profession; psychological studies on the perception of bias—the list goes on.
Meanwhile, a small industry of media watchdogs and activists track the major media for signs of false or slanted content. Conservative groups such as the Media Research Center claim that the mainstream media have a liberal bias because they select and frame the news in a way that puts such things as poverty programs and environmental causes in a positive light and things like corporate profits, religion, and patriotism in a negative light. Conversely, liberal and left-wing activists such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting argue that the media have a pro-capitalist bias because they “marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints.” And of course the ranks of the media-watchers are continuously being swelled by free-lance bloggers.
My intent here is not to join the media bias war as a combatant. That’s partly because, on the frontline issue in that war, I think the answer is too obvious. Are the mainstream media liberal? Daniel Okrent, former ombudsman for The New York Times, recently wrote a column titled “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” His opening sentence: “Of course it is.”
Like a comet, every news event seems to drag behind it a long tail of accusations that the coverage was inaccurate or biased.
Most newspapers and broadcast news organs do have a definite outlook on the public issues they cover. But, as we shall see, the concept of “objective journalism” was not introduced for the purpose of forbidding opinion as such in journalism. The traditional purpose was to separate opinion from factual reporting. Okrent’s point in his column was that the Times had breached that wall too often. For example, he noted that during a stretch of time when gay marriage was a major news item, the Times had run a series of articles that “present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading,” with headlines like “'For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy”—but nothing about the opponents of gay marriage, nor anything about potentially negative aspects.
Examples like this show only that a point of view can lead to nonobjective coverage. But of course no one would dispute that. A series of such cases over time, drawn from all or most of the mainstream media, can provide anecdotal evidence that the slant tends to be in one direction rather than another. But this does not prove that the wall between news and opinion cannot be maintained, that objective journalism is impossible, or that news coverage must be opinion in disguise.
These are common claims about journalism today, advanced even by many journalists themselves. But are they true?
At the center of all the controversy is the concept of bias, and its antithesis, objectivity. The term “bias” is used so broadly these days that it can mean anything from racial prejudice, to a preference for one political candidate over another, to a conscious ideology or worldview, to a framework of unconscious assumptions. But it is virtually always a negative concept that we understand by contrast with some positive standard of objectivity. When people complain about bias in the media, they normally assume that the bias can and should be expunged in the name of objective journalism, or at least that journalists should strive for objectivity as an ideal.
A number of media critics, however, have challenged that ideal, arguing that bias is inevitable and objectivity impossible. It is one thing to say that the media are not objective, but they should be. That position at least preserves the standard of truth and objectivity and provides a coherent goal of improving journalistic news coverage. It is another thing to say that the media are not objective and cannot be—with the implication that it isn’t even worth trying, or, worse, that the effort is actually dishonest or destructive.
This is in fact the dominant view among academic specialists in media studies, and it has been for decades. The conventional wisdom in sociology is that the media “construct” reality by the way they select and frame the news.
In Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism—his 1998 book about the history of the objectivity standard in journalism—David Mindich felt that he had to put the word in scare quotes throughout. Postmodernists on the political and cultural left naturally reject the idea of objectivity in journalism, since they reject it in every field. Various libertarians and conservatives have also joined in the attack, arguing that claims of objectivity are a cover for the expression of a liberal perspective and too much dependence on government information. In the pages of Reason magazine, for example, Jesse Walker, editor Nick Gillespie, and others have praised the more personal and free-wheeling style of internet journalism. Even some conservative activists, such as the Media Research Center, seem to have shifted away from the demand for more objectivity, calling instead for more “balance” among viewpoints.
Journalists themselves, who wrestle with the issues of objectivity every day, are more divided on the issue. A recent survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that journalists overwhelmingly believe their job is to report the truth. The most widely used textbooks in schools of journalism still endorse objectivity as a standard. But many journalists now question the possibility of distinguishing fact from opinion, the search for two sides in every issue, and other aspects of the traditional standard. The Society of Professional Journalists dropped “objectivity” from its Code of Ethics in 1996, though it still demands that journalists distinguish between advocacy and news reporting, verify information, publish corrections, etc. Likewise, The Washington Post has replaced objectivity with “fairness” in its code of Standards and Ethics. In short, no one seems comfortable with objectivity, and many people actively oppose it, piling on from every direction.
My goal is not to defend every aspect of the objectivity standard as it has been conceived and practiced by journalists. Some of the specific practices are indeed problematic, and the points raised by critics are valid. But these points need to be distinguished from the broader and more fundamental issues of objectivity per se.
The critique of objectivity in journalism has often been run together with the general assault on objectivity that is a pervasive feature of contemporary culture. I believe that such anti-objectivism is both false and dangerous: false because it relies on epistemological fallacies about what objectivity requires, and dangerous because the possibility of objective knowledge is a pillar of the case for a free society. Journalism is only one of the arenas in which this battle must be fought, but it is an especially important one because of its role as a source of information about the world beyond the range of our own direct experience.
One reason for the unending disputes about objectivity is the lack of a clear definition. The term is used with a variety of meanings, including such elements as:
There is no consensus about which of these elements are to be included in the concept of objectivity and which are to be distinguished from it. But the core element is clearly the first.
Essential to journalistic objectivity is the practice of reporting the facts without the inclusion or influence of the reporter’s own opinions, values, interpretation, partisan cause, or financial interests. It means, for example, reporting on an election campaign without slanting coverage to promote one candidate, or describing a controversy like gay marriage without taking sides. Promoting candidates, taking sides on issues—the whole realm of opinions, analysis, and evaluation—is the job of commentators and editorial writers. The reporter’s job is to get the facts and tell them straight.
This conception of objectivity is distinctive to journalism, and it has a history. The practice of keeping fact and opinion separate developed in fits and starts over the course of the nineteenth century, and journalists did not fully embrace it as a standard until the first decades of the twentieth, during the Progressive Era in America.
When newspapers for the general public first appeared, they offered a blend of factual news, political polemic, personal advice, gossip, and entertainment—essentially the same mix we see today, but with little effort to separate these elements. In America, by the time of the Revolution, newspapers had become highly partisan, focused more on commentary than straight reporting, and were usually affiliated with political parties. The party connection declined over the course of the nineteenth century as newspapers became more lucrative business enterprises, competing for circulation and advertising revenues, producing the sensationalistic and partisan “yellow press” journalism of William Randolph Hearst and his rivals. When Adolph Ochs bought The New York Times in 1896 and announced his famous resolve to “give the news impartially, without fear or favor,” the policy was still far from common.
It was not until the 1920s that objectivity was articulated as a standard for journalists, as part of the broader effort by the Progressive movement to bring scientific methods to social and political issues. Walter Lippmann and others argued that journalism should adopt professional methods and standards for gathering news, documenting sources, assessing statements for credibility, etc. At the core of this view was the belief that reporting should be completely neutral, presenting facts without opinion. As Lippmann put it in Liberty and the News, “We must go back of our opinions to the neutral facts for unity and refreshment of spirit.” The American Society of Newspaper Editors, formed in 1923, adopted an ethics code that included a principle of impartiality: “News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.”
Clearly, objectivity became a term of art in journalism, a semi-technical concept peculiar to that field. This usage is not equivalent to the more general notion of objectivity that we employ in other fields and in everyday life—as when we speak of a person as maintaining his objectivity in the midst of an emotional crisis, or when we distinguish science from pseudosciences like astrology because science uses objective methods of verification. Objectivity in this broader sense is related to the concept of truth, but not equivalent.
A person can be objective in pursuing the truth even when he hasn’t found it yet, and even when he has arrived at a false conclusion. Truth and falsity are concepts that apply to the products of thinking—conclusions, theories, etc.—depending on whether they correspond to the facts or fail to do so. But objectivity means fidelity to truth in the process of thinking, by using rational methods, actively seeking relevant information, remaining open to new evidence, and putting aside distorting factors such as wishful thinking, emotional resistance to unpleasant facts, or loyalty to a group.
Objectivity in this general sense is an epistemological standard that applies not only to journalism but to science, law, and every other realm of inquiry—indeed, to every exercise of thought. Journalistic objectivity is a narrower concept. It includes epistemological objectivity as one element: a reporter who makes things up, as did the New York Times’s Jayson Blair in an infamous scandal, is not being objective in either the broad or the narrow sense. But the restriction to factual reporting as distinct from opinion is a separate element, not a requirement of objectivity as such. It reflects a cognitive division of labor between providing information and interpreting it. The general standards of objectivity apply just as much to editorials and other expressions of opinion as they do to statements of fact. Opinion writers exercise objectivity in the broad sense when they take account of the facts and ground their value judgments in consistent principles, as opposed, say, to venting a personal animosity in a vituperative screed full of arbitrary accusations and logical non-sequiturs.
Journalism is not the only field that uses a specialized concept of objectivity. In education, an “objective” test has True-False and multiple choice questions, as opposed to essays. In the social sciences, the term “objective” is sometimes used to distinguish statistical from anecdotal evidence for a generalization. But the use of these specialized concepts has no bearing on the fundamental standards of epistemological objectivity. A teacher, for example, should be objective in grading student work regardless of whether the assignment is an essay or an objective test.
Of course, it is not an accident that when journalism adopted the separation of factual reporting from analysis and opinion, the former was labeled objective: matters of fact are more amenable to clear confirmation, less subject to disagreement. Nevertheless, the division of labor that gave rise to the journalistic concept of objectivity is ultimately a practical matter of how best to conduct the business of the media: specialized work gives rise to specialized techniques and standards.
In addition, changing circumstances may require the field to revise the techniques and standards that go with it. Journalism went through one major change with the introduction of radio and television news, which called for new formats (e.g., the half-hour network news) and which led some newspapers to expand their analysis and interpretation of the news since they no longer were first with the headlines. Today, journalism may be in the middle of another sea change because of the internet. The separation of reporting from opinion has survived these changes so far, but if at some point that division of labor no longer made sense, the standard of journalistic objectivity could be modified accordingly, or even abandoned altogether. That would not mean abandoning the commitment to objectivity in the broader, epistemological sense. That universal standard is inherent in the very nature of human knowledge and thus not subject to change.
Now let us turn to one of the main issues in the critique of the objectivity standard: the issue of selectivity.
The news is not a recital of unrelated factual claims, one after another, each true in isolation and all them together making up the whole truth about the world. A newspaper or broadcast program has to select which events and issues and trends are worth covering in the first place. The reporter assigned to a particular story has to choose which leads to follow, what people to interview, what questions to ask, which experts to cite, which opposing viewpoints to cover, and, finally, having gathered a mass of information, which facts to include in the article and how to combine them into a coherent narrative. Editors must then decide which stories are important enough to put on the front page or at the top of the program, and how many column inches or broadcast minutes each article deserves. The entire process is shot through with decisions.
Many people have argued—and many more take it for granted as obvious—that selectivity implies subjectivity. On a web page explaining “Media Bias Basics,” for example, the Media Research Center says, “being a journalist is not like being a surveillance camera at an ATM, faithfully recording every scene for future playback. Journalists make subjective decisions every minute of their professional lives. They choose what to cover and what not to cover…”
The question we need to ask is, What do people mean by the term “subjective”? Since subjective and objective are opposites, we can ask the same question from the other direction: If every decision that journalists make is subjective merely because it involves selecting some facts to report rather than others, then what would objective journalism be? It would have to be a complete account of every fact of reality. That seems to be the point of the ATM-camera analogy. John C. Merrill, an eminent and prolific professor of journalism, articulates the same assumption in a frequently cited essay:
Let us consider “objective reporting” for a minute. It would be reporting that is detached, unprejudiced, unopinionated, uninvolved, and omniscient—and infallible, I presume. Where do we find this? The objective report would, in effect, match reality; it would tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth….
[Reporters] are conditioned by experience, by intelligence, by circumstances, by environment, by physical state, by education, and many other factors. They do not come to their stories as blank sheets of paper on which the reality of events is to be written….
The reporter’s subjectivity—values, biases, interpretations, and news judgments—always enter into the production of the story. (Everette E. Dennis and John Calhoun Merrill, Basic Issues in Communication: a Debate. New York: Macmillan, 1984.)
Notice that Merrill considers any input by a reporter to be subjective. Not just bias but experience, intelligence, education, news judgment—every asset the reporter brings to the job, every skill and body of knowledge, is subjective. Conversely, an objective news report would have to be a mirror of reality, a complete and perfectly transparent reflection of the facts that did not depend on the exercise of any trait on the part of the reporter. Except the mirror metaphor does not go far enough. The image in a real mirror is not a “perfect” reflection of what is there in front of it: the mirror’s own properties cause it to reverse left and right, they scatter a small percentage of light, etc. In order to “match reality,” we would need a magic mirror, one that is pure reflection but has no nature, no properties that could affect the image.
This notion of objectivity may seem bizarre, especially when someone states it as clearly and explicitly as Merrill does. But it is quite common. It is implicit in the claim that a truly impersonal perspective would require “the view from nowhere,” which no one could achieve. It is implicit in the frequent claims that facts do not reveal themselves “transparently,” and in the back-pedaling acknowledgement by defenders of objectivity that of course we cannot reach a final, absolute, infallible truth. Indeed, the mirror model has had a much broader impact on theories of mind, cognition, and objectivity going back to the ancient Greek thinkers. And it has provided postmodern thinkers today with a convenient straw man to argue against, as in the title of Richard Rorty’s book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.
But no matter how common or influential it has been, the magic mirror is in fact a distorting prism, a false theory of cognition. The epistemological concept of objectivity arises from the fact that knowledge requires a complex process of thought that is self-directed and subject to error. A valid theory of objectivity has to be consistent with the fact that thinking is the exercise of our cognitive capacities: these have a specific nature, operate in a specific way, and are subject to specific constraints. A valid theory of objectivity also has to take account of the fact human knowledge is cumulative; each stage of learning and experience leads to the next, giving us a fund of background knowledge that we bring to every new task.
Our use of these cognitive assets is a precondition of objectivity, not a barrier to it. It is only in this context that we can draw a valid distinction between the objective and the subjective: objective thinking is committed to truth and employs rational methods; subjective thinking involves willful disregard of the truth and/or the use of nonrational methods. The decisions journalists make in selecting what to cover and how to cover it can therefore be either objective or subjective, depending on their methods and their intent.
Last year, for example, The Washington Post published a long article on crime in the city, showing in detail what kinds of crimes were occurring in each neighborhood, how crime levels were changing, what techniques the police were using, and the impact of crime on individuals and businesses. The article was not objective journalism in the strict sense; it involved a good deal of analysis rather than straight reporting of the news. But it was a model of objectivity in the epistemological sense: The reporters chose an obviously important topic, did unusually thorough research, covered the many dimensions of crime and its impact.
By contrast, the Post’s coverage of the 2006 senatorial election in Virginia dwelt obsessively on the “macaca” incident, in which the Republican candidate George Allen uttered what may have been a racial epithet. The Post ran scores of news items on the incident and its aftermath, as well as feature and opinion pieces. Even if every news item met the standards of objective journalism, it was hardly an exercise of objective news judgment to devote so much attention to the subject, with regular front-page coverage and headlines like “For One Group, ‘Macaca’ Recalls Slurs After 9/11” (August 20, 2006).
The problem with the view that selectivity is inherently subjective is that it would erase the distinction illustrated by these two Post stories. It would place all journalism in the category of subjective. And all science, too, since scientists rely on background knowledge of established theory and make decisions about what lines of inquiry are worth pursuing.
Another issue raised by media selectivity concerns the way in which the news is selected, in particular the intrusion of ideology. News reports that are factually true can be slanted to favor a partisan agenda or political viewpoint.
Unlike the claim that selectivity as such is subjective, this issue is a legitimate one, arising virtually every day. A bombing occurs in the Middle East. Should the perpetrator be referred to as a terrorist, a suicide bomber, or a martyr? A corporate CEO is sentenced to 25 years for fraud. Do you find out what the average fraud sentence is and report that fact as well? The government issues an economic report showing that the number of jobs increased but the unemployment rate also rose because there were more job-seekers. Which is the headline, the good news or the bad news? Allegations of media bias are more often based on matters of selectivity like these than on outright falsehoods and distortions.
We should not let our frustration with mainstream media cause us to join the assault on objectivity.
But is such bias deliberate? Like everyone else, journalists rely on concepts and assumptions that are mostly implicit, and they operate with a conceptual framework that organizes the world into categories and stereotypes. They are familiar with the institutions of their society, its mores, its class and other divisions, its common patterns of work and family. This constitutes a base of understanding that seems normal, non-controversial, and to be taken for granted. The portions of this common understanding that have to do with politics add up, in a sense, to an implicit ideology.
Dividing the political positions into liberal versus conservative is itself a leading example of such a framework, shared by journalists and media activists alike. As a result, it has taken decades for libertarians in the United States to break through this conventional view of the political spectrum and gain recognition as a distinct point of view. Over and above any hostility journalists had to free-market views, there was no conceptual space within their conventional wisdom for a political philosophy that combined free markets and free minds.
The more interesting effects that such cognitive frameworks have on media coverage involve specific issues. Consider this illustrative case, from a news report about pollution in a local river, which was published in the Washington Post on October 29, 2006.
Scientists have run high-tech tests on harmful bacteria in local rivers and streams and found that many of the germs—and in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, a majority of them—come from wildlife dung. The strange proposition that nature is apparently polluting itself has created a serious conundrum for government officials charged with cleaning up the rivers….
The story of how wild animals—which usually are considered the victims in environmental dramas—came to be cast as villains begins with the EPA’s limits on bacteria levels in streams….
The actual news here is that scientists studied the various factors that might be causing river pollution and identified one of them as the major source. That exhausts the factual content of this news item, regardless of which factor turned out to be responsible. That it turned out to be animal waste, however, violated the reporter’s environmentalist assumptions: humans pollute, but nature is pure; humans are the aggressors, animals the victims. Presumably he knew what bears do in the woods, but apparently it was news to him that animals could be an environmental problem. They are the environment, aren’t they?
Many advocates of capitalism have charged the mainstream media with hostility to business, highlighting scandals like Enron and giving positive coverage to regulators. Part of the reason for this slant is economic ignorance, as many have argued. But a deeper factor is also at work: an implicit view of human motivation in terms of a dichotomy between self-interest and service to others.
Journalists are hardly unique in holding this assumption. It is a widely shared way of partitioning the moral domain. One consequence is that the media are typically more alert to corruption by private money than to corruption by political power. Corporate malfeasance is presented as an excess of greed, since business is driven by the profit motive, which is selfish. Malfeasance by politicians and bureaucrats, by contrast, is rarely attributed to an excess of power-lust, since they are public servants, aiming at the public good. In the same way, when reporters cite the views of pro-capitalist think tanks, they often make a point of mentioning any support by business. But they tend not to attribute anything but idealism to groups that advocate expanding government power over the economy.
Identifying the elements of the framework implicit in news judgments is a job for psychologists, social scientists, and journalists themselves. But the reality of such frameworks is undeniable. What does that fact imply about objectivity? Since I have distinguished two concepts of objectivity, let us consider each one in turn.
A common view in the humanities and social sciences is that conceptual frameworks make epistemological objectivity impossible, because the framework is so deeply embedded in our minds, its categories and assumptions so pervasive in thought and language, that we cannot step outside the framework to see whether it corresponds to reality. On the contrary, it is our conceptual framework itself that determines what counts for us as real or unreal, true or false; in that sense it constructs our reality.
As I mentioned at the outset, this “constructivist” view is the dominant one in academic media studies. Karen S. Johnson-Cartee, in an article appearing in an advanced text in media studies, offers a concise explanation:
Reality, then, is created through the social process of communication. What one knows and what one thinks one knows are both shaped by the communication process. Thus what one responds to is a subjective reality created through the process of social interaction.
Scholars interested in this area of social inquiry are said to be social constructivists. (R. E. J. Denton, ed., Communication, Media, and Politics. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.)
If constructivism were true, it would indeed render the standards of epistemological objectivity inapplicable, at least in regard to the conceptual framework itself. If the truth or falsity of the framework cannot be determined, even in principle, then fidelity to truth and the use of rational methods make no sense. If we take the constructivist thesis literally, however, it is self-refuting. It is put forward as a theory about reality—about real people and events, real newspapers and broadcasts—not as a construction but as a true description of how the media actually function, verifiable by empirical research. Obviously, if objectivity is itself impossible, then the theory of constructivism cannot be objectively verified.
Every form of totalitarianism has sought control over the minds of individuals.
As I have argued in my book The Evidence of the Senses, the possibility of epistemological objectivity is inherent in the very nature of human cognition. But what about journalistic objectivity? Does the fact that journalists operate within a framework of concepts and assumptions, including political concepts and assumptions, mean that there is no real difference between factual reporting and opinion?
No. Factual reporting, like any other specialized cognitive task, can be conducted only within an extensive context of background knowledge. This is inherent in the nature of conceptual thought, and it must be taken into account in formulating standards of epistemological objectivity. The same point applies to the narrower standards of journalistic objectivity. A framework is, in effect, an implicit philosophy. I would certainly be happy if journalists became more self-conscious about their assumptions regarding human nature, morality, and the function of government, and more willing to re-examine them and consider alternatives. But that is not a reasonable demand to include in the reporter’s job description, or in the standards of factual reporting, any more than it would be reasonable to insist that journalists may not report on the things they observe with their own eyes until they have established the validity of the senses and refuted skepticism.
While a philosophical matter, the nature and defense of objectivity has an essential bearing on politics. The case for a free society rests on individualism. If we do not believe that individuals can exercise their powers of observation and reasoning to achieve genuine knowledge—to grasp facts as they are—then we are pushed inexorably toward group standards of objectivity. And from there it’s a short step to group control of speech and press—beginning perhaps with minor interventions, like restrictions on electoral campaign spending, but with no clear stopping point short of full-scale censorship in the name of the Revolution, the Fatherland, or the caliphate. For if the individual cannot stand on his own grasp of reality, where shall he stand against oppression?
Every form of totalitarianism has sought control over the minds of individuals, and has understood that it must first undermine the individual’s confidence in the validity of his own faculties. Remember O’Brien’s speech to Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984:
You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.
The media play too important a role in a free society for their pursuit of truth and objectivity not to matter. Their role as a bulwark against government power, which has always been one basis for freedom of the press, presupposes that journalists can discover truths. If we do not believe in truth as such, truth as objective, then an independent media can do no more than offer its opinions against the opinions of those in power. What would be the point of investigative journalism on the anti-objectivist assumption?
The media play an equally important role in civil society, where individuals cooperate in the pursuit of truth, as they cooperate in the creation of wealth. This system of cooperation depends on some level of trust in the reliability of information, just as economic trade depends on some level of confidence in the soundness of money.
For all these reasons, we should not let our frustration with mainstream media cause us to join the assault on objectivity. Let us follow the example of classical liberals like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who did so much to create the system of liberty that the marketplace of ideas still enjoys. They had no illusions about the shortcomings of journalists. Jefferson is famous for his scathing remarks about the press of his day.
But as advocates of reason as well as freedom—of freedom as the air that reason needs to breathe—they never lost their confidence in the value of journalism. “To the press alone,” said Madison, “chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.
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