"Objectivity" and Democracy
are not Compatible
Sustaining Democracy? Journalism and the Politics of Objectivity
Robert A. Hackett and Yuezhi Zhao
1998, 284 pp, $24.95, ISBN 1-55193-013-7
Reviewed by Barrie Zwicker
Objectivity in journalism is an act of advocacy
for the status quo.
-Tom Wicker, The New York Times
Wicker, to me, hits a very large nail almost squarely on the head.
I think I encountered this quote in the late 60s. For many years
I for one have held "objectivity" in journalism to be
not only abjectly impossible, but also pernicious. Belief in "objectivity"
functions sometimes as an armour to protect its proponent from criticism.
But more usually it's a bogus platform on which the proponent places
himself above those he surveys.
So I seized Sustaining Democracy? Journalism and the Politics
of Objectivity with the kind of anticipation a sex-starved individual
would feel upon opening a fine illustrated book of erotica. I was
not disappointed. I learned better the philosophical bases of my
instincts about "objectivity," and I learned some new
Hackett and Zhjao, with some added firepower from Satu Repo (the
origins of "objectivity") and Nick Dyer-Withford ("objectivity"
as [un]workable philosophy), have tackled "the god that will
This at a time when the blurring of "fact" and "fiction"
is greater than ever. At a time when the consolidation of power
over the manufacture of news, over the invention of reality, over
the whole consciousness industry, is at a gallop. At a time when
the Internet and other technological developments are splintering
both the production and the dissemination of data, information and
knowledge. At a time when the convergence of the technologies and
the trends is confusing. At a time when we are sinking in an infoswamp,
as the authors call it.
They manage to canvas all this in a satisfying way. And they do
not lose their focus. They're academics, so their language is less
accessible than that of the author of erotica. Early on I had to
look up imbricate, immanent (well, I had an idea about its meaning
but not in a non-religious context) and irrupt. But shouldn't a
meaningful book force us to enlarge our vocabularies?
I learned my opposition to "objectivity" is based philosophically
on what is termed conventionalism. How drab of me, I thought. But
I perked up when I realized that a philosophical basis for journalism
I've arrived at somewhat incoherently over the years is similar
to the one that the authors have clarified and named. They call
it critical realism. It replaces the hoary philosophies of positivism
and empiricism that underlie "objectivity." Vincent Mosco
is close to their position, they say, when he writes:
"A realist sees existence as mutually constituted by both
sensory observation and explanatory practices. According to this
view, reality is made up both by what we see and how we explain
what we see. There is no pure theory or pure fact -- each presents
itself as mutually contaminated."
I prefer the way the late Warren McCullough of MIT put it at one
of Marshall McLuhan's seminars in 1967: "Every fact is an opinion,"
he said, "and every opinion is a fact."
The book is soundly academic in the best sense but also practical
in suggesting alternative forms of journalism that will not simply
serve the status quo while -- and in part because of -- posing as
neutral, balanced, fair and "objective."
So-called public journalism, although a U.S. phenomenon, holds
some promise because it encourages a more grassroots and thoughtful
kind of democracy than most people have been experiencing. Likewise
the alternative media approach is valuable in a number of respects,
the main one being that "alternative media .tend to challenge
the mainstream's definition of who or what counts as newsworthy.
For instance, alternative media access a range of voices -- activists,
minorities, ordinary people affected by governmental and corporate
policies -- usually marginalized in the major media."
The authors believe even the proponents of public journalism under-estimate
the crisis in democracy under corporatization and "globalization."
They see the democratization of the media as being necessary to
promote a resurgence of meaningful democracy.
Ultimately, they say, journalism as meaningful work cannot exist
in a society where it really does not matter what people think because
powerful elites decide everything that really matters.
That is why what the authors call "the regime of objectivity"
should give way to a journalism aimed at sustaining democracy. Hence
the title of the book. It's a valuable addition to the growing debate
over the diminishing reputation and increasingly-confusing role
of the news media today.
Barrie Zwicker is publisher of Sources and Vision TV's regular
Published in Sources,
Number 42, Summer 1998.
Newsmongers: How the media distort political news (Review)
Ten Censored Stories of 1988
Ten Censored Stories of 1989
and Dissent: The Press and Politics of Peace in Canada
Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism, and the Gulf War
the News that Wasn't
Media Stifle Ideas and Debate
at the impact of investigative journalism
the News That's Fit to Miss: Blind Spots in Canadian Reporting
Index of Book
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