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"Objectivity" and Democracy
are not Compatible

Sustaining Democracy? Journalism and the Politics of Objectivity
Robert A. Hackett and Yuezhi Zhao
Garamond Press
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 positions.

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 not die."

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 media critic.

Published in Sources, Number 42, Summer 1998.


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