Dangers abound when media abandon objectivity in favor of a narrative

When longtime CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite was described in a contemporary poll as “the most trusted man in America,” the Gallup organization began surveying public attitudes toward the news media and found that a large majority of respondents trusted journalists to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” In 1976, that approval reached an all-time high of 72 percent.

In the decades since, however, an increasing number of Americans have stopped believing that they can trust the press. By 2015, approval of the Fourth Estate had dropped to 40 percent, and when Gallup did its most recent survey in September 2022, it had fallen to 34 percent — with 28 percent saying they had “not very much trust” in the media and 38 percent saying they had “none at all.

The reason for this precipitous decline in public trust is not hard to discover. Over time, a preponderance of those who report and shape the news appear to have ceased believing that “objectivity” should even be a goal of their industry or that the Gallup metric of reporting the news “fully, accurately and fairly” has any utility whatsoever.

A prime example of this apparent new conception of the journalistic mission can be found in a January 2022 report, “Beyond Objectivity,” written by former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie and former CBS News president Andrew Heyward. Both are currently professors of journalism at Arizona State University.

Their report, based on dozens of interviews with “news leaders, journalists and other experts,” states at the outset their central premise that objectivity in journalism is “outmoded.” They later describe it as a “journalistic concept that has lost its relevance.” Their interviewees almost uniformly endorse this viewpoint. Quite typical is the editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, who told the authors that a consensus among younger journalists is, “We got it all wrong. We are the problem. Objectivity has got to go.” In their report’s conclusion, Downie and Heyward call for a fresh vision of journalism that “replaces outmoded objectivity with a more relevant articulation of journalistic standards.”

So, what might this new media landscape look like and what dangers might it entail? Have most journalists ceased to be dispassionate gatherers of facts who seek to cover all aspects of a political story while allowing those facts to be the chief determinants of their conclusions? Do they instead see themselves as committed activists, serving not objective truth but a preordained “narrative” that advances a specific agenda, which they view not just as journalistically correct but morally superior? And do those who believe this also see those who espouse different views not as inadequate journalists but as moral inferiors and purveyors of potentially dangerous misinformation?

Anyone who even casually channel-surfs network and cable news on television or contrasts the viewpoints of, say, mainstream media giants such as the New York Times and the New York Post, or the Washington Post and the Washington Times, can see there is nothing clandestine about these biases. CNN and MSNBC are as unapologetically left-wing as Fox News is right-wing. Yet, far from adding up to a healthy balance, many news outlets seem to reflect the doctrines espoused by Downie and Heyward in “Beyond Objectivity.”

The profound dangers implicit in this brave new journalistic world are readily seen in the swirling controversies surrounding internet platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. Their involvement in the efforts of interested parties — ominously including our own government — to use them to suppress, “cancel” or even punish those with viewpoints deemed to be undesirable is deeply troubling. The threat to the constitutional cornerstone that is the First Amendment is too obvious to need restatement.

To some, the specter of a controlled media environment that tolerates and enforces just one political viewpoint or narrative is alarming; to others, the very idea amounts to unrealistic fearmongering. Nonetheless, the striking technological advances that have dangerously empowered totalitarian states such as China and Russia to enhance their capacities to control their own people should give pause to those who say George Orwell’s classic novel, “1984,” has no relevance to this generation. Caution should be advised to those who would insist, “It couldn’t happen here.”

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