Short Take: Is Bias Really Better?

My tolerance for twitter arguments is very limited, as they tend to swiftly devolve into either ad hominem, idiocy or dive down rabbit holes. That latter is what happened in a thread I read recently involving Wesley Lowery, Ben Smith and David Menschel, which I would link in all its glory but much of it seems to have vanished. By much of it, I mean Lowery’s twits, which were the more interesting ones.

Lowery remains of the view that objectivity in reporting is a myth, and that there is no such thing as an objective report. On that, he may be generally right, as we all carry biases and they are reflected in everything from our choice of what to write about to our choice of adjectives. But the next leg of his argument is where he goes astray. Because no one is objective, journalists should reject the notion of objective reporting, admit to their biases and indulge them. Or to put it in clearer context, if a reporter can’t be perfectly objective, then why even try to be objective at all?

This argument came to mind when my Arc Digital editor, Berny Belvedere, brought up a thread about the distinctions between two Atlantic writers, Conor Friedersdorf and Adam Serwer.

Absolutely shambolic thread that slimes @conor64 throughout and fundamentally misunderstands the nature and role of objectivity in opinion writing. Completely embarrassing analysis here.

Just to be clear here about my biases, I think Berny is brilliant. I think Conor is great, if a little too nice to people who deserve to be treated less kindly. I’m ambivalent about Serwer, whose writing has often been illuminating when he chooses to try to be objective, but can also be polemic when he doesn’t.

What Berny was pointing at was a thread by someone named John Warner, who is not that John Warner but another one who has a blue check next to his twitter handle and teaches writing. Like me, Warner has biases and reveals them up front.

First, some disclosures. I think Friedersdorf is one of the lamest public writers on the Internet. Even when I agree with him, I wonder why he bothers writing. He blocks me here because I mocked him for not seeing the similarities between Jordan Petersen and The Secret.

Adam Serwer, on the other hand, is one of the most penetrating observers of America today. His coinage of “The cruelty is the point,” in describing the Trumpist Republican Party is cemented in history.

With that clear, Warner gets to his point.

Friedersdorf has to do some work to establish his objectivity, given the fact that he’s feuded with NH-J online and is blocked by her on Twitter, but he assures us he’s looking at the situation without animus. As far as the question of what happened to NH-J, I believe him.

This is part of a stream of twits explaining why Conor’s reaching the only possible correct conclusion, that Nikole Hannah-Jones was the victim of wrongful discrimination, is meaningless and Conor’s positioning himself as objective is merely posing.

Friedersdorf wants to be able to position himself as “objective” when examining these questions. If you see him on Twitter ever he’s constantly feuding with people who see through his pose, by debating technicalities. It’s tedious, and I’m glad he blocks me.

Warner, the teacher, then compares and contrasts.

In contrast to F’s attempt at “adjudication,” Serwer practices what I call “illumination.” He takes the treatment of NH-J and contextualizes as part of the larger question around the backlash to the 1619 Project and previous attempts at full histories of Black people in America.

Bringing this around to his pedagogy, Warner finally reaches the conclusion.

Is objectivity the evil, to be eschewed for lack of perfection, and bias the new virtue in journalism? Are you persuaded?

13 thoughts on “Short Take: Is Bias Really Better?

  1. tk

    The fundamental issue here is nothing new: They drilled it into us in J school 40 years ago. We all have biases, we all have beliefs. But our Prawfs taught us that we weren’t supposed to ignore the biases, but be aware of them, so that we could be less affected by them. You owed that to your readers: To try to overcome your own prejudices so you could ask probing questions and craft an objective narrative. Because journalism was supposed to be a public trust, and how could you be trusted if you were a partisan?

    So four decades later, and journalistic objectivity is, at best, a quaint idea. And trust in journalism is at an all-time low. But surely their can’t be any connection between the two trends.

    1. SHG Post author

      The effort to be objective has now gone past “quaint” into outright dishonesty. Where is your “moral clarity”?

    2. Catherine Teevan

      You all miss the point. The problem is not that journalists are biased. The problem is that journalism is a BUSINESS.

      A moneymaking OPPORTUNITY.

      Like selling shoes. And ice cream. And used cars. It’s all. about. the. money.

      Even nonprofits have learned to protect their INCOME (“support”). Democracy dies in darkness and we’re watching that now.

      What’s the front page headline? Who died? How much? “He said WHAT?”

      Here in Nassau County, the police issue press releases. They control the news. Nobody walks around asking questions unless it’s a Live Broadcast and that’s controlled by the clock – not by the news they didn’t cover ‘cuz it was off their radar. Press conferences and statements.

      If there’s bias, it’s much bigger than you realize. Because first, you gotta pay the rent and make payroll.

      I don’t know what the answer is. I really don’t see one. But when you took those classes on Headline Writing and News Reporting, there was a post-’60s trust in things like 60 Minutes and Walter Cronkite. No one expected that 50 60 75 years later the top Nielsen viewer rated TV “news” show would be a major CABLE outlet “reporting” that Democratic Socialist Marxists tampered with the voting machines and the POTUS election was rigged.

      Soul searching is good. But right now, the house is on fire and someone’s gotta do something.

      1. tk

        Newspapers and TV stations always had to make money. But there used to be principles involved.
        The impact of a story on an advertiser was something we were never supposed to consider. I vividly remember being in a board of directors meeting when the advertising director complained about a story that pissed of a major advertiser. Before my boss could say anything, the publisher (who was also the regional vp of the parent corporation and had five other papers reporting to him), scowled at him and said “that’s YOUR problem. They have different concerns.”

        Indeed. Our concern was to even-handedly explain to the public the Who, What and Why of the goings on in their community and the world, because an informed citizenry makes better decisions.

        But we can’t have that, now, can we?

        1. SHG Post author

          I suspect her critique wasn’t about journalism’s rejection of objectivity as much as about Fox, Newsmax and OAN being mouthpieces for the right.

  2. Bear

    It appears these days most “journalists” have an axe to grind, even if they’re reporting on grinding axes.

  3. PseudonymousKid

    No, I’m not persuaded, though I think you are mischaracterizing the teacher’s argument. I can’t help but advocate. He’s not saying that objectivity is to be avoided, exactly. He’s saying that developing a personality as an author makes for more interesting and engaging writing. It’s right there when he says he prefers “fairness, accuracy, and transparency” as opposed to an attempt at a purely objective viewpoint which everyone seems to agree is impossible. Follow those values and you’d get objective pieces or close to the line, at least. Now, that’s not a particularly useful or illuminating point, but that’s not my fault.

    Of course, this is based on what you’ve chosen to present and not the whole picture, whatever that looks like. Maybe he is pushing a personal agenda for journalists to pursue their own personal agendas. That’d be dumb and maybe enough to warrant a blawg post. Otherwise this is just an example of academic posturing by an academic. Pointless, but not entirely objectionable.

    1. SHG Post author

      You could also read the entirety of his linked thread to ascertain whether my recitation was fair, accurate and transparent.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        If journalists are to be biased to anything, they should be to the values he stated, but he’s only paying lip service to them based on his reasoning and conclusions. There’s my revised opinion. He states the rule correctly but fails in applying it. That’s what I could salvage. He’s not entirely wrong, though he could acknowledge that efforts towards objectivity aren’t entirely fruitless as he unintentionally demonstrated.

        I’ve now used up my free articles to the magazine he references, so you can’t link there anymore this month. Deal?

    2. Rengit

      People used to understand the difference between a “writer”, i.e. a polemicist, the kind of person who writes for an opinion mag or on the op-ed page, and a journalist, who is supposed to strive for objectivity in the provision of facts. For the former, it’s good to have personality and be interesting; for the latter, not so much. Warner is the former, and his work over at IHE this past decade was a key driver in the turn of that website (particularly when it came to issues like Title IX and anti-bias initiatives) from reporting on the state of higher ed into a glorified opinion blog through the collapse of journalism and polemicism into “writing” and “reporting” as one in the same thing.

      It’s unhelpful that Warner bounces between writing and journalism/reporting as if they are the same thing; it’s the opposite of “illuminating” because it’s actually obfuscating.

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