Page Two: Turn to Sinatra
Considering media objectivity and losing yourself in art
Now everyone has their own music to save the day or form/art/activity in which to escape. Sometimes this is just for the long walk or pleasant afternoon picnic away from the way-too-much of oneself. Other times it is when the "you" of every day begins to so overwhelm everything in your life that there seems to be no way out. It is as though you are trapped in some truly grotesque Betty Boop cartoon: The many warped ghosts of who you've been or thought you were or once wanted to be are blocking every available exit. And we're not just talking doorways and windows.
There are days when you sleep and sleeping is all you can do. Other times are haunted by sleeplessness, when sleep isn't even really a memory but more an image contained in some fairy tale told to you a long time ago by one you thought you loved in a city rarely warm and too often frozen over.
There was the time living over a pizza shop and the time in an old mansion by a pond, another time in a rotting plantation in the middle of a cotton field, and once for some months in a house of wicker furniture and shuttered windows by a river. In dreams they run together and make no sense.
All of these are of the "you" that you are, and they are all from where you come. Last week I went on and on about how there really is no such thing as "unbiased journalism," that all reporting to be worth anything has to represent, at least in small ways, the sensibility of the writer. Several folks responded handily concluding that all we needed to do to banish opinionated news was to demand unbiased reporting. Some of them even agreed with me first and then went on to make some variant of that statement.
If we have learned nothing else from the Bush years, we should have at least realized that the word "truth" is almost never used in a context in which any rules or sense of objectivity is implied. Truth has descended from lofty patrician heights where it indicated a lack of bias and prejudice in service of exactness. Now it has joined all of us plebeians in the town square of common discourse, where it only means what most of us insist it does. Perhaps the natural distances between urban, suburban, and rural sensibilities mislead us, but when the stalwart right began complaining of a liberal bias in the news, we probably should have known better then to give any serious consideration to that discussion at all. The demand for unbiased reporting makes it clear. According to all too many folks, truth in reporting means only being given news they agree with, while bias indicates news they disagree with or would just rather not hear. Rational discourse on meaning is considered a secular humanist addiction, while true believers know that if they deeply believe in something, well, it has to be true.
In the last column, I said there would be a second part to that essay on just what words like "objectivity" and "truth" as well as "subjectivity" and "bias" mean in the context of journalism and news reporting. This isn't quite it, although it is probably a start.
I still haven't gotten over the rock-solid concrete conviction of seemingly reasonable people that there is an observable reportable truth and that any distortion of that has nothing to do with the true disparity of humanity but instead represents the malevolent intentions of a few.
This is why I turned to Sinatra for hours these past few days. His music is of a time and place where the atmosphere is never less than ambiguous, emotional certainty is nonexistent, and any kind of deeply held conviction is, at best, a passing fancy.
As with so many other contemporary views that insist on failures of vision and losses in quality, the current take on journalism constantly and negatively considers it in the light of a far more glorious past, when objectivity was of the page and the news only offered the truth. Again, as with so many other contemporary critiques, this is based on a vision of the past that is far more fantasy than reality and far more fiction than anything else.
When and where did this glorious period of unbiased reporting take place in these United States?
Are we talking of when New York Journal war correspondent and illustrator Frederic Remington telegraphed to William Randolph Hearst from Cuba in 1897 that no war was imminent? His reply supposedly was: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." Or are we thinking of the first decades of the last century, when there were between two and five daily papers in most major cities all desperate to scoop the other publications, even if it involved making up the news? Maybe it is most of that century when any city of halfway-decent size had at least two daily newspapers, often of opposing political views so that each offered a different tack on the stories of the day. Are we thinking of the years when American reporters in concert never reported on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's crippling disease or President John F. Kennedy's well-known philandering? If one wants to, it is easy to believe that the greatest reporters of the last century did not make up quotes, create characters, and combine personalities. All you need to do is not read any histories or biographies of those reporters and that time. If you believe that all reporting during World War II and the Cold War was unbiased and objective rather than keeping with the relative hegemony of American nationalism during those periods, no one is going to stop you.
All I want to point out is that in the context of the unbiased and objective reporting of the past, criticism of the subjectivity and bias of today's reporting has nothing to do with any reality. This criticism in no way is actually relevant to the concepts of news or journalism. Instead it simply reinforces the old adage that "the truth is in the eye of the beholder," though both expanding and personalizing it to "the only truth is found in what I choose to see and believe." No wonder I turn to Sinatra.
In the last column, I screwed up the attribution for the quote I used from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It was not said by Jimmy Stewart's character. Now many of you should be able to rest easier.