Keller, Greenwald debate whether journalists can be impartial

The New York Times

Glenn Greenwald and The New York Times’ Bill Keller engaged in some meta thinking Sunday, which Keller initiated with a pretty simple premise — does Greenwald represent journalism 2.0?

Greenwald, Keller writes, has been “an advocate of a more activist, more partisan kind of journalism.”

I find much to admire in America’s history of crusading journalists, from the pamphleteers to the muckrakers to the New Journalism of the ’60s to the best of today’s activist bloggers. At their best, their fortitude and passion have stimulated genuine reforms (often, as in the Progressive Era, thanks to the journalists’ ‘political relationships with governments’). I hope the coverage you led of the National Security Agency’s hyperactive surveillance will lead to some overdue accountability.

But the work of journalists who set their opinions aside “to follow the facts,” Keller writes, can “often produce results that are more substantial and more credible.”

Greenwald’s turn: Yes, the old way has produced good journalism, but also “toxic habits that are weakening the profession”:

A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge (i.e., reporting is reduced to “X says Y” rather than “X says Y and that’s false”).

Objective journalism “rests on a false conceit,” Greenwald writes: “Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value in pretending otherwise?”

The two go back and forth several times after that with “Dear Bill”s and “Dear Glenn”s, each making their cases about why impartiality helps or hinders great journalism. Those same issues came up on Saturday, when Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan addresses concerns from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s spokesperson over columnist Michael Powell’s turn as a reporter on a story that touched on New Jersey politics.

“The journalism world is changing,” Sullivan writes. Increasingly, transparency matters, “traditional objectivity (the idea that reporters should appear to have no beliefs) less so.” But traditional journalistic values, such as accuracy and fairness, still do. Powell agreed.

“I think that objectivity is a farce — something that makes no intellectual sense whatsoever.” Powell said. “Fairness, however, is something that I take very, very, very seriously.”

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  • Simon DelMonte

    I demand objectivity from the news. I do not for one second think it is impossible, or a bad thing in the least. And anyone who goes into reporting with an opinion beforehand isn’t writing a news story, but is just offering another op-ed by another name.

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