Objecting to News Objectivity

Dr. Mark Finney
The Paw Print

Huffingtonpost.com reported on Wednesday that NPR (formerly National Public Radio) has sent an internal memo to employees banning them from attending the upcoming rallies sponsored by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  The Huffingtonpost story quotes NPR’s Senior Vice President for News, Ellen Weiss as writing “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them.”
Neither of these rallies are overtly political but Weiss’ memo reminds us that most news organizations in the United States adhere to an ideal that is known as “objectivity.”  When news organizations adhere to objectivity they strive to remain apart from the stories that they cover, they attempt to critically engage with political arguments, and they try, whenever possible, to not be mouthpieces for any particular side.  In short, most legitimate mainstream news organizations in this country attempt to report stories evenly – presenting at least two sides to a controversy and doing so fairly.
We can contrast this with Fox New, a company that actively supports favored parties and ideas.  For instance, shortly after the election ended, Fox News hired former Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin to host a program, Fox News personaliities Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly routinely promote conservative causes in their programming and last year a Fox News producer was “caught in a behind-the-scenes video rallying the crowd” at a rally in support of republican ideas.
Most people probably believe that objectivity and neutrality is a good thing; we should be presented with information via news that allows us to formulate our own opinions without having to dig through some journalist or some news organization’s ideological BS.  But I think its important to ask a question about objectivity, one that I have no hope of answering at this point.  If NPR employees want to go to the Rally to Restore Sanity (Stewart’s) doesn’t it imply that they subscribe to whatever ideology is being promoted at the rally?  And if that’s the case, then can we ever believe that they could really divorce their beliefs from their reporting
Maybe they can, but if there’s one thing that we can give Fox News credit for it is their honesty (and I’m not trying to suggest that there’s just one thing).  When Glenn Beck believes in a cause you can bet he’ll tell you about it, same with Sarah Palin.  Heck, simply hiring Sarah Palin – a controversial and overtly political figure – suggests that Fox News promotes the same ideas that she does.
Although Republicans like to complain about the “liberal media,” you’d be hard pressed to find Anne Garrels, or Robert Siegel expressing a political ideology.  This however is not simply due to NPR being impartial.  Rather, it is because they work very hard to mask their ideologies (it would probably be remiss for me to suggest that the whole staff is guided by the same ideology) behind objectivity.  I suspect that Garrels or Siegel or any other contributer to NPR, NBC, CBS or CNN have a political ideology that they try to mask when on air (or writing for air).  So which is better – when you know where news is coming from or news that appears impartial?

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