Tuesday, March 15, 2016

NPR's David Greene Haz a Sad about Cokie Roberts' Objectivity. Whaa??

The vacuous conceit of objectivity damages our journalism without informing it. As Barton Swaim maintains, fairness should be our objective.

Notice the "commentator" in the chyron, from an 8/31/2014
article. This is not new, David Greene.

I was listening, as I often do, live on Monday mornings, to Cokie Roberts and her political commentary, this particular time with NPR Morning Edition regular, David Greene. I heard his question to Cokie about her column with her husband, fellow journalist Steve Roberts, condemning the candidacy of Donald Trump:
"Objectivity is so fundamental to what we do. Can you blame people like me for being a little disappointed to hear you come out and take a personal position on something like this in a campaign?”
I winced when I heard him question her journalistic objectivity, to which she answered, "“There are times in our history, when you might be disappointed if I didn’t take a position like that.” She had pointed out that she hadn't been a full-time reporter with NPR for more than twenty years and that she had long been considered a "commentator." Yet Greene questioned the propriety of the anti-Trump stand she'd taken.

I find journalistic objectivity to be one of the least valuable notions in today's media. Not only is it vague, but it's also highly abused, with Fox News' motto, "Fair and Balanced," being the most egregious example. So, I was pleased to read today's WaPo commentary by Barton Swaim about the Roberts-Greene interaction.
All this is why, I think, the objectivity ideal lends itself so easily to a kind of philosophical confusion. Consider Roberts’s comments to NPR’s David Folkenflik: “Here is my basic approach to life,” she says. “I am a totally unpartisan human being. I don’t care which party has the right ideas – or which party has the wrong ideas. I am very, very, very interested in civility. I am interested in government working.”
So to be objective, according to Roberts, is to care nothing about party and only about “government working.” But no one cares about political parties for their own sake. Parties, as the 19th century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli remarked, are only “organized opinion.” To care about the opinion rather than the organization – to care about “government working” rather than party labels – only means you’re a sensible person, not that you are objective or neutral or unprejudiced by ideology. Certainly it’s no reason to congratulate yourself.
But leave aside all the abstruser points of philosophy and consider this gritty fact: No one who knows anything about her believes Cokie Roberts is anything but a liberal. The very fact that she describes her “totally unpartisan” outlook by saying she cares only about “government working” is itself evidence of her liberal worldview: Liberals value the beneficial propensities of government’s functions in ways that conservatives do not. American liberalism is not my worldview, but it is an honorable one, and I see no reason why we should be nervous about acknowledging that a respected journalist holds it.
Back in the 1990s when I was becoming fascinated with political thought and opinion, I was a fan of This Week with David Brinkley and always waited with anticipation for the commentary segment that featured Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, and others. I found them smart and, I suppose, reassuring. Only later did I begin to grasp that they were essentially mainstream and not particularly insightful, which at the time was not a deal breaker. These days, mainstream is a cautious, almost useless position, for me taken by either the timid or the insiders who want to be in the DC insiders club.

Still, I look forward to hearing Cokie Roberts' Monday morning commentary. Why? Because I find it helpful to hear a mainstream voice, if only to know what the "usual suspects" think, just as I watch Fox News from time to time to remind myself of their rather hideous -- and obvious -- right-wing slant. (Yep, it's still there.) And yes, as a liberal, I tune in to MSNBC quite a bit because, one, they're a bit on the left (some more than others) and, two, to hear a center-left interpretation of the news. I used to also tune in to CNN for a centrist position, which they mostly hold, but the current packaging is quite nearly unwatchable.

The best part of this whole discussion was Swaim's assertion that Cokie Roberts was obviously liberal because she cared that government works, something that is anathema to conservatives, so much so that they'll work to make sure it doesn't work so they can condemn it, as well as congratulate themselves for knowing it.

I'll welcome Swaim's definition of liberal and proudly wear its mantle. I, too, want government to work.

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