Friday, November 12, 2010

Let us ask again - what is journalistic objectivity?

Last month, I wrote a post that pointed to an Erin Kotecki Vest post that mourned the death of journalistic objectivity. This is part of what she said:

You can’t be a reporter and share your feelings on a subject matter. This is no-no #1 in Journalism 101 and destroys your credibility. If you open your mouth, you are henceforth a columnist, pundit, and/or blogger.

But what if you are a pundit who is placed in the role of a reporter?

Unless you're extremely untrendy (even less trendy than me) and only know Keith Olbermann as the guy who used to be on ESPN and then disappeared, you know that Olbermann moved on from sports to become a...well, a pundit. Even though I'm not a huge TV person myself, I've heard rumors that Olbermann expresses opinions on his MSNBC show. (I've also heard rumors that Olbermann's opinions differ slightly from those of another pundit, Bill O'Reilly.)

Imagine the horror and shock that people felt when it was discovered that Olbermann had made political contributions to Democratic Party candidates. MSNBC immediately suspended Olbermann, worrying that its journalistic objectivity had been tarnished.

Others are not so sure. B.L. Ochman recently wrote a post entitled With Olbermann suspension, journalistic objectivity, always an illusion, bites the dust.

But was Olbermann a journalist, or a pundit? Here it gets a little murky, because Olbermann's duties have not only been restricted to his "Countdown" show. As the New York Times noted:

One NBC executive agreed with the point, suggested by senior executives at other television news divisions, that Mr. Olbermann’s transgression in making the donations was compounded by the fact that he had anchored the election coverage — not simply worked as a commentator.

By the time Olbermann was reinstated, MSNBC was claiming that this was a paperwork issue:

While the NBC-owned company does not have a policy about making private donations to a political campaign, the reason for Olbermann’s suspension was because of a policy requiring that the company be informed of the donations in advance.

Um, tell that to Rachel Maddow:

"Let this incident lay to rest forever the facile, never-true-anyway, bull-pucky, lazy conflation of Fox News and what the rest of us do for a living," she said. "I know everybody likes to say, 'Oh, that's cable news, it's all the same. Fox and MSNBC, mirror images of each other.' Let this lay that to rest forever. Hosts on Fox News raise money for Republican candidates. They endorse them explicitly, they use their Fox News profile to headline fundraisers. Heck, there are multiple people being paid by Fox News now to essentially run for office as Republican candidates....They can do that because there's no rule against that as Fox. They run as a political operation; we're not."

OK, objective news reporters - can anyone tell us why Keith Olbermann was suspended? Was he suspended for donating, or for not reporting his donations? There are so many stories floating around that it's starting to make Judith Griggs of Cooks Source appear like a voice of reason.

But the more interesting story from my perspective is this difference, or non-difference, between journalists and pundits. I happen to listen to Los Angeles radio station KFI in the mornings, and KFI makes an explicit separation between its pundits (such as Bill Handel) and the KFI News organization (such as Gary Hoffmann). When Handel spouts off an opinion, Hoffmann will tend to remain in an objective mode. Yet Hoffmann has his own weekend show, which tends to blur the distinction a bit. Does Hoffmann throw his journalistic objectivity out the window at close of business on Friday, and pick it up again on Monday morning? Should news organizations require people to wear a "pundit" hat when they're punditing, and a "journalist" hat when they're being objective? And how would that work on the radio, where we wouldn't be able to see the hats?

But then we come back to the original question - ignoring the pundits for a moment, can a journalist be objective? When Walter Cronkite, considered the most objective journalist of his generation, was enthusiastically happy about the successful Apollo 11 moon landing, did he violate CBS standards for objectivity? Subsequent interviews demonstrate that Cronkite had a clear bias in favor of U.S. government actions in this area; should he have been suspended by CBS for his display of opinion? Olbermann conducted his activities in private; Cronkite conducted his activities in front of millions of people.
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