Freedom’s Just Another Word for 'Not Sure What to Do'

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Writing a news organization’s ethics policy in the 2020s is hard. A reporter’s voice used to be heard only after being filtered by editors; now it yammers across Twitter 24/7. An entire troll subculture stands ready to wield any misstep as a weapon against the “mainstream media.” And by pushing previously unthinkable ideas into the mainstream, Donald Trump and his movement transformed what had often been narrow political debates into seemingly existential arguments over democracy or the very nature of America.

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Philip S Moore

"Which liberty? What freedoms? Whose dignity? These questions are political at their core, and they always will be."

Joshua Benton makes an excellent point, and one all too often ignored in the pursuit of at least the appearance of journalistic objectivity. Yet, objectivity, itself, may be the problem. Historically, even mainstream media admitted and often embraced its lack of objectivity. The New York Tribune waged a decades long war on slavery, and the Chicago Tribune was unapologetic in embracing anti-Communist and conservative values throughout its news columns. The Chicago Defender existed as an advocate for racial equality, and the Portland Oregonian had little tolerance or balance in its condemnation of anti-Asian discrimination. Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World and the guy responsible for the eponymous journalism prize, believed in journalism as a force for reform and social progress, while James Gordon Bennett, his counterpart at the New York Herald, fought to maintain social order.

Hazel Brannon Smith, P. D. East and Hodding Carter would admit no validity to Mississippi's 1950s racist laws, even at the risk of their lives, and when Edward R. Murrow went after Sen. Joseph McCarthy, he believed that balance and objectivity in reporting were just weapons used by the senator to further his campaign of intimidation. The same would ultimately be true for Katherine Graham at the Washington Post, who embraced righteous outrage, even at the risk of Presidential wrath.

Balance may be a goal and honesty in reporting may be the benchmark for journalistic integrity. Yet, at the end of the day, the journalist is simply a story-teller, and the measure of the journalist's story is the quality and significance of the story told...and by that measure, objectivity may be less important than integrity, after all few good stories begin or end objectively.

Tuesday, August 3