The God of Objectivity Is Dead

Media criticism.
Nov. 6 2000 7:00 PM

The God of Objectivity Is Dead

Never mind the press corps for a moment. Consider the scientific method. Scientists do not start out with a blank mind and then go out to observe nature in a state of detachment, hoping that physical truths will manifest themselves. Scientists start out with a theory or hypothesis. You could even call it an opinion. Having formulated their hypothesis, they conduct rigorous experiments to test it. A particle physicist is not expected to be impartial about the quarks and mesons spinning about in his plasma stew, but he is expected to produce evidence and findings that are honest and reproducible. And, most important, he is expected to abandon his pet theories if they're disproved.

Advertisement

Starting with an opinion is considered to be good science, but it is considered by many to be bad journalism. A good journalist, it is imagined--even by some journalists--starts with a mental tabula rasa. Any preconceptions amount to bias. But in fact, good journalists work the way good scientists do. They don't read the Federal Register front to back or sit in congressional hearings for hours and hours hoping that a story will emerge. Instead, they get tips over the phone. They notice that the numbers don't add up. They spot connections between unconnected events. They gossip. They nurse grudges and punish the cops, politicians, businessmen, lawyers, and priests they've hated all their lives. And then they concoct a hypothesis--The President Is a Rotten Crook, for example--and assemble the evidence to support their theory. Or they conclude that the evidence does not support their theory, and they drop it.

Included in the baggage that most journalists bring to their work is an ideological predisposition. There are those who believe it is possible for a journalist to purge herself of all opinion about the world before showing up for work every day. I am not one of them. The test of a good journalist, like a good scientist, is not whether she has a predisposition but whether she is willing to abandon or modify it on the basis of evidence and argument.

One difference, however, between scientists and journalists is that scientists lay bare their hypotheses and predispositions before they test them. By contrast, even very good journalists cling to the pretense that if they refuse to reveal their predispositions, this means they don't have any.

But I start out with the hypothesis that journalists are as open-minded as your average research biologist. I propose to test that hypothesis by exposing some prominent journalists to the inexorable logic of this column and to see whether they come around to my point of view. Namely, that subjectivity and opinionated journalism is not only OK but that it makes for better journalism when you air your prejudices.

Here's the experiment. Elsewhere in this issue, Slatestaffers reveal how they voted and, briefly, why. (For Michael Kinsley's view on opinion and journalism, see this week's "Readme.") Now we're asking a fairly broad sample of political journalists to do the same. (See the list at the end.) We'll be contacting these journalists by phone and e-mail on Wednesday and will report their answers and reasons for them.(The list is hasty, short, and arbitrary. If you're a political journalist and wish to join in, just drop me a line at pressbox@slate.com.)

I also have a hypothesis about how the survey will turn out if people answer and answer honestly. It will confirm that the press corps is overrepresented by yellow dog ... well, golden ocher Democrats. Most of them are for abortion rights, against school vouchers, for government regulation, against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for national health care, against unlimited money in campaigns, for gun control, against privatizing Social Security, for higher taxes. In a word, for Al Gore. I tested my Democratic thesis several years ago by checking the public record to see how a sample of top WashingtonPosties had registered to vote. Almost to a one, registered Democratic. One Postie explained away the embarrassment of his Republican status this way: He and his wife wanted all the Republican and Democratic campaign literature mailed to them, so each year they tossed a coin to settle who'd register Republican and who'd register Democratic. That year he lost the toss.

Indeed, I am responsible for increasing the hegemony of Democrats in the press corps. For 10 years between 1985 and 1995, I hired 30 or 40 reporters and editors at the inside-the-Beltway Washington City Paper. For many of them, it was the first or second job in journalism. And with the exception of two or three Republicans, they were all golden ocher Democrats. As a libertarian, my hiring practices distressed me. I would much rather have had ideological kinsmen working for me. But today I have no doubts that the better choice was to hire the smartest writers, the best reporters, and the most inquiring minds. Because my staffers were honest and tough on themselves, and perhaps because I occasionally threatened them with the woodsman axe I kept in my office, they took down as many or more Democrats than they did Republicans. I'm incredibly proud of them. They practiced the Journalistic Method.

Here are the people I'll be contacting in the next 24 hours to ask how they voted:

New York Times

  Slate Plus
Working
Nov. 27 2014 12:31 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 11 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a helicopter paramedic about his workday.