Within the profession of journalism, there is an idea that objectivity is the highest good, the nirvana of journalism. Magically, journalists are supposed to squelch their personal opinions and political leanings in order to provide the public with an objective account of stories that are important within the public sphere. By providing an objective account, ideally, the public is able to form responsible, informed opinions. The media views this mission of informing the public as central to the function of democracy.
It may be, but this ideal of objectivity hasn’t always existed. In his book “The Creation of the Media,” Paul Starr explains how American media has transformed since the country’s founding. American newspapers began as propaganda machines for political parties and then evolved into classified advertisements and community announcements. Information was provided, but it wasn’t necessarily for the sake of informing voters on topical issues.
In the 20th century, American media came to encompass radio and television. And corporations like General Electric came to own media companies. And then the Internet happened…
Objectivity may be the goal for journalism, but the medium has changed in such a way that makes that goal difficult to attain. The Internet allows anyone to publish any news at any time. Newspapers and other media companies have lost their monopoly on information. In the ocean of information that is the Internet, the information that floats to the top is often the kind that has a slant and is presented in a colorful voice. When people are searching for news on the Internet, they often want to find it presented in the lens of their political ideology and in an entertaining way.
With the Internet shaking up the typical journalism business model, journalists are uneasy about their future within traditional news organizations. Journalists’ solution for this changing media landscape? Becoming a brand on their own.
Journalists now have Twitter accounts and personal blogs. They have Facebook pages and YouTube channels. Journalists seem to be drawing a line between their personal work and interests and those of the newspaper, cable channel, or magazine for which they work. In the day of Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart, the loudest and most unique voices are the ones that are the most profitable. It becomes less about the company that you work for, because the Internet allows journalists to become their own publisher.
With this blurring line between the journalists’ personal and professional life, can we still reasonably expect objectivity? Is the public really expecting objective journalism? Is objectivity necessary for the public discourse, or is it just a marketing gimmick to preserve the authority of traditional news organizations? Can MSNBC really punish Keith Olbermann for donating to democratic candidates?
I think the public would be a lot more accepting of the idea that Olbermann the person and Olbermann the journalist are one in the same, and he holds ideas X, Y, and Z. The revered example of a Walter Kronkite figure is no longer attainable. And honestly, I think the public would be bored by a Kronkite in 2010.