August 25, 2023
August 25, 2023

For decades, objectivity has been cited as journalism’s highest guiding principle and the gold standard. “Being objective” promised that journalists would stick only “to the facts” and deliver both sides of the story, keeping their personal views to themselves. This way, news consumers would have all they need to form their own opinions. As a mandate, it was enforced by editors and advertised as a virtue that built trust with readers. Now, however, the objectivity rule is being challenged. Some in today’s more diverse newsrooms say it suppresses viewpoints that would add clarity to coverage of social issues and ask whether some issues and personalities do not merit the “both sides” treatment. Further, they argue it is impossible to be objective in the first place, which makes it an even more misguided professional aim. 

Against this push-and-pull, we debate this question: “Is Objectivity Essential in Journalism?”

  • 00:00:00

    Nayeema Raza

    Hi, everybody. Welcome to Open to Debate. I’m Nayeema Raza, I’m a journalist at New York Magazine, the executive producer and cohost of the podcast On With Kara Swisher. And I’m the guest moderator of today’s debate. We’re going to be tackling the question, is objectivity essential to journalism?

  • 00:00:16

    For generations, objectivity has been enshrined in newsrooms and seen as a guiding light to true and trusted reporting. But in recent years, some journalists have been pushing back against the construct. If you’ve been on Twitter recently, one, I’m very sorry, it’s a bit of a dumpster fire. And two, you may have seen this debate play out. Journalist Wes Lowery has argued that, “American view from nowhere, objectivity obsessed, both-sided journalism is a failed experiment.” While reporter, Christiane Amanpour, has advocated for reporting that is truthful, not neutral.

  • 00:00:47

    Editors have warned about upending this norm, especially when it comes to journalists sharing their views. As The New York Times Executive Editor, Joe Khan, put it, “You can’t be an activist and be a time’s journalist at the same time.” The debate is also playing out in newsrooms, heatedly, in Slack channels, editorial meetings, and leaked letters from editors.

  • 00:01:06

    But what is objectivity? How does it impact diversity in newsrooms and news coverage? Who benefits from it? Is the purpose of journalism to gather and report information or to reveal truth? And are the two purposes I just listed synonymous or competing? These are questions that are critical in a moment where politicians and the public dispute what a fact even is, and when misinformation and mistrust are rampant. So we at Open to Debate are asking this question, is objectivity essential to journalism? Arguing yes is New York Times Opinion Columnist, Bret Stephens. Welcome back, Bret.

  • 00:01:39

    Bret Stephens

    Nice to you see, Nayeema.

  • 00:01:40

    Nayeema Raza

    And arguing no to the question, is objectivity essential to journalism, is former executive editor of the Washington Post and professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, Leonard Downie Jr. Len, thanks so much for being here.

  • 00:01:54

    Len Downie

    My pleasure.

  • 00:01:55

    Nayeema Raza

    So before we jump into opening arguments, I think it’s helpful for our audience to know this isn’t your first time sparring on the topic. Len, you wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that newsrooms that move beyond objectivity can build trust. And Bret, you responded saying this proposal was a sure way to, “Destroy what’s left of mainstream media’s credibility.” And I understand you two had a lengthy phone call on the topic.

  • 00:02:17

    Len Downie

    Yes, we did.

  • 00:02:18

    Nayeema Raza

    Maybe tell us what happened. And Bret, you can start.

  • 00:02:21

    Bret Stephens

    To my sorrow, I think I inartfully and a little bluntly disparaged, uh, Len’s opinion piece in the Washington Post making the case against objectivity. And, um, uh, he wrote me a note saying, “You know, you should read the full report on which my opinion piece was based,” which I did. And then we agreed to have, uh, a phone conversation. And I think the result was a very civil conversation. I think the result is that we, uh, agree to disagree.

  • 00:02:49

    Len Downie

    I remember that being our first debate.

  • 00:02:51

    Bret Stephens

    Yes.

  • 00:02:51

    Nayeema Raza

    (laughs).

  • 00:02:52

    Len Downie

    This, this, this will be our second debate.

  • 00:02:54

    Nayeema Raza

    Um, we love strange bedfellows that open to debate, but this is an odd pairing. We have an opinion journalist, Bret, who’s arguing for more objectivity in news-gathering and news reporting. And we have a newsroom editor, Len, arguing for the reconsideration of objectivity. So I’m very curious about what brings each of you to the table. Uh, what makes you passionate about the debate? Maybe, Len, I’ll start with you. You’re an editor on Watergate, you presumably operated in newsrooms that advertised this notion of objectivity and lived by it. So how have you come to this table? What are the stakes for you?

  • 00:03:28

    Len Downie

    I, I first need to say that neither Ben Bradlee who proceeded me nor I [inaudible

  • 00:03:33

    ] use objectivity as a, uh, a- as, as a standard for the Washington Post newsroom. And I’ll talk about what that means later. But we were… Wh- what was important to us was a factual, fair news reporting, uh, that endeavor to search for truth.

  • 00:03:47

    So what, what happened now was this fi- uh, a year or so ago, a colleague of mine, uh, Andrew Heyward, who had been president of CBS News some time ago, set off on this project to find out what’s going on around the country with this whole debate about objectivity.

  • 00:04:02

    Uh, and so we interviewed 75 news leaders, journalists, critics throughout the country over a year’s time and wrote the report that, uh, Bret referred to. And, uh, again since then, we’ve been doing workshops, uh, with, uh… mostly with local news- newsrooms in, uh, newspapers and, and television stations around the country, and find that indeed what we- what, what we’re interested in doing is what they’re interested in doing at the same time.

  • 00:04:26

    Nayeema Raza

    Great. Bret, you’re an opinion journalist. So why are you motivated to take a stance on how the newsroom reports the news?

  • 00:04:33

    Bret Stephens

    You know, uh, by lodestar, I think in this debate is this now famous quotation from Daniel Patrick Moynihan about people being entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. And in fact, I’ve spent the bulk of my now nearly 30 year career in journalism on the opinion side, but it has made me that much more of a believer in the necessity of having facts from my colleagues on the news side that are accurate, reliable, have been vetted and are presented in a way that is fair and, and stripped to whatever extent possible of personal biases and opinions. I, I believe there’s… there is a role for subjectivity in journalism. This is how I make a living.

  • 00:05:18

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:05:18

    Bret Stephens

    But I do it honestly because my column is presented under the banner of opinion. What I want from my colleagues on the news side, and I suspect what most American news consumers want, is news reporting that doesn’t have the filter of the personal views of the people reporting and editing it.

  • 00:05:36

    Nayeema Raza

    Great. Let’s get to opening statements. And Len, you’ll be up first. You were arguing, no, objectivity is not essential to journalism. Tell us why.

  • 00:05:45

    Len Downie

    Well, it’s not necessary to have traditional n- objectivity as the best way to produce factual, fair, trustworthy news coverage without bias or opinion. Traditional journalism objectivity actually itself often distorted reality. Traditional journalistic objectivity was a standard dictated over decades in the last century by white male editors in predominantly white male newsrooms and it reinforced their own view of the world which left an awful lot out.

  • 00:06:12

    Until relatively recently, most newsrooms, their sources of information, uh, and their journalism did not reflect the diversity of the communities they covered or the diversity of the country. In fact, there was too little coverage of diverse communities and the issues most important to them. Traditional objectivity often meant false balance or misleading both sides in the coverage of controversial or complex subjects, such as race, the treatment of women, income inequality, education, immigration, government power, uh, democracy, public safety, or climate change.

  • 00:06:45

    I, I, I remember when I was running the (laughs) Washington Post that in the early days of covering climate change, the, the, the findings of scientists w- had to be balanced, theoretically, by the know-nothing-ism of people who were denying climate change without any facts whatsoever. And that we’re… that’s what we don’t wanna have happen. At the same time, mainstream news media, inc- esp- especially local news media, are coping with economic and digital disruption now, uh, while American society has been in an upheaval that is challenging newsrooms and their diversity, values and credibility. That’s why we made the study we did. That’s why we made the recommendations that we made.

  • 00:07:23

    An increasing number of journalists in the newsrooms that we studied believe that the traditional concept of journalistic objectivity prevents truly accurate reporting informed by their own backgrounds and experiences. These newsrooms have now become much more diverse than they were in the past. Their leaders are much more diverse than they were in the past. Many women and journalists of color are now leading American newsrooms and these are the newsrooms that we were talking to. They wanna make a difference in reporting on the challenges currently facing American society and their communities without stating opinion, without having opinion in their stories, without political bias.

  • 00:07:57

    We also advocate that newsrooms continue to become as diverse a- in all ways as the communities they cover, which they’ve not been ye- yet. And we recommend they become as transparent and possible in showing the public how they’re doing their work covering the news so that the public can decide whether or not they think, as, as, uh, Bret alleged, opinion is crept in or bias is crept in because they show their work. And that’s y- that’s po- possible now in a digital world.

  • 00:08:20

    Nayeema Raza

    Great. Thank you very much, Len, for that. And now let’s hear from Bret. You’re taking the position that objectivity is essential to journalism. Tell us why, Bret.

  • 00:08:28

    Bret Stephens

    Hang on. Not quite. Take it at face value, I can’t quite say yes to the proposition as written, as often happens in Open to Debate formats. Can you have profitable journalism without objectivity? Of course. Just look at Fox News. Can you have literate, even great journalism without objectivity? Sure, if you think of people like Hunter Thompson or Chris Hitchens or Joan Didion as journalists. Can you have honest journalism without objectivity? Yes, you can, if you’re prepared to show your readers your cards, state your biases up front.

  • 00:09:07

    That’s what those of us in the opinion sections of newspapers and magazines try to do every day. But what you cannot have without objectivity is authoritative journalism, offering information that has immediate and deep credibility with a broad range of readers from different sides of the political spectrum. And I would add that that’s the kind of journalism that’s most desperately needed now. The American news media is in crisis. Like so many other institutions in American life, fundamentally it’s a crisis of trust. According to Gallup, just 16% of Americans have a lot of trust in newspapers. That’s down from 35% just 20 years ago. For TV news, only 11% really trust it, 52% do not. Those are terrible numbers.

  • 00:10:00

    And while the erosion of trust has multiple causes, I believe that one of them is the erosion of objectivity as a standard in newsrooms. People don’t trust the media for the simple reason that much of the media has become less trustworthy. Many news consumers sense, often with good reason, that reporters and editors show personal bias in their coverage. They feel that the media too often tries to shut down important public debates. They feel the media doesn’t really bother to listen to, much less understand, millions of people who are not quite like them. The result is to drive people away from mostly credible news sources to mostly non-credible ones, furthering our descent into a country that can’t even ar- have arguments from a common set of facts.

  • 00:10:50

    How do we start to cure what ails us? Len says give up on objectivity, that it’s an unattainable ideal anyway, that we should devote ourselves to truth with a capital T as different reporters see it. I say, let’s recommit ourselves to objectivity. There may be no such thing as perfect objectivity. There’s also no such thing as perfect justice. Nonetheless, we are well served when we strive toward independent goals. But objectivity isn’t just an ideal. More importantly, it’s a method. Objectivity does not require us to seek false balance, as Len suggests, but it does demand that we seek multiple perspectives.

  • 00:11:30

    Objectivity doesn’t require a mindless both-sides-ism, but it asks reporters to fairly represent important public debates. Objectivity does not assume that reporters have no personal biases, but it puts them and their editors through the rigor of trying to strip those biases out. Finally, objectivity is neither about knowing the truth or ignoring the truth. It is about going about our business with the knowledge we may never know the full truth, but that we can offer our audiences accurate and relevant facts so they can make better informed decisions. The word for that is humility. If we wanna restore trust in journalism and to adapt a phrase, “Make journalism great again,” recommitting ourselves to objectivity is a great place to start.

  • 00:12:18

    Nayeema Raza

    Okay, the table is set for a good argument. We’ll dive into our discussion on the question, is objectivity essential to journalism right after this.

  • 00:12:30

    Welcome back to Open to Debate. We’re debating the question, is objectivity essential to journalism? We just heard opening statements from Bret Stephens and Len Downie. So let’s just jump back into it. I wanna make sure we understand where you stand and why. So I wanna give a very quick highlight summary of that. It seems, Len, you’re saying that objectivity is a principle that has not necessarily served newsrooms. Uh, it led to false balance between facts and not. And i- I’m also hearing you say that now is an urgent time because journalism is changing. These newsrooms are changing and your report empirically shows that. And so we have to address what comes next and how to think about the future of journalism. Is that a correct summation?

  • 00:13:15

    Len Downie

    Yeah, yes, it is.

  • 00:13:16

    Nayeema Raza

    Uh, Bret, you’re adapting the question to objectivity is essential to authoritative journalism. My understanding is that which it means to you immediate, deep, critical appeals to a broad range of people and doesn’t speak to an echo chamber, essentially, is what you’re saying. Um-

  • 00:13:30

    Bret Stephens

    Yes, trustworthy journalism.

  • 00:13:32

    Nayeema Raza

    Yeah. And you’re also, you’re, you’re arguing urgency for the other side, as Len is for, for adapting the principle. And you’re arguing that it’s urgent right now because the erosion of trust, you’re linking very clearly to the erosion of objectivity in newsrooms. Is that correct?

  • 00:13:48

    Bret Stephens

    Correct.

  • 00:13:48

    Nayeema Raza

    Great. So let’s move on to the discussion portion of the debate. And I… it seems, Len, you ha- you are-

  • 00:13:53

    Len Downie

    I’m, I’m concerned that-

  • 00:13:53

    Nayeema Raza

    Concerned that.

  • 00:13:54

    Len Downie

    … Bret is conflating different kinds of… There’s so much m- news media, supposedly news media now, so much going on on the internet, on cable television and so on. I don’t know of a single reliable American newspaper or television broadcast that called the idea that COVID originated in a lab in China a racist conspiracy theory.

  • 00:14:13

    Bret Stephens

    The Washington Post.

  • 00:14:15

    Len Downie

    Uh, in, in a news story in the Washington Post, really?

  • 00:14:17

    Bret Stephens

    And, and other major news outlets called it that, and that’s just a fact.

  • 00:14:21

    Len Downie

    I- I’m not aware of that in a single news story about that.

  • 00:14:24

    Bret Stephens

    Leading reporters on the COVID beat in major mainstream newspapers described it as a conspiracy theory or a racist conspiracy. This is one of the reasons why the interjection of personal opinions into news stories or from reporters erodes trust in the credibility of media.

  • 00:14:43

    Nayeema Raza

    I think part of what Bret is arguing is that objectivity is a process. And do you agree with that, Len?

  • 00:14:48

    Len Downie

    It was a process.

  • 00:14:50

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:14:50

    Len Downie

    What I’m saying is the process needs to be expanded. It needs to be expanded into communities that haven’t been covered before. It needs to be expanded into, uh, sources of information that were not o- often used and until rel- relatively recent years.

  • 00:15:03

    Bret Stephens

    I- I’m certainly not arguing against diversity. You, you, you have, you have my full agreement that the kind of reporting that you encountered probably when you were starting your career, overwhelmingly white male newsrooms, served the purposes of objectivity poorly. The best way to deal with that problem is not by getting rid of the standard of objectivity, it’s by making newsrooms more diverse. There is no conflict, uh, and should be no conflict between highly diverse newsrooms, not just in terms of racial or ethnic composition, but also in terms of viewpoints, um, and better and more objective media.

  • 00:15:41

    Len Downie

    I, I would say that pursuit of facts and fairness is exac- is that, rather than objectivity, in whi- in which people have different versions of what they think objectivity is and what it, what it produces in the way of journalism.

  • 00:15:53

    Bret Stephens

    We both completely agree that more diverse newsrooms serve the purposes of news-gathering at its best. But we wouldn’t say for one minute, right, that the only people who should cover, let’s say, the Israel story should be Jewish reporters and the only people who should cover the Palestinian side should be, should be Palestinians because as members or affiliated with those communities, they bring deeper knowledge.

  • 00:16:19

    We would say, “Hang on a second, we don’t wanna make any judgments about the identity of the people who are covering the story, but we have standards to ensure that whatever biases they are bringing to that particular story or that particular conflict are stripped out so that when readers or audiences look at the reporting they’re not going to say, ‘Well, that reporter is just reporting that set of facts'” because they’re convenient to who he or she is. We want those reporters to be objective.

  • 00:16:51

    Nayeema Raza

    Len, how would you treat that?

  • 00:16:53

    Len Downie

    I, I totally, I totally agree with that except for the last word. We want them to be open to all information, to all facts, and not to be biased. I do not see lack of bias and objectivity as exactly the same thing.

  • 00:17:04

    Nayeema Raza

    I think that two things that are striking to me, one is this difference of opinion on the definition of objectivity.

  • 00:17:08

    Len Downie

    Yes.

  • 00:17:09

    Nayeema Raza

    Um, I think this question of bias and reporting, or, or one way I would frame it actually for Bret and the way that Len seems to be advocating it is that diversity can, can also be an edge for good reporting. Diversity could be not bias but expertise.

  • 00:17:26

    Bret Stephens

    Correct.

  • 00:17:27

    Nayeema Raza

    Do you think that’s possible, Bret?

  • 00:17:28

    Bret Stephens

    Sure. Again, we’re not… Len and I have no argument about the value of diverse newsrooms.

  • 00:17:34

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:17:35

    Bret Stephens

    His definition of, of good journalism, good news reporting, the one that he offered in his, uh, opinion piece, you know, talking about accuracy, fairness, balance, um, verification, those are very close to the standards of objectivity. So one of the mystifications, quite frankly, that I had with your opinion is that you seem to endorse most of the values that we traditionally associate with objectivity, but you reject the concept.

  • 00:18:02

    I think one of the points that you brought up in addition is this issue of, uh, false balance or both-sides-ism, and you mentioned the example of, uh, climate change. Now, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, the amount of evidence to support the contention of man-made climate change just wasn’t as extensive. Now it’s really essentially in- incontrovertible. But it takes time to gather sufficient scientific evidence to reach those kinds of, of conclusions. So the, the example that you offer of climate change, I don’t think is a particularly great one for the case you’re making.

  • 00:18:40

    Nayeema Raza

    I wanna give Len a moment to respond to that. Len, what’s a more recent example?

  • 00:18:44

    Len Downie

    Uh, well, I would think the gun debate is one, uh, where it- it’s necessary to look hard at the facts. There have been some recent, uh, recent journalistic projects, uh, that have shown the, uh, the, uh… what, what goes on with guns in the country.

  • 00:18:55

    Bret Stephens

    If a leading member of the mainstream news establishment, and Len has been and, and remains one, says the gun debate is closed, um, my argument is that’s a perfect example of what I mean when, when you see, uh, reporters injecting their own, uh, points of view, saying, “No, this is a closed discussion. There cannot be a reasonable con-”

  • 00:19:19

    Len Downie

    I, I didn’t say it was a closed discussion.

  • 00:19:21

    Bret Stephens

    I don’t wanna put words in your mouth.

  • 00:19:23

    Len Downie

    No.

  • 00:19:23

    Bret Stephens

    Tell me what it is that the point you were trying to make there.

  • 00:19:26

    Len Downie

    I say that the, uh, the coverage of guns until relatively recent years when there’s been investigations looking into the relationship between guns and suicides, between guns and, um, um, the crime, uh, before then it was simply arguments in coverage between anti-gun people saying this and pro-gun people saying that. As opposed to once you go and do the factual, uh, uh, digging that you were talking about, uh, it’s, it’s quite clear what the connections are between guns and suicide, the availability of guns and suicide, the availability of guns to children, the availability of guns to criminals, uh, is, is, is not, is not a two-sided story.

  • 00:20:01

    Bret Stephens

    I would argue that it is a two-sided story, even if I’m probably on the same side of you as, as this debate. And one of the problems that we have when we’re trying to remove this idea of objectivity is reporters run the risk of offering what they consider the truth with a capital T as a barrier between what the facts are and what the reader concludes.

  • 00:20:25

    Len Downie

    Well, i- fir- first of all, I di- I didn’t talk about truth with a capital T. There is no capital T truth there. They’re simply piling information upon information to try to help the American public make up their minds about things.

  • 00:20:37

    Nayeema Raza

    I think we should note for listeners that a lot of this debate about objectivity and a lot of the quotes that I cited in the opening arguments actually came out of coverage of race during the George Floyd protests, um, in 2020. And so this is why diversity is a big part of this conversation. I came across a recent Pew study. It said that 76% of Americans expressed that journalists should always strive to give all sides equal coverage. But only 44% of American journalists agreed. 56% said that all sides don’t deserve equal coverage. I’m curious where you two fall on this.

  • 00:21:12

    Bret Stephens

    Look, I think a lot of that rests on the question of what, what you mean by all sides, right? I mean, the earth is not flat, okay? Let’s, let’s, let’s-

  • 00:21:19

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:21:19

    Bret Stephens

    … all agree that there are, uh, a range of, uh, opinions that some sides might have that are preposterous, but we do sometimes talk about the Overton window, uh-

  • 00:21:29

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:21:30

    Bret Stephens

    … as a term of like the range of sort of reasonably debatable opinions in a given society at a given time. And my own view is that the tendency in media has been to narrow that window, I think, far too much, that we would be well served by, by widening, uh, the window.

  • 00:21:48

    Len Downie

    I wanted to make the distinction between all sides and both sides.

  • 00:21:52

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:21:52

    Len Downie

    Both sides is, is a kind of like debate. This, this source says this, and this source says the opposite.

  • 00:21:57

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:21:57

    Len Downie

    All sides should be reported on, absolutely should be reported on.

  • 00:22:00

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm.

  • 00:22:00

    Len Downie

    And then you have to do what I think Bret suggests, which is try and figure out in terms of weighing the, the different, uh, views you get, the different information you get into a story, is to try to make the story as factual and as fair and it’s clear, and it’s close to pursuit of truth as possible. And so I don’t, I don’t… when, when the public says they would like to see all sides represented, that’s context. It should be context in all stories.

  • 00:22:22

    It’s also why I… we advocate, uh, much more transparency in what the news media does, which is beginning to happen. Show the… Show your work. Show people where, where you got your information from. Show them that you’re… that there are things you don’t know. Show them that there are things, people you couldn’t reach, uh, in, in order for the audience to make a better appraisal of whether or not your story is fair.

  • 00:22:41

    Nayeema Raza

    I think the devil is also in the details, though. It, it, it… A lot of this conversation has come to light of the former president. Um, for example, on occasion, newspapers have reported that he blurred the truth when in fact, objective definitions would suggest that he lied or tell us that he lied flatly, the election denial being one of those. In other cases, this decision came under scrutiny from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times when Trump told four congresswomen to go back to the crime infested places from which they came. That was described as racially charged or racially infused versus racist. But I’m curious how would your argument suggest covering, one, the president’s lies. If you, if you in fact agree they are lies which, which actually they’re lies, and two, the, uh, the description of racially charged or racially infused versus flatly racist?

  • 00:23:31

    Len Downie

    A- as an editor, I, I do worry about using the word lie which The New York Times decided it should use for example-

  • 00:23:36

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:23:37

    Len Downie

    … uh, because the public takes that as an opinion rather than as a fact.

  • 00:23:41

    Nayeema Raza

    Hmm.

  • 00:23:41

    Len Downie

    You can make quite clear that he’s lying by presenting the truth, uh, by having other people note that he’s lying. Things that he says are false, you can say are false as opposed to lying. The same thing with racism. Um, ra- racist behavior can be described in a way that makes clear that it’s racist and in some cases it’s you, you would be factual to call it racist, uh, in a, in a news story and, and probably should. In other cases, uh, if you think that that’s gonna be seen as pejorative and undercut the facts themselves, then maybe you wanna just deal with the facts.

  • 00:24:11

    Bret Stephens

    You know, Len and I don’t disagree here. I mean, I, I-

  • 00:24:14

    Nayeema Raza

    Yeah.

  • 00:24:14

    Bret Stephens

    … I, I read a lot of, uh, news stories and I just see this plague of adjectives that don’t do anything to, uh, contribute to the richness of the report, uh, that interject really opinions where readers can surely draw their own conclusions. I’m particularly wary of the word lie because-

  • 00:24:35

    Nayeema Raza

    Hmm.

  • 00:24:35

    Bret Stephens

    … lying unlike telling a falsehood requires that you know that it is untrue.

  • 00:24:40

    Len Downie

    Right.

  • 00:24:40

    Bret Stephens

    So it requires the reporter to understand the president’s state of mind when he said this or that. Maybe he’s crazy, maybe he’s misinformed. It is possible to say something is false or even better to show that it is false without using the word false, but just to-

  • 00:24:55

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:24:56

    Bret Stephens

    … to demonstrate it by saying, for instance, “Multiple courts have found otherwise or, or, or Trump appointed judges ruled against him,” you know, things that are actually bring information to the table. And it goes to the same question of racist or, or racially charged. I see the word racist, uh, cropping up almost incessantly in, uh, i- in, in news reporting, I don’t think it adds very much. People can draw their own conclusions. I think it detracts more than it adds.

  • 00:25:24

    Nayeema Raza

    Now, a question for you. So the identity of the reporter, though, is a reality in the world we live in. We live in a social media era. So journalists are out there sharing their opinions on social media, or could be. Many newsrooms prohibit the sharing of such information, though, Len, your, your, uh, survey in this report suggests that more and more newsrooms are taking a l- um, a less, uh, restrictive stance on this.

    25:45

    Len Downie

    To some extent, it- it’s a few of them are in certain areas where they don’t think it’s gonna color the reporters’ uh, work. But still, for most news organizations, and Andrew Heyward and I agreed that that still should be prohibited. You should not be doing anything that, that raises questions about the credibility of your news organization and the fairness of your news organization. What, what I always told my staff was, “Uh, you have given up… you are giving up certain civil rights that your neighbors have in order to join together in exercising the most vigorous amendments, uh, rights under the First Amendment.”

  • 00:26:18

    Bret Stephens

    You know, reporters are paid in many respects not to have an opinion.

  • 00:26:21

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:26:22

    Bret Stephens

    Uh, luckily for me, I’m curious.

  • 00:26:23

    Len Downie

    Right. Right.

  • 00:26:25

    Bret Stephens

    But that’s a well understood division.

  • 00:26:27

    Nayeema Raza

    I’m curious Len, Wes Lowery and others have, have talked about moral clarity, something I know you are leery of.

  • 00:26:33

    Len Downie

    Yes.

  • 00:26:34

    Nayeema Raza

    You seem to be more of the camp that journalists should report the information and audiences can understand their own conclusions, but you fall short of advocating for that standard. What, what instead would you argue for? Is it transparency and disclosures? What is it?

  • 00:26:48

    Len Downie

    Accurate, fair, uh, pursuit of the truth, uh, keeping an open mind without bias, uh, and with- without, uh, advocacy. The problem is that some people see that as objectivity and journalistic objectivity had had a bad name within the profession, uh, because in fact it wasn’t that. It was seeing things from a certain, from a certain mindset, a certain point of view, certain resctri- certain constrictions of what in fact was even news, uh, uh, was, was a problem with journalistic objectivity.

  • 00:27:20

    Nayeema Raza

    My… What gets covered.

  • 00:27:21

    Len Downie

    About what gets covered, right, that’s right. You have to make decisions about what gets covered.

  • 00:27:24

    Bret Stephens

    Well, Len has just offered a series of words that sound to me a lot like objectivity, um, and we could probably argue around the margins there. But my, my fear is that what really comes after objectivity is that moral clarity, uh, so-called standard that-

  • 00:27:40

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm.

  • 00:27:41

    Bret Stephens

    … some, some younger journalists are arguing for. And the, and the problem with that is that, uh, your moral clarity isn’t mine and it’s, uh-

  • 00:27:49

    Len Downie

    Right.

  • 00:27:50

    Bret Stephens

    … not Nayeema’s. So moral clarity ends up just being a license for having a series of news channels, uh, or organizations, each of which pursue their own vision of moral clarity, whether it’s National Review has moral clarity. So it thinks, and so does the nation. And we lose that common set of facts that this… that our democracy so desperately needs.

  • 00:28:11

    Len Downie

    I, I agree with that. And Wes Lowery himself, when we, we interviewed about We Wes by the way for this report.

  • 00:28:16

    Nayeema Raza

    Yeah.

  • 00:28:17

    Len Downie

    Uh, and he said that, uh, when, when called on that question of moral clarity, he came back to saying, “Well, it’s my… it, it… I, I really… if, if objectivity is a pursuit of truth, then that’s, that’s what I mean by this is the pursuit of truth.” And, and he, he kind of backed off moral clarity.

    28:32

    Nayeema Raza

    Some of this conversation is, I think, very much, you know, the devil is in the details and the words and the decisions, editorial decisions that are being… that are happening every day in newsrooms and the lack of trust that people have around that, um, in this country at this moment. Um, I think, Len, part of what you’re saying is that there is an empirical change that’s happening in newsrooms and we need to address that. And, Bret, your, your argument is we need to double down on what served us, what served generations before, not what the next generation might be demanding.

  • 00:29:02

    Len Downie

    Yes.

  • 00:29:02

    Bret Stephens

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:29:03

    Len Downie

    What I’m saying is within newsrooms, the next generation should be heard. You should, you should take advantage of their, of their zeal, of their desire to make life better for people, but at the same time to edit them in a way and help them understand that what is actually presented in the ne- in the news that they produce has to be fair and accurate and transparent.

  • 00:29:22

    Bret Stephens

    I think what we should be doing with younger journalists is to say, “Hang on a second, what you are so convinced of as being the truth may not be so. And so you are required by the standards of this news organization to solicit points of view that you dislike to present them at least fairly or without slant or condescension, to seek out facts,” because one of the things we journalists should, should work on is our sense of humility. There is a sense in this country, which is I think correct, that much of the mainstream media, uh, at its upper echelons has become arrogant and morally sure of itself and that has not served either the media or the public well.

  • 00:30:04

    Len Downie

    I, I, I think he’s, I think he’s overgeneralizing both about the young people and about the people who are running the media.

  • 00:30:12

    Nayeema Raza

    I think one question I have for you, Bret, is, is the, is the challenge of public not trusting media, that’s… is that a secular challenge or a specific challenge to media that results from an erosion of objectivity? Because the same Gallup polls that will show you a declining trust in media will show you double-digit declines in the church, in the military-

  • 00:30:29

    Bret Stephens

    Yeah.

  • 00:30:29

    Nayeema Raza

    … and all kinds of institutions across American society, and journalists feel a responsibility to resurrect trust.

  • 00:30:36

    Bret Stephens

    I think one… I mean, here I’m really generalizing, but I think one thing in common is that many of the institutions, you mentioned the church, did a lot to damage themselves by falling very short of the standards that they proclaimed that they had, had set themselves as, as their lodestars. A media that says to its audience, “We are the truth, right? We are offering you the truth,” and yet reporters who are constantly betraying their political biases on Twitter, which by the way is just an extension of their, of their professional lives, also erodes trust. So you can only, you can only reform it by going back to the standards that you had originally set, which I think are very good.

  • 00:31:17

    Nayeema Raza

    We’re going to wrap our discussion there. When we come back, we’ll bring in some more voices to move the conversation further on this question. Is objectivity essential to journalism? We’ll be right back.

  • 00:31:37

    Welcome back to Open to Debate. I’m Nayeema Raza. I’m joined by Bret Stephens and Len Downie to debate the question, is objectivity essential to journalism? At this point in the debate, we’re gonna open up the conversation to some other voices. There are some journalists who have, have some questions for both of you. First up, Sewell Chan, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune.

  • 00:31:58

    Sewell Chan

    Len, many editors, you know, say that objectivity is intimately related to the idea of standards. And how can we have standards and rigor if, if we don’t have kind of an ideal to measure them against? Could you speak to that?

  • 00:32:10

    Len Downie

    Uh, obviously, I believe in standards. We had very strict standards at the Washington Post, as you recall, when you, when you worked there. And objectivity was not one of them, uh, because what is objectivity wa- remains a question. Uh, Bret thinks it’s one thing. I experienced over my… the length of my career when it was something else in many newsrooms, which is why it was not the case in my newsroom. But, uh, standards are important. And sta- we, we spell out standards in our report and in our recommendations, very strict standards, uh, including not going, uh, uh, on the internet and expressing your opinions. So Br- Bret was, uh, again, uh, uh, generalizing way too much about that. Not many reporters do that, or when they do, they get into trouble and they stop.

  • 00:32:51

    Sewell Chan

    And for Bret, if I may. Bret, some critics of objectivity are not necessarily at all from the left. I’ve encountered people who are conservatives who also scoff at the concept of objectivity, not because they’re extremists or anything, but because they actually see the ideal of objectivity as an example of our arrogance as a field, as an example of how we’re not doing close enough listening. So, you know, what do, what do you make of that kind of critique?

  • 00:33:16

    Bret Stephens

    The criticism, as I’ve heard it from the right, is that there’s a hypocrisy and that the media proclaims a standard and then falls so glaringly short of it and in fact sometimes uses and abuses objectivity to really shape stories in ways that kind of is quietly suit their ideological purposes. And I think a good editor should interpose himself with a reporter and say, “Hang on a second, you know, that story really seemed to me slanted and let’s re-report this or let’s at least rethink how we cover this particular story.”

  • 00:33:48

    Sewell Chan

    But isn’t that covered by Len’s appeal to fairness? Like why do you need objectivity in that instance?

  • 00:33:52

    Bret Stephens

    Well, we’re having a bit of a kind of angels on the head of a pin kind of argument.

  • 00:33:56

    Nayeema Raza

    (laughs).

  • 00:33:57

    Sewell Chan

    (laughs).

  • 00:33:57

    Bret Stephens

    Uh, it’s been running through this and that, that I largely agree with the words Len uses to describe journalistic standards, which I call objective and he calls something else. But those standards of, of fairness and accuracy, uh, I’ve put them under the rubric of, uh, objectivity. And that’s what’s really being attacked. I mean, if I could criticize Len, he’s not offering the hard case for his point of view. It’s people who are saying we should just get rid of this and go for the moral clarity standard, which kind of like the, the, the difficult debate that we need to have.

  • 00:34:30

    Len Downie

    Except I’m not advocating that at all. Our report doesn’t advocate that. Our recommendations don’t advocate that. It’s not the journalism that I practice or that Sewell practices.

  • 00:34:39

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you, Sewell. Next up, a question from Helaine Olen, an opinion writer from the Washington Post.

  • 00:34:45

    Helaine Olen

    Hi, everybody. I wanna go back to the role of the reader in all of this for a moment. Um, I am respectful of the polls that say about 75% of readers would like to see more objectivity from newsrooms or believe it should be objective. I also, from hard experience here, know that a lot of readers and viewers, um, get very upset and angry if you present information that disagrees with some of their priors. And as we have sorted into people, uh, who are left-leaning versus right-leaning, favoring different publications, are we seeing this play out more? How is this impacting journalism? Uh, to use an example from the right, I would say, you know, Fox News, obviously, with the Donald Trump election, and on… certainly on the left, you could see it with everything from Hunter Biden coverage to COVID coverage.

  • 00:35:40

    Len Downie

    I, I read a lot of coverage in mainstream news media about Hunter Biden’s case, including revelations, uh, that have not come from anywhere else. So I don’t see, I don’t see the media somehow taking the Biden side of that, of that story, uh, in, in reporting. And I don’t, I don’t know about the opinion side of things.

  • 00:35:58

    Helaine Olen

    But we did indeed see that in the run-up to the election in 2020, or it w- the various allegations came out. And as we know, they were somewhat suppressed it on… certainly on the social media. And it was not particularly well covered in mainstream.

  • 00:36:12

    Len Downie

    Right. It may not have been well covered in the mainstream, but there wasn’t a lot known back then either. As I recall, there was a lot of reporting going on, but a lot wa- not much was being found out. So I, I, I really didn’t see that kind of bias.

  • 00:36:24

    Nayeema Raza

    And I should add to that, I believe that part of the challenge was that some outlets… I’m not advocating for one side or another, but some outlets were not provided access to the actual documents. Those documents were disproportionately provided to what we would describe as right-leaning media.

  • 00:36:38

    Len Downie

    Yeah, that’s also true.

  • 00:36:39

    Bret Stephens

    Well, they were provided to the news side of the Wall Street Journal and-

  • 00:36:40

    Nayeema Raza

    Mm-hmm.

  • 00:36:42

    Bret Stephens

    … they declined to do it. And I think that’s a, that’s a pretty sad episode in mainstream media coverage. It was an absolutely credible story, credible at the time and abundantly verified, uh, later on. And, and it was, uh, it was a bad moment. But to Helaine’s question, I, I think those… a- and I know this from personal experience, uh, we in, in the media, particularly on the opinion side, have to learn to distinguish between the angry voices who are writing comments or on… you know, constantly on Twitter, that is the voices that we hear from or the voices that we see.

  • 00:37:16

    And what I suspect is a much larger number of readers and audience members who really are, are more even-tempered and balanced in, in their judgments. And I don’t think we do enough to respect, to, to borrow a phrase, that silent majority of our, uh, audience who can be treated like adults and don’t need, uh, to constantly have their biases, uh, uh, reinforced, don’t need adjectives for them to understand if something is a lie or false, who can be trusted to be mature consumers of a news report.

  • 00:37:51

    Len Downie

    I, I wanna add that our, um, research and our report was as much aimed at local news as any other kind of news. Most of this discussion has been about national news. In fact, the, the, uh, the local news has a much larger audience throughout the country in newspapers, local television stations, and websites, uh, than national news does. Uh, and this is what really matters to people, and this is what our report was about, uh, which because it’s local news, it’s under siege economically. And so it was impor- it was important to us to make sure that local news was being done as well as it possibly could be done.

  • 00:38:24

    Nayeema Raza

    Great. Our next question is from Ken Auletta, an American author, political columnist from the New York Daily News and media critic for The New Yorker. Hi, Ken. Great to see you.

  • 00:38:33

    Ken Auletta

    Hi. Thank you. Bret, let me start with you by asking, I mean, you, you mentioned two things in your remarks. One is that objectivity is not a science, in effect, and two, that you believe that we need more humility. Why isn’t fairness a better word than objectivity then?

  • 00:38:52

    Bret Stephens

    Look, fairness is a very good word. Objectivity has a specific, uh, I think broadly understood meaning about stripping personal bias and opinion out of our news reporting. And it encompasses I think a broader set of values or I should say broader set of objectives than simply fairness. There is also, you know, uh, questions of accuracy, verification, uh, a whole panoply of things that Len repeatedly has mentioned. I’m perfectly happy by the way. I’m not… I don’t have some, some, uh, uh, uh, profound totemic connection to the word objectivity.

  • 00:39:33

    If you wanted to come up with a different word that described all those values and required reporters and editors to submit to them and to uphold them, I’d be perfectly happy to go along with that word. I don’t think that objectivity is a word that has reached its sell by date. I think it’s a very valuable word. Most reporters and editors that I work with understand exactly what it means, and they wanna uphold it and, and pass it along to the next generation of, of journalists.

  • 00:40:04

    Ken Auletta

    The New York Times runs a front page story saying that Donald Trump said that the election was a fraud and he actually won the 2020 election. And the times then says, comma, which is untrue. Does that bother you when they do that?

  • 00:40:18

    Bret Stephens

    Uh, well, I guess th- it is untrue. Um, a- as I said in my, in my remarks, I, I do not like this, what I’ve called the plague of adjectives, um, uh, uh, in- in- infa- in- inj- injected into the news report as a matter of style. And I think it leads to a certain amount of laziness in journalism. Again, I (laughs) I should be careful about criticizing my paper, so I don’t mind it, but I don’t think it adds very much. What would add a lot is to say a judge in Pennsylvania said this, “Another judge in where… a di- a different district said the other, it’s a simple matter of, of showing, not telling, which is, you know, you know better than anyone, uh, the best form of journalistic writing.”

  • 00:41:07

    Len Downie

    In fact, Bret, often a story that would have that as the lead would then have not to just one judge in Pennsylvania, but that many judges across the country throughout all the challenges to the election, except for one, I think. And so you… so the body of the story contains those facts. So if that’s so, then why is it, why is it, uh, wr- wrong to be… to state that particular fact in the lead of the story, which is then as explicated on in the rest of the story.

  • 00:41:31

    Bret Stephens

    Look, again, I don’t think this is really the nub of the debate. I’m perfectly happy to say which is untrue. Um, I just think that in general we serve ourselves better when we simply say something like, “Um, the Supreme Court unanimously threw out the petition,” in a single or in a two-sentence order, or something like that does more to effectively communicate the point than having reporter X say, comma, which is untrue.

  • 00:41:59

    Nayeema Raza

    All right, thank you Ken. Our final question is from Kyle Pope, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Hi, Kyle.

  • 00:42:05

    Kyle Pope

    Hey, everybody. Uh, first, I wanna ask Bret, I think what’s missing here is the sort of sense of the urgency of the moment that we’re living in and the long decline in trust in journalism, which didn’t begin with the killing of George Floyd and the change in newsrooms that happened after that. It long preceded that. And it just seems to me that, like, asking us to, like, go back and continue to do this thing that newsrooms have been trying to do for now decades that isn’t really working.

  • 00:42:36

    I mean, I’m so glad that Len brought up local newsrooms. Local newsrooms have tended historically to be the most objective newsrooms on the landscape, right? They really tend to be down the middle and they are the ones that have been suffering incredible, incredible losses. So I just wonder whether you think that like putting this thing back in the bottle is gonna help solve what is really a acute crisis?

  • 00:43:01

    Bret Stephens

    Uh, I guess the urgency of the moment to me is this, that in 2022, according to Gallup, only 16% of Americans had strong trust in, uh, in newspapers. That’s down from 35% just 20, uh, 20 years ago. So the urgency is that I think we have been walking down, uh, and I s- again, a generalization, we’ve been walking down the wrong road. Um, we have allowed trust to erode. My thesis is that much of the trust erodes because readers say, “I don’t know whether this is true or just the writer or the reporter’s, uh, opinion.”

  • 00:43:40

    Uh, the biggest crisis, I think, in the United States to say, uh… today is, is, is not a political crisis, it’s a trust crisis. Countries that become low trust nations, whether it’s Lebanon or Brazil, are troubled countries. We have a role to play as journalists in, in, in restoring trust. And I think obj- objectivity or whatever word you wanna choose in its stead is a very good way of reversing that process.

  • 00:44:07

    Kyle Pope

    Len, I just wondered about, I, I, I think objectivity is a terrible word, um, for all this in terms of the general aud- news audience. I don’t think they track what’s… what we’re talking about when, when we use this word. What I hear m- more is a que- a question of authenticity. What can we do specifically to more convey the au- authentic view of where the reporter is coming from?

  • 00:44:29

    Len Downie

    Uh, uh, that- that’s where transparency fits into our recommendations. So we can be, uh… News media can be far more transparent than it is. To tell readers, where did this story come from, how did we do this reporting, what is it that we don’t know? Uh, can we put documents up on the internet to show you what, what those documents say? Uh, uh, a variety of ways of being completely transparent about what we’re doing and let the, and let the audience judge whether or not we did the job as well as we should have.

  • 00:44:53

    And the second thing is the follow-up. Uh, that to- too much journalism is excitable in the moment, uh, covering something, you know, two or three days and then dropping it for a very long time instead of coming back and constantly trying to take another bite out of the apple, constantly trying to give people more information, constantly trying to provide more context. Uh, uh, uh, it’s better now than it used to be, uh, but that’s still something very important to do.

  • 00:45:17

    Kyle Pope

    Thank you all.

  • 00:45:18

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you. Now’s the time to bring it home with closing remarks. And Bret, since Len went first for our opening arguments, you’ll now have the floor. Tell us why you say that objectivity is essential to journalism.

  • 00:45:27

    Bret Stephens

    Well, first, let me say how honored I am to, to share the virtual stage with Len and such distinguished journalists here. We disagree, but it does nothing to diminish my respect for him as a journalist. Uh, I also lo- I wanna borrow some thoughts from Len’s successor at the Washington Post, uh, Marty Baron. “Uh, when any of us go to see a doctor, I think most of us want that doctor’s objective assessment of our condition. When we stand before a judge, we want the judge’s objective judgment about the merits of the case and the applicability of the law.”

  • 00:45:58

    “If we read a consumer report about the merits of a car, we want an objective appraisal too. And if we’re interviewing a witness, we like Detective Columbo want just the facts, ma’am. Journalism should be no different.” Yes, there are flaws, real flaws, in the model, traditional model of objective journalism. We’ve discussed them here today, but to adapt Winston Churchill’s famous definition of democracy, it’s the worst form of journalism ever invented except for all the others.

  • 00:46:28

    In his original essay, Len talked about the important role that journalism plays in the health of our democracy. But the most important role it can play is one that only objective journalism can provide, which is to offer a common set of carefully vetted facts from which people in a free society can then draw their own opinions. If we try to interpose our opinions on those facts, we aren’t helping them see the truth. We are standing in the way of them seeing it. There’s a wonderful scene in Dr. Strangelove where the president of the United States, played by Peter Sellers, is disputing the Soviet ambassador’s contention that the United States was secretly building the same kind of doomsday machine that the Russians had.

  • 00:47:08

    When the president calls the claims preposterous, the ambassador shuts, shuts the debate down by saying, “My source was The New York Times.” We would be better off at home and abroad if mainstream media still possessed that same authority. The only way to reclaim it is through more objective journalism.

  • 00:47:28

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you, Bret. And now Len, I’m gonna invite you to make your closing remarks, your rebuttal, please. Tell us why objectivity is not essential to journalism.

  • 00:47:37

    Len Downie

    Yes, I first wanna say that we are not doctors, we are not judges, uh, we’re not used car salesmen (laughs). Uh, there are all sorts of things that, that journalists are not. Uh, journalists are s- are, are seekers of facts. Uh, doctors do have opinions, as a matter of fact. Doctors disagree about the conditions. Uh, judges are overruled by, by high courts, uh, that, that tear to shreds a ju- judge’s opinion opinion as being completely wrong.

  • 00:48:01

    So I, I love Marty, uh, and, uh, uh, uh, the whole rest of his essay, the whole rest of his speech that that essay was taken from, in fact, pretty much agrees with us, with our report, uh, and, uh, and wh- why he’s hung up on objectivity is, is not, not so clear to me. So I am not advocating opinionated news coverage or advocacy. I am advocating accuracy, fairness, non-partisanship, accountability, transparency, and the pursuit of truth by mainstream news media across the country, locally and nationally.

  • 00:48:37

    This is more vital than ever in a deeply divided country full of disinformation and abundant threats to our democracy, something we’ve not talked about enough in this debate, as a matter of fact. Trustworthy journalism by a relatively new generation of journalists and as newsroom leaders can ensure that the news media continues to do its part to protect democracy.

  • 00:48:57

    Nayeema Raza

    Thank you, Len. And that is a wrap on this debate. I wanna say thank you to both of you for being here. I appreciate your bringing such thoughtful disagreement to the table for finding, I believe, some common ground and in short for being open to debate. Thank you, Len and Bret. I also wanna express our gratitude to the reporters who’ve joined us today. Thank you so much for your contributions and excellent questions. And of course, thank you to our audience.

  • 00:49:22

    Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Open to Debate. As a nonprofit, our work to combat extreme polarization through civil and respectful debate is generously funded by listeners like you, the Rosenkranz Foundation, and supporters of Open to Debate. Open to Debate is also made possible by a generous grant from the Laura and Gary Lauder Venture Philanthropy Fund. Robert Rosenkranz is our chairman. Clea Conner is CEO. Lia Matthow is our chief content officer. Marlette Sandoval is our editorial producer. And Gabriella Mayer is our editorial and research manager.

  • 00:49:55

    Gabrielle Iannucelli is our social media and digital platforms coordinator. Andrew Lipson is head of production. Max Fulton is our production coordinator. Damon Whittemore is our engineer. Raven Baker is events and operations manager. And Rachel Kemp is our chief of staff. Our theme music is by Alex Clement. And I’m your guest moderator, Nayeema Raza. We’ll see you next time on Open to Debate.

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