From the Seminar to the Newsroom

March 26, 2020 Updated: March 31, 2020
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Commentary

If you clicked over to Salon.com on March 23, it was like stepping into another universe. Here were five of the top ten headlines on the site:

“Rally round the president? Oh, hell no”
“Coronavirus: it’s driving Trump nuts”
“Trump’s most dangerous flim-flam: False Hope and quack advice”
“Fauci on Trump’s coronavirus briefings: ‘I can’t jump in front of the camera and push him down’”
“Trump refuses to promise his own company won’t get a taxpayer bailout: ‘Let’s just see what happens’”

Read through the stories beneath those headlines and you feel like you’re back in the 19th century when newspapers functioned openly as party organs. There’s some reporting in each one, yes, but the facts are embedded in so tendentious a perspective that they have no truth-value.

You quickly realize that the specific occasion for the story is but a pretext for an enduring political goal of discrediting the president.

Establishment of Impartiality

It wasn’t so long ago that this kind of bias brought a journalist down in the eyes of his colleagues. In 1896, Adolph Ochs purchased The New York Times and valiantly steered the paper away from that. He pledged to report on happenings “impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

The impartial approach caught on, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors made it official by issuing a statement in 1923 laying out “Canons of Journalism,” which included:

“Partisanship in editorial content which knowingly departs from the truth does violence to the best spirit of American journalism; in the news columns it is subversive of a fundamental principle of the profession,” and: “Impartiality: Sound practice makes clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion. News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.”

By that time, reporters prided themselves on their independence. They would be embarrassed to be identified with a political faction. Editors could opine, yes, but not a reporter on the beat. Journalism was now a profession, which meant that it observed established norms of conduct and judgment, along with erecting an accredited body of officials that monitored the field. You had to be certified in order to claim a press pass.

Sounds quaint, doesn’t it, the outlook of another era, an age of innocence or naïveté. We are so much more reflective and honest about our perspectives. The very idea that a journalist can free himself of bias and issue a neutral presentation of the facts is just an old myth. Nobody can do that, not even a trained inquirer such as an investigative reporter. That’s what enlightened thinking holds to now: the inescapability of bias.

And it wasn’t President Donald Trump who opened their eyes. However much he’s the target or instigator or clarifier of journalistic bias, and notwithstanding the political character of media practice, the breakdown of impartiality began far away from newsrooms and Washington and state capitols. It started in higher education, in the humanities classroom.

What Is Truth?

Thirty-five years ago, when conservatives and traditionalists such as Bill Bennett first objected to what they termed “the politicization of the humanities” (see the National Endowment for the Humanities study from 1984, To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education“), they worried that students would emerge from college with no trust in the values of objectivity and reason.

English professors and cultural theorists were peddling ideas of relativism and subjectivism and identity politics that undermined the old Enlightenment norms of inquiry and truth-seeking. Against the ideal of the fair-minded observer who suspends his personal inclinations and follows evidence where it leads, the humanities professor highlighted the prejudiced interpreter, a figure compromised by his identity, his class membership, private aims, and social/historical “positionality.”

To old-fashioned types who held to the high regard for “truth” (the word was understood by advanced thinkers as ever in quotation marks), humanities professors had Pilate’s dismissal ready at hand: “What is truth?”

Nietzsche once said that Pontius Pilate was the only figure in the entire New Testament who deserves any admiration. (See The Anti-Christ,” Section 46.) Pilate, you see, stands above these petty disputes among the Jews, taking an ironic distance from their charges of blasphemy and sin, washing his hands of the whole affair. He is a worldly cynic, a cosmopolitan stuck in a society of primitive fanatics ready to kill a rival to religious truth.

I was in graduate school in the 1980s, and Pilate’s disdainful shrug was the going attitude. We read Nietzsche and quoted his aphorisms all the time (“There are no facts, only interpretations”). Marx taught us that intellectuals only pretend to objectivity while advancing the interests of those who support them.

Jacques Derrida announced, “There is nothing outside the text,” an axiom that ensnared us in a dynamic game of interpretation after interpretation after interpretation.

Michel Foucault explicitly tied truth claims to expressions of power, while Richard Rorty the pragmatist insisted that every truth is merely a provisional stopping point that enables us to get on with our lives in a better way.

These French and German forebears, along with their leading American importers, were the cutting edge. Graduate students and young professors realized quickly that this relativism and perspectivism was a dogma of the discipline. Anyone who maintained the Adolph Ochs division of opinion from observation was judged a throwback. “He hasn’t read his Foucault … he’s out of touch … let’s move on.”

If you wanted to get ahead, if you wanted to get and keep a job, you had to voice the dogma in your teaching and research. It was the professional way to be.

And so we passed it along to our students, the millions of kids moving through college in the 1990s and 2000s. We pledged to school them against absolutes, to disabuse them of silly notions such as self-evident truths and “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

Intellectual Training Ground

All undergraduates had to learn the lesson, which they got in freshman composition, U.S. history, and Sociology 101. That includes all journalists and reporters under the age of 50. Every one of them went to college, and every aspiring journalist today goes to college. This is their intellectual training ground: four-plus years in an environment in which the only universal truths are political truths, the truisms of political correctness. Everything else is an opinion, a position, a “Well, this is how I look at it” postulation.

It’s only a small step from the general relativism that the ambitious reporter absorbed in college to opinionating in his reportage five years after graduation. For him, the notion of journalism as an activity separate from or somehow prior to political contests is, at best, an uninformed assumption.

Besides, the willing suspension of political passions is a laborious condition. It takes discipline and training. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t need to make journalism into a profession with standards everyone must uphold. How much easier it is to give in to partisanship! The reporters at Salon despise Trump; to choke down that feeling can only cause them pain.

In the past, they had to suffer that self-vigilance or get another job. The mayor who they knew was a jerk had to be covered with fairness and objectivity. They overcame that disgust through an ethic of impartiality that was central to their identity as journalists. No longer. For the past 50 years, the humanities have assailed that ethic as spurious and blind. We’re living with the consequences.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory college. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, TLS, and Chronicle of Higher Education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.