Saturday, October 13, 2012

Away With Objectivity

Posted on Nov 7, 2011
Wikimedia Commons / SusanLesch (CC-BY-SA)

This article originally appeared in Spanish on

It is assumed, as a divine command, that the journalist should be “impartial, objective, balanced and fair” as a prerequisite for being a true “professional.”

I answer that to keep our balance, swings and seesaws at the park or trapezes in the circus will do, but it just so happens that journalists are not acrobats. Nor is journalism a spectacle to show off keeping one’s balance on a tightrope, getting along with all and getting the public’s acclaim.  But journalism must always have both sides of the story, reads the creed of the faithful devotees of “objective and balanced information,” and here I ask: Is it then, that as journalists we are required, for example, to take the point of view of Hitler and the Nazis to be fair or balance the points of view of Jews and other non-Jewish victims of Nazism during World War II? In fact, most stories are not antagonistic or symmetrically reduce to only two sides, and that optical geometric simplification is not applicable to the journalistic task to reflect diverse and complex facts of reality that have more sides than a dodecahedron.

For as the acclaimed American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges, considered one of the greatest moral voices of journalism in the United States today, wrote for Truthdig, “The creed of objectivity and balance, formulated at the beginning of the 19th century by newspaper owners to generate greater profits from advertisers, disarms and cripples the press.”

Hedges said that this creed became “a convenient and profitable vehicle to avoid confronting unpleasant truths or angering a power structure on which news organizations depend for access and profits. This creed transforms reporters into neutral observers or voyeurs. It banishes empathy, passion and a quest for justice. Reporters are permitted to watch but not to feel or to speak in their own voices,” wrote this graduate of Harvard University with decades of experience reporting in conflict zones in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans.

When I am invited to speak at various universities in Southern California, I always speak against the “creed of objectivity and balance.” I say that you cannot balance the truth with falsehood, and that the rules of objectivity, as theory taught in universities and schools of journalism, promote the practice that what is published becomes, many times, the official version of events.
That version, presented under the guise of objectivity and balance, ends up imposing what is “true or false” and is accepted by the public as an article of faith, while hiding the perspective, both social and historical, from which it is written and published. Thus, anything else written outside that framework that does not conform to the dogmatic worship of a false objectivity permits those in power to design, manage and impose a consensus of “opinion” useful to them, while sending other nonconforming versions, without passing through purgatory, to the hell of paranoia or so-called “conspiracy theories” to scorch there.

The essence of journalism is for me the search for truth, which is not usually sitting in a corner waiting for the arrival of reporters to run into it, pick it up as it was found—chaste, pure, immaculate and free of contaminants—and then transfer it without subjective media interests, “professional, objective and balanced,” to the readers, the public and audiences beyond.

The great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote that “to be a journalist, first of all, you have to be a good human being. Bad people cannot be good journalists. If you’re a good person, you can try to understand others, their intentions, their faith, their interests, their difficulties, their tragedies.” A good person, then, who exercises journalism can keep his eyes subjective, but honest, to describe what he sees from his specific place and tell from there what he sincerely sees, whether it is literally a physical place, or a social or economic context in which he is immersed.

I wonder, for example if anyone believes that the mainstream media had honest, sincere, professional, objective and balanced coverage on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I contend that there was not even any coverage; instead, they had propaganda intended to stop other opinions from being voiced, turning the propaganda into “public opinion,” thanks to what Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, a pioneer in the use of collective manipulation technique, called “the engineering of consent.”

Those who hold political and economic power are very comfortable with the journalists who claim to be neutral and objective. We live in a world where no one can be neutral, where neutrality is often confused with hypocrisy and indifference. 

How to be neutral between truth and falsehood, between hatred and love, between construction and destruction? How to be neutral with such impunity, so much injustice, so many repulsive acts committed by man against man? How to be neutral to the children killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? How to be neutral when so many demons, disguised as humans, are on the loose causing grief, pain and immeasurable suffering to so many people in this world who don’t deserve it? Do not ask me for neutrality, please; I plead I am partial toward the search for truth and all that may give us back a more human way of life.

I maintain that theologians who believe that so-called objectivity, balance and fairness are required to consecrate a reporter at the sacred altar of the “professional” have been successful in that many “journalists,” unconsciously nostalgic of when they were babies rocked with a pacifier in their cribs, today—with their news, interviews, features and reports—are mollifying a society that is in urgent need of waking up.

Journalism that does not make you uncomfortable is not journalism. Journalism that soothes and numbs instead of alerts and awakens is not journalism. For human beings, being awake is an indispensable requirement to realize our dreams, for if we take a good look at the world with sincerity and honesty, we can see how millions are living and others are watching with indifference, and we can see it is the corrupt and evil face of a nightmare.

Veteran Mexican journalist Ruben Luengas is host of Telemundo’s 11 p.m. newscast in Los Angeles and the program “Contragolpe” on KPFK 90.7 FM. This article was translated by Isabel Carreon Scheer.