Juan Williams and Objectivity

By now you’ve probably heard about the flap with Juan Williams, whom NPR fired last week for remarks he made about Muslims on Fox News. Voices from the left and the right have denounced the firing as unfair. Eugene Robinson has gone so far as to call NPR’s response a pretext. I think the dust-up is a good opportunity for all of us to be reminded about news reporting and the myth of objectivity. Mika Brzezinski had it exactly right in her remarks on “Morning Joe” Friday morning. You can watch above or read below.

“I really think this sets a dangerous precedent, and I think we all need to look in the mirror because ‘objective’ journalism is changing. And I put the word objective in quotes because it never really was, okay. It never was. We are all people who have opinions and worldviews and political affiliations. And by the way, if you don’t, you shouldn’t be in this business because you don’t read. And I just don’t understand how someone’s personal feelings presented in a peaceful way can get him fired.”

She is absolutely right about this. There is no such thing as objectivity, and it ought not be set forth as an ideal for reporters. Whenever a journalist purports to be “objective,” I write them off as self-deluded, unprincipled, or both. If you’re a warm-bodied human with a functioning brain, you are going to have opinions about things. Reporters can’t escape their humanity, so the quest for objectivity is futile. Instead, journalists should strive to be fair while always scrutinizing their own reporting in light of their biases. The keys to good reporting, therefore, are self-knowledge and integrity, not objectivity.

24 Responses to Juan Williams and Objectivity

  1. Donald Johnson October 25, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    All of us should be aware of the worldview grid through which we perceive reality.

    I think Williams ended up getting great exposure for being willing to share his feelings and NPR got exposed as being hyper-PC of the liberal bent, for those that did not already know this.

    Almost all of us work at the pleasure of the organization we work for, and they are able to fire us for any reason and no reason, which I think is an important principle. But for NPR to use such a reason as they did rebounds to them. They are now up to 2 apologies and still do not “get it”.

  2. Thomas Newell October 25, 2010 at 12:10 pm #

    What makes this even more crazy is that other NPR new analysts have wished AIDS upon people and said incredibly divisive and controversial things about Christians.

    I guess the CEO of NPR has double standards when it comes news analysts being able to voice controversial feelings or opinions.

  3. David Vinzant October 25, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    While postmodernists might totally agree with your sentiments regarding the impossibility of being objective, Denny, I think it is something worth striving for in journalism. Even Fox News claims to give “unbiased coverage.”

    Thomas, please cite the instances and references to where “other NPR new analysts have wished AIDS upon people and said incredibly divisive and controversial things about Christians.”

  4. Nate October 25, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    David, you are right, but Fox News attempts to accomplish that by hiring those with a proclivity to both sides of the political spectrum.

    Denny is right that we can’t discuss anything without our own objectivity coming into play. We may try and diminish it, but our opinions and the manner with which we write or speak will expose us.

  5. Thomas Newell October 25, 2010 at 2:53 pm #

    David your able to find this stuff on your own and this information is well known…oh wait it did not support the MSM narrative of them being super tolerant.

    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5920144/nprs_nina_totenberg_jesse_helms_or.html

  6. David Vinzant October 25, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    I agree that Totenberg’s remarks went over the line and she should have been reprimanded. Incidentally, I have not defended NPR’s decision to fire Williams. I think they overreacted.

    How about the “incredibly divisive and controversial things about Christians”?

  7. Thomas Newell October 25, 2010 at 5:28 pm #

    I have seen that you are adept at googling things David so I will leave that one to you.

  8. David Vinzant October 25, 2010 at 6:05 pm #

    In other words – you don’t really have any examples.

  9. Derek October 25, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

    NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu said that the “evaporation of 4 million [people] who believe” in the doctrine of Rapture “would leave the world a better place.”

    Imagine if a similar statement would have been made about Jews or Muslims?

  10. Thomas Newell October 25, 2010 at 8:44 pm #

    Okay David, Derek did the leg work for you, but I guess it is never enough…

  11. David Vinzant October 25, 2010 at 11:26 pm #

    Occasional NPR commentator Codrescu did indeed say that on December 19, 1995. Four days later, NPR apologized on the air for the comment (see snip below from Dec. 23, 1995 Wash Post). So out of tens of thousands of hours broadcast by NPR, the conservative legions have found one anti-Christian remark by a part-timer from 15 years ago – a remark for which NPR quickly apologized. Is that it?

    “National Public Radio apologized on the air yesterday after the Christian Coalition complained that a commentator’s remark was anti-Christian.

    “During a commentary on NPR’s highly popular news program “All Things Considered” last Tuesday, humorist Andrei Codrescu said: “The evaporation of 4 million {people} who believe in this crap would leave the world a better place.” Codrescu was criticizing the doctrine that all believers will go to Heaven and nonbelievers are automatically destined to Hell.”

  12. Derek October 26, 2010 at 12:08 am #

    I used to listen to NRP quite a bit and anyone who listens to them regularly knows that it isn’t the occasional inflammatory comments that are the issue – it is the drip, drip after drip of sarcastic comments and relentless implications that are the real issue. It is the things that don’t get reported on their news format, the caricatures and the not-so-subtle hints that are dropped over and over again. Listen long enough and you get the clue – Bible believing Christians are dangerous idiots. It really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that this is the narrative with their news gathering and commentary alike. David, you can split hairs all you want, but you’re denying the obvious.

  13. Paul October 26, 2010 at 2:50 am #

    Of course, this is all easier to say when it’s not your job. I work for a non NPR public station, and I know that objectivity is the standard that is striven for. Now, that doesn’t mean that such a standard is always met. But if objectivity isn’t the destination, then what’s the point in the drive?

    You know how we, as Christians, always talk about how truth cannot be subjective? Well, now you’re trying to make truth subjective. So, now there’s a liberal truth and a conservative truth? No. There’s the truth, and there’s the conservative spin on it and the liberal spin on it.

    This is why even though the Wall Street Journal may lean right, I will go out of my way to read it. They have their biases, and they make them clear on the editorial page. This is why for actual news programming (editorial programming is a completely separate beast) MSNBC can’t be beat (trying to tell me that Fox is better simply means that you have no understanding of the mechanics of news reporting).

    Denny, if you would never let anyone take the easy way out on their faith, don’t let them do it in any other facet of their life either.

  14. Charlton Connett October 26, 2010 at 7:18 am #

    Paul,

    There is an objective truth, but there is no being objective about the truth. The variation in the meaning of the word in those two instances is nuanced, but meaningful. To state that there is objective truth simply means that we affirm that which corresponds to reality (among things). To attempt to be objective about the truth is to try and remove all human emotion and evaluation of the truth, to report it just as the thing itself with no additional commentary beyond that description. Knowledge of objective truth is possible, but being objective about that which we know to be true is not.

  15. Thomas Newell October 26, 2010 at 10:23 am #

    So wait David if you broadcast “tens of thousands of hours” than a you are allowed a few hateful comments toward Christians? I will have to mark that down.

    Also I am not sure who or what this “legion” is that you refer to. Is this a secret society or something? Or maybe it is just more over the top rhetoric on your part…

    And last your miss the point David. Juan was not just rebuked for his comments he was FIRED unlike these liberal commentators who were allowed to wish death and AIDS upon people and keep their jobs.

  16. Derek October 26, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    Thomas, If I was a betting man, I’d bet good money that Totenberg’s career was enhanced by her inflammatory and outrageous AIDs comment. I’ve worked with journalists and I can tell you with 100% certainty that she only said what many others wish they had the guts and opportunity to say.

  17. paul October 26, 2010 at 11:39 am #

    “Knowledge of objective truth is possible, but being objective about that which we know to be true is not.”

    Beautifully stated. And a little further back in that same comment, you stated that being objective about the truth is to remove all emotion about it. You’re absolutely right.

    And that absolutely should be the goal. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll never get all the way there, but you’ll get a lot closer to the mark if that’s what you’re aiming for.

    The problem with Fox is that they’re not even aiming for objectivity, and how many times have they been caught practically making up stories? (found WMD’s, ladies and gentlemen?)

    So, aim for objectivity, know you’re going to be off the mark a little bit, and leave the editorializing to the clearly non-news segments of your programming.

    As for Juan Williams, what bugs me is that he wasn’t on NPR when he said it, and he wasn’t in a “news” situation when he said it (O’Reilly’s show is many things, but it’s an op-ed show, not a news show).

    Now, onto what’s not been discussed: Juan went from what was probably an ok paycheck for NPR to what is an oustanding paycheck for Fox News. He would have never been granted that opportunity as long as he was at NPR. Up until that point, Fox had the cache of having a senior correspondent for NPR being an oft-seen commentator on their channel which will never be seen for it’s objectivity or its quality news reporting. It definitely lent them an iota of credibility. Instead of Mr. Williams, the girl-genius and Senator DeMint all crying for NPR’s defunding (which won’t hurt NPR a lick, by the way…way to think it out [expletive deleted]), they should all be glad that finally, everyone ended up where they’re happiest.

  18. paul October 26, 2010 at 11:41 am #

    “I’ve worked with journalists and I can tell you with 100% certainty that she only said what many others wish they had the guts and opportunity to say.”

    You paint with the same broad brush that you would be angered to see used on you, good sir.

  19. Derek October 26, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    Paul, I did not say 100% of journalists. I said there are many that would have loved to say what Totenberg said because they share her beliefs. And that is true. I know of what I speak because I have heard it with my own ears.

  20. paul October 26, 2010 at 11:54 am #

    Derek,

    short of you speaking to upwards of 80% of America’s journalists, no, you have not heard it for yourself. You are painting with a broad brush once again, and I’d highly suggest that you stop. If I wanted me and mine to get painted, I would have stepped onto the canvas.

  21. Derek October 26, 2010 at 12:01 pm #

    Paul,
    I’m not spinning anything, you are. You’re very defensive. Perhaps the truth hurts.

  22. paul October 26, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    No Derek, perhaps hearing someone else talk about one of my lines of work like they know something about it hurts. I know the folks that I work around. I know that they would fire themselves if they ever said anything close to what Nina Totenberg said. Many of my colleagues at other stations feel the same way.

    Or, to put it this way…you’re talking about some people that you’ve talked to once or twice and think you’re saying something of substance. But you’re also talking about my friends, and I know that in many cases, you’re simply wrong.

    if you want to say that in your experience, the journalists that you specifically have dealt with might have held such a view, then that’s fine. But to say that many of them do hold those views? That’s like saying that most Southern Baptists want to see women remain barefoot and pregnant because some seemingly do.

    I’m not saying you’re 100% wrong. However, I am saying that you’re painting with a broad brush, and short of actually knowing what you’re talking about, you’re better off stopping the painting.

  23. Derek October 26, 2010 at 12:35 pm #

    Paul, I don’t need to speak with 80% of the journalists in America to know that if I want to advance in the media world, there is a certain group-think that I need to sync up with. I’m not an idiot. I worked with dozens of journalists for over 5 years and did not just fall off the turnip truck. I know that Nina Totenberg’s comments about Helms are common (I never said they were universal or even a majority – but there ARE many like her) and are in sync with the groupthink in the journalism and media sub-culture. You telling me otherwise shows me that you either don’t actually know the group-think in that world, or that you are simply defensive/sensitive to its existence. You can point to some of the relatively free thinking individuals in your world (people like Juan Williams) all you want, but the whole point of Williams’ firing is that every statement a journalist makes that doesn’t sync up with the group orthodoxy comes at a price of either limiting or ending one’s own career. This is a point that you have entirely missed, or you would not glibly say that his firing was a “win-win” scenario.

  24. Thomas Newell October 26, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    Paul the only problem with your defensiveness is the facts. You can watch the Nina video on youtube and there is anything but outrage. In fact you can even hear some laughs.

    I am sure you are aware of the blog but getreligion.org chronicles a voluminous amount of bias journalism in which liberal media are allowed to say offensive, untrue, and ignorant things with little to no repercussions.

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