There was a time in the not-so-distant past when America’s leading paragon of journalistic virtue was widely regarded to be the ancient Washington Post columnist David Broder. What aroused such admiration for Broder was his reputation as a steadfast defender of an idealized doctrine of “objectivity” — that is, the doctrine of disinterested detachment which had long been the professional code of mainstream (or “establishment”) US journalism.
It was as though Broder floated angelically above the riff-raff, enabling him to impart sagely judgment from on high while his lessers fought amongst themselves over such trivial matters as their mutually-contradictory moral and political commitments. Broder never revealed his opinions on anything of real consequence — particularly opinions that could be connected to an ugly partisan affiliation. That would’ve been sacrilegious. So to discern his views, one had to pick up on the subtle clues he’d intermittently drop.
For example, shortly after the Iraq War was launched, Broder wrote in his syndicated column: “There is little the Democrats can do to shatter the reputation for strong leadership Bush has built.” Declining to straightforwardly disclose whether he supported or opposed the invasion, Broder’s paramount goal was always to maintain the perception of being perpetually “objective” — and supporting or opposing a preemptive invasion would’ve been a grave violation of this creed. So instead, he’d just offer up these little nuggets of analytical wisdom, like the public image of George W. Bush supposedly being a “reliable wartime commander in chief,” usually with no thought given to his role in creating that image.
Chuck Todd adeptly summed up Broder’s basic function upon his death in 2011, gushing: “He was a protector, I felt like, of the institutions of Washington. In a good way.” Of course, this inadvertently revealed Broder’s true ideological disposition. Not “objectivity” per se, given that humans can’t be perfectly objective in the first place, but rather a determination to serve as the guardian of the US governing institutions he so revered, together with the people who inhabited those institutions. Then-Senator Joe Lieberman also weighed in to mark the occasion, eulogizing Broder as a “journalistic giant” whose “work embodied fair-mindedness and objectivity.”
Needless to say, Joe Lieberman’s standard for what constitutes “fair-mindedness” and “objectivity” is probably not the standard that every journalist should aspire to.
There is no doubt that what might be called the “Broder worldview” was once very influential in US journalism and media culture. But… Broder has now been dead for over a decade. And even before his death, the emergence of the blogosphere in the early 2000s had dislodged the primacy of that worldview with an onslaught of ruthless skewering. Now, in 2021, the genre of journalism Broder represented could only be seen as comically antiquated.
And yet when one listens to the up-and-coming crop of media content-producers air their grievances about the industry — or explain what they see as the injustices holding them back in the journalism field — they often seem to be railing against a Broder-style status quo that has largely ceased to exist. Like there’s an army of Broder acolytes impeding them from expressing their true selves. It’s almost as if they need to resurrect the ghost of Broder in order to have some adversary to posture as opponents of, even as their preferred ideology has consumed the entire media ecosystem.
To test this thesis, some crafty young troublemaker should try applying for a “newsroom fellowship” at, say, the New York Times and write in the application material that their only ambition for the job is to neutrally and dispassionately report on the problems facing America in a kind of indifferent Broder-esque vernacular. Let’s see how far you get with that. Extra credit for neglecting to mention whatever structural inequities you believe yourself to have overcome by dint of your identity status. For even more fun, try praising the legacy and accomplishments of Donald Trump in anything like the language Broder had once used to extol the wartime prowess of George W. Bush. The most the New York Times might offer you is an opportunity to provide a hostage-like comment before they publish an article apocalyptically tying you to some horrifying new white nationalist/QAnon splinter group. …
NOTE: I promise this Substack is not going to be 100% dedicated to meta-analysis of the journalism industry. But it’s simply true that the journalism industry has just emerged from a massive five-year convulsion brought on by the rise of Trump (and other interrelated factors), and is in the process of constructing a new set of “norms” and expectations for itself. How the people who run the industry conceive of their role has downstream effects on the whole body politic. And once you’ve gotten anything like an inside view of how narratives get constructed, what kind of people ascend the career ladder, and what kind of pathologies dominate media institutions, it’s hard to look away.
Some of this is a tad ironic for me personally, because I was once as staunch a critic of the “objectivity” doctrine as anybody. I believed it genuinely was corrosive, outmoded, and stultifying. In an article for The Nation, just a few months after Broder’s death, I wrote:
Formalized journalism training also lends academic credibility to mainstream normative standards, the most notorious being the objectivity decree, which is still seriously entertained as a plausible ideal in journalism departments. To get a job in the “traditional” industry, one former journalism major told me, students are urged to maintain an image of unsullied impartiality, both personally and professionally. This means never taking part in public political events, never affiliating with any partisan organizations, never posting Facebook status updates that might indicate your opinions on matters of substance. Studiously avoid any demonstration of being invested in how the world works, lest you fail to meet the requirements for journalistic seriousness.
But today, anyone with a modicum of self-awareness would have to acknowledge that the media industry dynamics I’d described circa 2011 have been all but obliterated. Case in point: during the first wave of protests and riots last summer after the death of George Floyd, I was informed that journalists at major publications were being expressly authorized by their management to engage in the protests as participants.
These weren’t eccentric left-wing outfits, mind you, but major name-brand publications. Some of the directives were made public, others were not. However you feel about the propriety of those directives, there was no question that the “norms” which had once been thought to govern professional journalistic conduct had radically shifted. Couple this with it being taken for granted within media circles that Trump was not just bad, not just unseemly, but the modern incarnation of genocidal fascist tyranny. If that was your true belief (and there’s a reasonable debate to be had over the extent to which the proponents of this belief actually believed it), of course this would necessitate a drastic upheaval in the kind of journalistic philosophy you subscribe to. Anything less would be a dire failure in the face of an unprecedented, existential emergency. The call to #resist was the final nail in the coffin for anything resembling Broder-style objectivity.
And yet, the ascendant class of journalists today do not seem to have updated their critique. They still imagine themselves pitted against a Broder-like status quo which, in reality, has been almost entirely overthrown. A prime example is Wesley Lowery, the highly-touted journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in his mid-20s for reporting on race and policing issues. In a New York Times op-ed last summer, Lowery denounced the media for clinging to “a model of professed objectivity,” which he viewed as particularly indefensible in light of the protest activity going on at the time. Covering the protests accurately demanded not “objectivity,” he inveighed, but a new ethic of what Lowery called “moral clarity.”
The overwhelming praise Lowery’s op-ed received at the time from fellow journalists was itself very instructive. Apparently, it was widely believed that a long-overdue “reckoning” with journalistic objectivity was needed in June 2020 — as though the first thing that comes to mind when you look back on the last 4-5 years is the media’s unflinching commitment to “objectively” covering the tenure of President Donald J. Trump.
Per the Lowery formulation, most journalists had “professed objectivity” with respect to Trump, and also “professed objectivity” with respect to “the views and inclinations of whiteness.” Perhaps only a journalist could actually believe this.
Media figures like Lowery were and are campaigning against a mentality that is simply not meaningfully operative anymore within the industry. So what are they trying to achieve, exactly? What they so obviously want is for their values — which generally align with the already-dominant left/liberal monoculture — to be the new governing standard, replete with speech codes and various shortcuts engineered to effectuate their own professional and social advancement. What they want is power. It’s not particularly complicated. Nor is it a coincidence that these same people tend to be most fluent in “therapeutic trauma jargon,” which provides a turbo-charged boost in their maneuvers to bludgeon editors and managers into submission.
Lowery helped pioneer this new trauma jargon at a critical moment when he proclaimed that a different NYT op-ed last June would “imperil the lives” of his “loved ones,” and that he was therefore melodramatically canceling his NYT subscription. As usual, the emotional terrorism-style gambit worked. The NYT swiftly dumped opinion editor James Bennet, and the “moral clarity” framework entered further into mainstream consensus. The more the tactic is used, the more obvious it is that invoking “trauma” or related concepts puts all the leverage into the hands of the people claiming psychological aggrievement. And it also allows for the circumvention of the ordinary evidence-building exercises that, one would have thought, are a central component of trustworthy journalism.
Lowery himself is now employed by some kind of web-based division of 60 Minutes. It would be no surprise if he were eventually elevated to Steve Kroft status as a prime-time anchor. At which point he’ll be preaching about the need for “moral clarity,” with the full institutional weight of CBS behind him, for a mass audience, with no contradiction ever detected.