A Polarized Nation and the Perils of Objectivity

I keep hearing this “the country is polarized” trope; that people are only tuning in to what they want to hear. This point of view is tiresome.

By and large, people want to hear the truth. Facts. And if what you’re saying doesn’t match what their eyes and ears are telling them, that’s not a problem of a polarized people. That’s a ‘do your fucking job, journalists’ problem. That’s a ‘news driven by ratings and clicks’ problem.

Setting aside Breitbart, an organization that broadcasts inflammatory falsehoods for fun and profit, and FoxNews, who aggressively pushes false narratives to profit from partisan distortions and conflict, other news organizations may have a point of view, but they’re not merely saying what people want to hear.

And a point of view is a good thing, by and large.

Consider your favorite film critic, if you have one. You don’t need to agree with him/her about every movie. If you know generally her preferred types of films and why she likes them, you can usually extrapolate. If you know that he hates certain types of movies, or the work or a particular director that you happen to love, you might readily go see a film even if he gave it a bad review.

Similarly, if your favorite film critic highly recommends a movie that you typically wouldn’t give a second glance, you might decide to see it on the basis of that recommendation alone.

My point is, a point of view or bias isn’t necessarily a negative, particularly if its announced or conceded as a given.

European newspapers have published from widely-know political perspectives for decades. The Wall Street Journal writes/publishes from a distinctly business-oriented/economic perspective without interfering with its baseline credibility.

This point-of-view journalism has not been adopted, for the most part, by mainstream American news outlets. Most US news aims for “objectivity,” a lofty and unrealistic goal that they invariably fall short of. The trouble begins with the foundational premise – that objectivity is attainable. (For further discussion on whether that’s even possible, see the philosophical discipline of epistomology (theory of knowledge), or modern theoretical physics. The subject is a matter of debate in both disciplines, but the answer leans towards “no.”)

Apart from the foundational questions of ‘whether,’ journalistic objectivity is nonetheless very difficult to obtain in practice. Proclamations of same are tinged with blinding arrogance.

But between pure objectivity (not possible, I don’t think, not ultimately) and publishing from a certain political perspective, Fox News isn’t even on the spectrum. The entirety of their broadcast, from show to show, is advocacy of certain narratives.

Of course, Fox News doesn’t HAVE to be the way it is. They have the organizational structure, the studio, anchors, reporters, producers, staff and equipment, plus a whole raft of local network affiliates and their reporters, anchors, producers, staff, etc. all of which might be utilized to investigate and report in a more traditionally journalistic way.

At one point last fall, I idly wondered if Fox News might change up and pivot once Trump TV and Trump News launched (in that alternate universe). I imagine many who work there would like to be thought of as doing actual news: e.g., Brett Baier, Chris Wallace, Greta Van Susteren (before she jumped to MSNBC and effectively destroyed her credibility with both audiences). I’m sure there are others on the payroll.

But a) that alt reality never materialized, and b) FoxNews just can’t quit it.

[As an aside, I’m starting to compile a list of the false narratives, or categories of them, that Fox routinely peddles. It would be nice to simply get ahold of an internal memo spelling it out (you know there are memo(s), their whole narrative-based reporting reeks of top-down directives), but in the interim, a compilation will have to suffice. If completed, I will publish the list in another column. The downside of doing the leg-work myself, of course, is the necessity of watching Fox News to accomplish it. Ugh.] 

Back to the top. Apart from those who want to be misled and are actively seek “news” sources that speak to what they want to hear (the so-called ‘confirmation bias’ – a phrase I’ll not use here because it’s journalism-speak (and some other disciplines as well) for something better left discussed without insider jargon. This is why normal humans speak in perfectly acceptable English without dropping into corporate-speak; corporate culture being amongst the worst offenders of such jargon-heavy dialogue. If you don’t believe me, just look at the metrics…) No, apart from that subset of willing consumers of soothing falsehoods, people, generally-speaking and across the political spectrum, want news that is fundamentally based on facts, on evidence. To be inclusive, let’s call it truth-adjacent. People want news that they can trust to be true, or truth-adjacent.

Ultimately, I believe the country is far, far less polarized than the running media narrative suggests. The majority of Americans are neither coming for your guns, nor clamoring for a Fourth Reich. Mischaracterizing as otherwise benefits no one. It’s high time for the Fourth Estate to stop making it worse.

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