Magical objectivity


Ta-Nehisi Coates considers modern political reportage.

There is, in the press, a profane bias toward political success, a sense that success is strictly defined by elections won. Left uninterrogated is the ends to which those elections serve.

What we’re really talking about is the fake “objectivity” which the press worships. Serious policy reporting necessitates making calls, and making calls open you up to the charge of political bias. A good one to avoid that charge is to cover elections, in the way you cover sports. Ron Jaworski may love the Eagles, but if they’re sucking it up, he has to say as much. Likewise, a reporter can be a socialist in his private life, but by covering the horse-race he’s magically become objective.


Magical objectivity

  1. No one has a problem with reporters adding their judgment as to whether political goals are good or bad…BUT

    (1) These judgments are opinion, not fact. They should not be described as though they're self-evident objective statements.
    (2) These judgments should be be used to determine which events are newsworthy in order to shape a narrative. If an event involves 5000 people showing up on Parliament Hill, it's more newsworthy than the event involving only a dozen people for which the journalist happens to have more sympathy.
    (3) When presenting the facts about an event, the reporter should present all the relevant facts rather than just those that foster his preferred narrative. For example: if the Minister of Finance is flying to another city in a government jet to go to a photo-op, that's a good thing to cover and question… as long as the reporter also mentions that the Minister is also addressing the city's chamber of commerce during the same trip. That way people have all the relevant information rather than a distorted picture.
    (4) The reporter is not infallible, nor is he necessarily any wiser or more educated than anyone else. Hence if he has opinions and judgments to present it behooves him to back them up with rigorous argument, lest he develop a following of mindless fools who rely on his opinions as their own without benefit of critical thought.
    (5) Providing counter-arguments to his judgments is also good. Part of the whole "complete picture" thing.

    • About #3:

      If you read the CTV article that was linked, there is no mention of a chamber of commerce appearance. That'd be on CTV, not Wherry.

      • That is true, CTV is also at fault here.

        But really, it's not their fault either I suppose. I mean to find this speaking engagement, you'd have to open a web browser, go to google.ca, type all the characters in "Jim Flaherty london", look 3 or 4 results down, then click on that link. I mean, it would probably take a whole 30 seconds. Who has time to do all that?

        • The only reason to do that would be if you didn't trust the source to tell the whole story. Should we be faulting Wherry for trusting CTV's reporting? It seems reasonable enough to me. I mean, if you re-do your google search you'll notice that Tasha Kheiriddin over at the National Post did exactly the same thing.

          Apologies if the link breaks, I don't have much practice with them on this blog.

    • Well said, Gaunilon!

    • To an extent. But the quality of journalism is lessened when you give equal time to fringers (communists), obfuscators (Levant), crazies and channel changers, and the just plain wrong (climate change "skeptics"). Sorting it out is a big deal.

  2. Occam's Razor: How many news organizations have the resources (or the potential paying audience) to do much beyond horse-race reporting?

    • I don't think Occam's Razor means what you think it means. But anyhoo, I think news organizations that have the resources to publish opinion pieces aren't suffering from such tight economic constraints that they can't go beyond horse-race reporting.

  3. Ron Jaworski may love the Eagles, but if they're sucking it up, he has to say as much.

    That's not what "sucking it up" means. To "suck it up" means to cope with something unpleasant without complaining. Get your slang right, Mr. Coates!

    • Sucking it up: A colloquial expression used when trying to use a football analogy because you think that will resonate with the "ordinary people."

  4. Don't worry, Mr. Wheery: I've never considered your reporting objective for a second.

    • It's barely even reporting. I'd like to see some original thought and content provided by Wherry, not just, "I'm verklempt, so I'll give you a topic … discuss." But I suppose he gets paid either way.

      • Bit of an odd choice of word… verklemmt. That's how you spell it by the way.

        • gee is referring to a Mike Myers scit on SNL where he played a Jewish lady doing a talkshow and asking the guests to talk amongst themselves. It used to be hilarious….to me.

  5. I've seen it used that way before, I've used it that same way myself. I think Coates is on pretty safe ground with that one.

  6. I think Coates just meant to say "sucking". The expression "suck it up" is most commonly understood to mean something like "quit whining" or "deal with it" or "keep a stiff upper lip".

    • You are absolutly right that 'suck it up' means "play throught the pain" or "deal with it" but 'sucking it up' is used to describe poor play. Quite common among the millenial generation.
      Not to worry Crit, your thoughtful contribution to this blog, making it a must read, more then makes up for you not being current on the latest slang

      • Well, thanks! I admit I'm not "hip" with the "lingo", or whatever you kids are calling it these days. ;-)

  7. I think it's from that quick intake of breath you make when you decide to play through the pain.

  8. Interesting – I hadn't thought of it that way, but it certainly makes sense.

  9. It's called hiring reasonably intelligent and hard-working reporters. Doing research, being critical and asking good questions doesn't necessarily involve more resources than most major outlets already have.

  10. Given that it made sense to me, I'm not going to second guess what he wrote :P

  11. I see…*nods thoughtfully*… so just better to only tell the side of the story that is clearly mainstream, pleasant, and just plain right. Yes, that would be so much better.

  12. Well, if by mainstream you mean general consensus of informed experts on the topic if there is one, I agree. but sometimes it isn't pleasant. And I think all journalists should indeed try to be "just plain right."

  13. New from Mattel…journalist Barbie.

    Pull the string, and she says "Research is hard…let's go shopping!"

    Before the cries of sexism come forward, referring to this, for those too young to remember.

  14. Better for journos to be "just plain complete and accurate" in their reporting, methinks, and then try to be "just plain right" in their (clearly labelled, rigorously argued, with counter-arguments included) opinion pieces.

    • Well, accurate and right are synonyms. But my time is limited and I want the strongest arguments and the proven best analysis. Where genuine controversy exists by all means bring it forward but don't elevate a wearker argument or opposing view just to be different. Especially if its info I just don't have the detailed background to understand and I need to rely on the info presented.

  15. The simplest explanation/solution/theory is generally the correct one – or at least one must discount the simple before considering the more elaborate.

    But anyhoo, on what planet does an opinion piece require the same resources as subanstive reporting?

  16. Ok, so you're saying that the simplest explanation for the prevalence of horse-race reporting is economics. Not laziness, for example.

    But anyhoo, on what planet does an opinion piece require the same resources as subanstive reporting?

    Any planet on which opinion pieces are expected to be accompanied by supporting links and well-argued points.

  17. You read TNC, Wherry? I'm impressed. He's one of my favorite bloggers.

  18. Perhaps what is really required is an examination of the philosophy that news is just another "product offering" from the media, like Survivor or House or Little Mosque on the Prairie. Of course that is to call into question debt finacing to conduct takeovers…see Canwest, see ABC closing its news bureaus across the US. Perhaps it should be a condition of licence that news programs have suffcient funding to ensure that reporters don't have to cover 12 stories when they only have time for three, because their newsroom was gutted to make debt service charges so some bozo on Wall St. or Bay St (or his own head office) gets his bonus.

    Much lingering bad taste over the Goldman Sachs financing of the Canwest takeover of the specialty channels…btw these are same guys who made billions funding shakey deals with bogus geneaology now shaking down taxpayers on a global level….and it is an old saw, but, if you're not a socialist when your're 21 you don't have a heart, if you're still a socialist at 31 you don't have a brain

    • Objective journalistic reporting has nothing whatsoever to do with a company's financial situation. Any reporter working for any of the media outlets must do his or her job according to the standards of journalism: Try at all times to be reporting the news, objectively, and not be advised to "make the news".

      Within the job of reporting,, there is no room for subjective opinion. Some reporters may also fill the role of being an opinion writer, but please don't confuse the two.

      Being a journalist means leaving personal opinions off to the side. Period. Some are good journalists, and others cannot fully comprehend what their role is to be about. And as readers we should be able to spot the difference. We have an obligation too.

    • regardless of newsmedia's financial situations, reporters/journalists still have the duty to report objectively. Please don't change this channel!

    • "Some regard private enterprise as if it were a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look upon it as a cow that they can milk. Only a handful see it for what it really is – the strong horse that pulls the whole cart."

      – Winston Churchill

  19. I actually felt like an idiot (not an uncommon sentiment in my case) when you posted that link….and I was just a commenter who bought the story, not the journalist being paid to write it.

  20. I don't know what they're teaching in journalism schools these days, but if one reads several newspapers a day (adviseable) one can pick out instantly which reporter spins subjectively and which one puts in an effort to be objective.

    Often the difference is very subtle and no so easily pinpointed. It could be just a word here or there veering off in one direction, but over time those tiny little subtle tweeks amount to a lot of subjectivity in the long run. Slowly, slowly, public opinions are pulled out of kilter by subjective reporting, so that the average reader will no longer be able to discern what all the fuss is about. Unknowingly they have already been pulled over to the other side. It's sad, really.

  21. When places like the Columbia school of journalism, and the respective feeder schools,

    are overwhelmingly statist/leftist/progressive,

    where the basic assumptions of the role of the state, are taken as simple truths,

    where these beliefs are shared, regurgitated, and passed off as the norm in the newsrooms, by all but a rare freakish handful of conservatives,

    advocating that the notion that reportage from these assumptions is like simple bias in favouring a sports team,

    speaks volumes.

    • Absolutely. Communists, Moonies, deranged militias, wiccans, facists, white supremists, and the guy who talks all day on the broken payphone outside my building should all get equal opportunity to speak and should be given tons of time and attention on every single issue.

      That's exactly what we need to have a better media!

      • The best argument against democracy is the five minute conversation with an average voter.


  22. What's worse for these leftist institutions is the alternate media has laid bare these assumptions/truths/perspectives,

    by virtue of simple comparison.

    And so, when the AP focuses on one paragraph of a particular report, that favours the leftist agenda, unlike the past when that one paragraph becomes the end all and be all of the report, regurgitated in news pages around the world,

    the public is offered the whole report.

    Simple, basic, fullsome facts have become the most powerful light shone upon the agenda media.

    Fox news hasn't become the most watched news network in the US because it's "conservative"

    its become the most watched because it dares show basic, though important facts, that Americans want and deserve to see, but which the legacy media refused to show.

    One of a million examples:while Anderson Cooper's "reporting" of the Teaparties months ago, consisted of thinly vieled disgusting sexual references and mockery, Fox reported it straight. Now that they're a legitimate force legacy media is attempting to catch up.

    • I don't watch tv, but if I would watch tv I don't think I would watch fox. A bit too much in your face reporting. Personally I like a more calmed down reporting of the daily news. Just give us the facts, not a spectacle at all times.

  23. The media have become chirpers for their favourite political party, mostly Liberals. The Liberals issue a letter or press release then it is automatically published. No thought about what is being said or whether it is true. Hence the political parties churn the stuff out in droves because the media will report it. If the media started to analize the crap coming out and make judgement calls on whether it is news worthy or just spin then perhaps the political parties would stop. However, our PPG is lazy and consumed with hatred for the government. Therefore they will continue to publish anti Conservative propaganda to their heart’s content hoping beyond hope that the public is paying attention.

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