objectivity and the journalism of the niches


Last night, I wrote a review of the new Two Gallants record and, in that review, I noted indirectly that I spend money on things that really matter to me. I’m not a music journalist or a professional reviewer who gets free records from a company for my consideration, I’m merely a writer who wanted to relay his thoughts on a record because, to me, that record warranted a review. Professional journalists aren’t allowed to do things like that: buying a record indicates a predilection toward a label or an artist. Similarly, political journalists aren’t supposed to donate to political causes or parties, rather, they are supposed to be objective and impartial beat writers, reporting the news without prejudice.

Of course, we know this is nonsense. Few news organizations hold fast to the no-contribution rules and journalists are, by and far, tilted left of center, and it comes through in the way the news is presented in various media. It would be closer to reality to say that everything is analysis, from the way the news is delivered to the stories which get print and air play. What matters to the networks, websites, newspapers and magazines is what is on the cover, what the feature stories are. Tillich’s ultimate concern, writ large, just under the masthead.

That old American journalistic virtue of objectivity never was. The most we can ask from journalists is to be impartial and uncompromising. Not everyone who is critical of the right necessarily should be on the left, and vice versa. Of course, as America mutates further toward neo-tribalism and away from concepts of the rule of law and constitutional democratic-republicanism, journalists become little more than fanboys and girls, towing the line of their preferred political flavors. Or East or West Coast bias.

The point here isn’t meant to stick it merely to political reporting, the initial idea for this topic actually comes from recent exposure to sports and music journalism: niche journalism. Sport is largely pathos, and athletes are celebrities, icons, brands. As covered here in the past, those supposedly impartial baseball writers who act as gatekeepers to Baseball’s Hall of Fame are all too happy to refuse athletes who have either been nuisances to the press or have somehow violated the writers’ unwritten code of conduct. These journalists grew up idolizing teams and athletes, and they’re supposed to set that to the side to report objectively? Frankly, integrity would be valued more if ESPN lost the pretense of objectivity or impartiality. Listening to someone like Scott Van Pelt–whose daily radio broadcast I generally enjoy, when I do listen–try to keep from giddily tossing softball questions to star athletes is embarrassing for the host and the network and insulting to the listener. We know he went to Maryland and has disdain for other ACC athletic programs. Michael Wilbon, another ESPN personality-passed-off-as-journalist, can hardly stop grinning when it comes to talking about his hometown Chicago Bears. What is the difference between either of them, and someone like Sean Hannity or Keith Olbermann?

Several years ago, when the retiring Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sports columnist Dale Hofmann wrote his farewell column, he noted how he was going to enjoy becoming a fan again. Though it was refreshing to read that, the truth was that he was a fan, but remained uncompromising, even in his role as a staff opinion writer.

Then there’s music journalism. It’s true that I, by virtue of yesterday’s post, am no better than most of the hipster cretins at Pitchfork by reviewing a band I really enjoy. Music is inherently fueled and delivered with pathos. That said, if I hadn’t liked the record, I know I have enough nerve to say so. The last Band of Horses record, Infinite Arms, was not very good, and certainly not becoming of the two prior stellar records they had put out. This was lost on the people who glowingly praised a mediocre record. Favorites get love, underdogs stay under, and the [faux-]indie scene becomes no better than the vapid pop scene they abhor, it is all an “industry of cool,” only packaged differently. The uncompromising music journalist doesn’t get free records anymore.

It’s not payola, that’s illegal; it’s freeola. And the industry then is demonstrably as corrupt as politics. No wonder Matt Taibbi has a job, and Rolling Stone doesn’t talk much music anymore!

We cover what we think matters, and we tend to ignore that which we don’t want to matter. Everyone is compromised: after all, it’s far more palatable to compromise standards when it allows to you keep your desk. If I wanted to make WordPress’ Freshly Pressed, I’d turn this place into a photo blog and slap a big, fair picture of President Barry somewhere in there, along with sepia-or-Instagram tinted pictures of brick buildings and trees and crap.

(Good thing I don’t get paid for writing; I already own my own desk. The Man takes care of the rest.)

Amidst this race to the bottom, what can we do, but embrace the fact that perspective is essential to our relaying of experiences and events and, in so doing, work to maintain a commitment to be as fair, honest and impartial as possible? It’s that kind of integrity that got me in trouble with the Christian denomination in which I grew up, with previous places of employment, with my own family and friends. Everyone seems to want to be on the receiving end of a rectal sunshine injection, be it a Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer or accumulating a number of facebook likes.

What we need is a cultural cold bucket of water tossed on us, to stop listening to what we want to hear, and start reclaiming a sense of critical reality. If all that exists is our perspective, then nothing really exists outside of the self. If there is a world around us, though, we would be wise to consider that not everything we see is going to make us happy…and that’s perfectly okay. This is probably the best hope we can have for a civilization and its participants that have both veered so far off from any sense of impartiality or justice at all.

After all, it is difference which creates the grounds for conversation, the presence of converse indicates differing variables. It is the willingness and freedom to disagree and to consider and accept the possibility that we are wrong that makes for an environment of exploration and curiosity and, ultimately, growth and development. In seeking to be different for the sake ofdifference, we only seek to be the same. The role of the journalist, then, is no greater in scope than each of us as responsible participants in culture: to exchange ideas and weigh their merits and, perhaps most importantly, to discount and discard when necessary. Anything less is to live in the false comfort of the niche, the tribe, another replaceable part in a soulless machine.

Viva la difference.

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