Politics & Media
Jul 29, 2008, 06:21AM

Subjective is the New Objective

The simultaneous ascension of blogs and descension of print media will eventually change our expectations for objectivity in news. The first of a three-part series.

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Tampa's Channel 13 in 1958.

Media collide

Objectivity—whether a piece of information is wholly accurate in its facts—is a precious commodity. The news media is ideally meant to bring it to us, and over the course of its long history it has repeatedly been a saving grace. And yet we vilify the media when it fails (the war in Iraq), lies (Jayson Blair) and plagiarizes. If we’re to fully understand the issues of today, we need unadulterated facts. Mainstream media strive for objectivity: to be the face of reason and truth, the bottom-line when it comes to facts.

It at first seemed that the blogosphere would be the mainstream media’s antithesis—endless opining with little to no reportorial value. The big newspapers out there would always be the agenda setters, the Goliaths in the field of news media. They would always represent the “final answer.”

Hefty sites such as The Huffington Post (full disclosure: I just started contributing there) and Politico have made serious splashes by acquiring top editors (and writers) of news and politics from mainstream print media outlets. Politico, which was founded by former Washington Post employees, has been snapping up heavyweights left and right; Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo is the first blogging journalist to be awarded the prestigious George Polk Award for Legal Writing in 2007 (he and his staff broke the as-yet-unsettled, political-based firings of district attorneys by the Department of Justice).

Obviously there is something to be said for online media and the blog format they so frequently employ. But most blogs are dependent on citing content from the mainstream media such as the Associated Press, The New York Times and others—and, as we all know, the print media is in a free-fall as more and more audiences turn to online for their news. As one side rises, the other falls. And as major municipal dailies actually burn out and leave us, the question remains whether online media will be able to fill a void once peopled with on-the-ground journalists. The Huffington Post, after all, does not have a Baghdad bureau.

Where the two “camps” have combined and evolved into more than the sum of their parts—more than simply aggregators of mainstream media content coupled with heart-on-the-sleeve commentary, or more than an extension of a newspaper beat—we can glimpse a part of journalism’s—and, by extension, objectivity’s—future.


Becoming the story

There are certain Sundays I just don’t feel like getting off the couch.
The clock ticks toward 3 p.m. and I literally have to drag myself up and out the door for another afternoon at Fletcher Field.

Today was such a Sunday.

Because of numerous vacations at detnews.com, I have to fill in for others today and Monday—my normal days off. Four hours in the hot sun followed by eight hours at the office didn’t seem all that appealing to me.

But as is always the case, once I arrived at the park, all was right with the world. Seeing smiling children everywhere; watching former and current residents of the area—black and white—playing and socializing together; actually playing softball on a diamond I grew up on; it’s all good and gives me hope for a better future in the neighborhood.

The above is a blog post, titled “Addicted to Hope” and written by Michael Happy, a metro reporter for the Detroit News, Michigan’s second largest newspaper. The blog, featured on the site’s local section, is called “Going Home” and was recently profiled by Megan Garber for the Columbia Journalism Review. The blog is embedded journalism in blog form: it focuses solely on City Airport, one of the worst neighborhoods in Detroit (“homes that haven’t been condemned or destroyed by arson have been left to rot”; “the neighborhood school has disintegrated inside out”; “it’s common to see phone wires slackened nearly to the ground, their rubber skins sliced open” for valuable copper to sell on the black market).

It’s the unfortunately familiar story: a working-class neighborhood laid low by plant closings, the riots of 1967 and white flight. Traditionally, coverage of these types of neighborhoods and cities (in all corners of America) is confined to a single feature, a one-and-out snapshot of an unfortunate corner of the world. That’s it. The neighborhood remains after the article fades into the archives; people wake up and avoid drug dealers who avoid cops who barely contain the crime; they go to sleep; nothing changes.

Yet something has to give. The afflicted must be comforted, as the saying goes, and in the case of City Airport, the Detroit government has decidedly not been able to provide that comfort. Where is the crux for an actual change in the neighborhood’s quality of life? Happy answers the question with “Going Home.”

Garber writes that “for Happy, writing and maintaining Going Home—which he does in addition to his full-time News beat—is equal parts personal catharsis, reportorial documentation, and moral crusade.”

Happy uses the News as a platform for his blog, and that is one of the key components of “Going Home.” Without the News’ legitimacy, the blog might not have found the momentum it is now enjoying. But aside from simply dogmatically reporting on the goings-on in the community, Happy is a strident activist for City Airport, organizing a cleanup of the local park in the form of Friends of Fletcher Park, a nonprofit organization. “Friends” canvases for donations and helps arrange for groups to speak at City Hall on behalf of the neighborhood.

Happy’s efforts have led to demonstrable, if modest, changes in the community. He is bringing progress to a hope-strapped area in a foundering city. There’s something inarguably noble and honest in this venture. Where decades of decline have settled in, one man has helped throw back the clock, tick by tick. “Narrative-building had evolved into coalition-building,” Garber writes. “Telling the neighborhood’s story had become working to give that story a happy ending.”

But “embedded journalism” is no longer a perfect qualifier, since the reporter himself is “becoming the story,” and there is noticeable criticism stemming from within the newspaper:

“Going Home’s blatant agenda-mongering, [according to Christine MacDonald, a News metro reporter on the City Hall beat], compromises the paper’s over all credibility,” Garber writes. “Dave Josar, MacDonald’s colleague in the City Hall bureau, shares her concern, and wonders, ‘What are the rules here’ It’s a fair question, and one that newspapers around the country are struggling to answer as they incorporate reporters’ blogs into their online strategy.”

One tenet of journalism is the notion of a “wall” between news-gathering and opinion. A paper’s op-ed pages are the sole grounds for commentary. Period. A White House staff reporter would not be respected if he or she also wrote staunchly partisan opinion columns at the back of the paper. Obviously journalists are allowed to form their own opinions, but they’re to be absent from their reporting. For many, there is no shade of gray; either your writing is objective or it’s not. As soon as you start allowing exceptions, you undermine the whole foundation of a newspaper’s prime commodity, they argue.

Take down the wall

“Going Home” is a form of literary journalism. One of his earliest posts, in memoir-fashion, describes his childhood home: It was “completely gone and the lot was littered with debris—old tires, hubcaps, furniture, clothes. Of the 30 or so houses that made up our end of the block back in the ’70s, about a quarter of them were gone and another quarter of them were boarded up.” Happy’s personal narrative dovetails with that of the neighborhood’s. On July 4, he reminisces about his old town:

American flags wafting from every porch stoop. The smell of barbecued steaks, burgers and hot dogs thick in the humid afternoon air. Echoes of children swimming, splashing, Marco-Poloing coming from backyards up and down the block. Ernie Harwell calling a Willie Horton homer over dad’s little transistor radio as the aging Tigers win another one. After dark, sparklers twirling in tiny hands, and firecrackers (Lady Fingers, Black Cats, M-80s) and bottle rockets making the whole area sound like a war zone until dawn.

He then asks his readers to contribute their own memories of the neighborhood-that-was, and one writes, “I remember running into you while you were enroute [sic] to visiting your grandmother in your blue VW on Wisner or Leander, I believe. I learned, your father was from the Six and Van Dyke neighborhood.” This back-and-forth, this total blurring of the line between reporter and subject, fact and opinion, is remarkable in its honesty and in its exigency. It would be impossible to achieve with the standard “objective” model.

It is a soulful creation of reporting and advocacy, community and personal narrative. “Going Home,” though, cannot be reconciled with the status quo of objectivity. Since he is also a Metro reporter, Happy has, in the eyes of many, compromised his standing as a reporter. There has to be a middle ground here. “Going Home” is a product of reportorial insight and opining. It is a rallying point for a community.

Good work has been done. Change has been sown, and objectivity is gleaned through subjective content. In this case, the “wall” need not apply. But let’s not ignore the fact that it will be extremely difficult to reconcile this brand of journalism. There will be more triumphs, and more failures. The process will be fine-tuned, and precedent, as with print media today, will form tomorrow for online media. And when that time comes, media as we know it will have another formidable weapon with which to afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted.

  • a really great article.

    Responses to this comment
  • A fascinating piece, once again, by Andrew Sargus Klein. 15 years ago, when daily newspapers were fat with print advertising, it's likely a smart and young journalist such as Klein would be on the fast track to a career in mainstream media. It could be that what he's doing instead in this period of media flux, is more valuable, though. I found his account of the enterprising and admirable Michael Happy to be the best part of this piece. I do think Klein is a touch idealistic in his notion of objectivity, past or present, in the media. The "concept" of objectivity has long been considered bogus, as the "new journalism" as practiced by Wolfe, Breslin, Thompson and others were only too happy to point out in mid-1960s and onwards. Even when The New York Times was less blatant in its liberal bias, for example, it wasn't as objective as advertised. Read any serious book about the Times and the story of President Kennedy persuading its legendary columnist James Reston (and his editors) to not publish a politically embarrassing story is prominent. The same applies to any prestigious daily, whether it's The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Washington Post or Chicago Tribune. That's a quibble, however, for this was really an excellent Splice article.

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  • You know, I just read a bio of Hunter S. Thompson, and it was rife with documentation of the birth New Journalism. I greatly appreciate your comments, Timothy, but that was in truth a significant oversight. Thanks for the heads up. Maybe Happy's blog is a plot point for ... New New Journalism?

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  • Ditto on the above comments about the worth of this piece by Klein. Talking Points Memo is a must destination for me, as well as The Drudge Report and Real Clear Politics. I've had trouble, though, getting into The Huffington Post: too many big names puffing hot air like cable tv show guests. Maybe if they're getting people like Klein, the site is changing. My question is this: if Obama wins as most people expect, what will that do to left of center sites like Huffington Post?

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