From Gannett Newspapers this past weekend came a rather overwrought confession. Soon after the company's in-state investigative team discovered that 29 state circuit court judges had signed Scott Walker recall petitions, out came the news that so had 25 of its own journalists.
Now that was good for a belly laugh from me, but Gannett apparently didn't see the humor. In fact, they were downright grouchy.
Oops, the media giant quickly responded. By signing the recalls, the newsroom employees had breached Gannett's Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms, and, in columns to its readers, editors and publishers vowed to address discipline and provide supplemental ethics' education.
I see, sort of like re-education camp.
That's right, according to Gannett's ethics' code - and this principle saturates American newsrooms - journalists cannot engage in political activity of any kind, lest the credibility of the newsrooms be undermined. That includes things like putting up yard signs and, yes, signing a recall petition.
Well, let me tell you, both as a reporter and as a citizen who loathes the upcoming recalls, I'm here to defend those journalists and their right to sign any petition they want.
I signed the petition to recall Sen. Jim Holperin (D-Conover) last summer, in fact. At least I think I did. Gosh, I hope I did.
Anyway, here's how Stewart Rieckman, general manager and executive editor of the Oshkosh Northwestern, one of the Gannett newspapers involved, put it in a column to readers:
"The principle at stake is our belief 'that journalists must exercise caution and not become involved with issues that may cause doubts about their neutrality as journalists.'"
Later, he writes: "All citizens, including journalists, have a right to hold their own opinions about political issues. Journalists can and do vote in elections. But journalists who work within a professional news organization must hold themselves to a journalistic standard. That is, journalists have a first responsibility to be trusted. They have a first responsibility to protect the objectivity of the news they are covering for their readers and their community. They have a first responsibility to protect the credibility of the news organization for which they work."
That last sentence is instructive, for it tells you what the newspaper company is really worried about here - not the ethics of its reporters and not even the neutrality of its newsrooms but the perception of neutrality in its newsrooms.
The mainstream media doesn't care about objectivity, put simply; it cares about the appearance of objectivity.
Truth be told, there is no such thing as an objective reporter. There are only reporters who strive for objectivity. That is the true mission, as it must be, and as it is for the vast majority of journalists. But when media companies try to hoist upon the public the fake notion of truly neutral reporters, and enforce the pretense through lofty sounding ethics' codes, they are merely reinforcing a myth, the myth of human objectivity.
Many years ago, the songwriter Paul Simon wrote a song "The Myth of Fingerprints." Part of it goes:
Over the mountain
Down in the valley
Lives a former talk-show host
Everybody knows his name
He says there's no doubt about it
It was the myth of fingerprints
I've seen them all and man
They're all the same
Now I haven't a clue what Mr. Simon meant by those words or that song, but, to me, it means people all over the world are fundamentally the same, no matter how different they are from each other with respect to culture, ethnicity, race, or even, say, the unnatural love of some for the Green Bay Packers.
Humans are humans.
And so it is with reporters. No matter how different a breed they are from, say, political activists or lawyers or egghead professors who embrace theoretical models of the world built on shifting sands, everybody is fundamentally the same. Humans are humans, and the species is decidedly not objective.
So reporters are no more objective than those activists and egghead professors. Especially political reporters (though none of the Gannett employees were), who enter the field precisely because they are politically passionate in the first place. Believe me, those who say differently are promoting the myth of objectivity. I've seen reporters around the world and man they're all the same.
Now, again, it is every reporter's duty to get both sides of the story in a news article. It is the charge of the profession to keep opinions in opinion columns and facts in the news. It's that pursuit of ideal objectivity that counts, as well as of a more generally attainable general objectivity, because the ideal is just that, an unrealized and unrealizable goal. Even the most rigorous, objective-minded reporter cannot escape the biases that bathe him or her, that wash over their minds and souls and saturate their thoughts.
To wit, in every story, driven by deadlines and space limits, a reporter must make decisions about which facts to put in the story and which to leave out. Every editor does the same thing. Just the acts of omission and inclusion give every story an inherent if subtle inclination.
Even Mr. Rieckman acknowledges this inborn human bias when he says journalists have a right to their opinions and can and do vote. So obviously he understands the myth of objectivity; he just wants to foster and promote it.
The distinction is an important one, for, once the myth is exposed, so too are the fallacies of the ethics' code. Gannett makes believe that if its reporters follow this creed - if they don't sign a petition or expose their true feelings - they are going to be more objective in their stories.
But in fact the opposite is more likely to be true.
Put simply, an ethical journalist, and that's most of them, will fight bias as hard as he or she can. Ethical journalists are not going to write a story any differently whether their name is on a petition or not. They honor the mission toward objectivity, and take the journey seriously, even if they are making stump speeches on the weekend.
Practically speaking, too, being able to freely reveal their true political feelings is more likely to make honest reporters try even harder to keep as much bias as possible out of news stories, because they know the public will watching very carefully.
On the other hand, for the dishonest journalist who intends to promote bias as cleverly and as casually as possible - an assertion of ideology as fact here and there - the ethics' code is a Godsend. Such journalists, and they are out there, particularly in the mainstream media, can intentionally and needlessly load their stories with bias, then hide behind the code as a neutral reporter: Hey, I'm objective, see, I didn't sign any petition.
If the public thinks it doesn't have to worry about the leanings of all these objective reporters, the public better think again.
And the same goes for scrutinizing the industry itself. Indeed, the code itself presents a trick of the light through which flickers the dance of propaganda. The more the media captains talk about objectivity, the less objective they really are.
Most of the mainstream media - and especially national corporate media organizations - routinely use the magic light of the ethics code precisely for such a purpose, to drive a political agenda and then to run for cover. While making loud proclamations about the "ethics of neutrality," they have used those proclamations to build one of the most dishonest and systemically biased press corps in the democratic world.
Over in Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, the media understands all this. There's no pretense about being objective. Readers know where reporters stand - as well as their newspapers - and they take it from there. The media still tries to report both sides of an issue, for the most part (they aren't perfect), but the facts render from a certain political perspective, usually, and everybody's got their cards on the table.
That's a much more honest system. In America, those political perspectives are rendered as objective truths when they are not.
The so-called scientific consensus on the central dangers of manmade global warming is the quintessential example of this deception. In January, a group of 16 eminent climate scientists wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal citing the growing number of scientific heretics debunking this claim of consensus.
To the Journal's credit, the number of those heretics it has published has literally sounded like a drumbeat. And this growing legion of heretics includes such people as Dr. Ivar Giaever, the 1973 winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, and thousands - yes, thousands - of other credentialed scientists.
But in the mind of The New York Times - I'll pick them out, for they are the worst offender on this issue - and their reporter Justin Gillis, these people do not exist. He reports as "fact" his invented scientific consensus. Here's one of his quotes from an "objective" news article:
"But the House Republicans, many of whom reject the overwhelming scientific consensus about the causes of global warming, labeled the plan an attempt by the Obama administration to start a 'propaganda' arm on climate."
Overwhelming consensus? Isn't a consensus always overwhelming by definition? Or was he trying to drive his point home emphatically?
Enough said. The mainstream media would do us all a favor by simply shutting up about its false objectivity. And instead of saber-rattling about disciplining their journalists for constitutional expression, Gannett should just make sure they employ reporters who want to tell the truth, whether they choose to sign a recall petition or not.
Of course, telling the truth would be exactly what Gannett was not trying to do. If they wanted to do that, they would just drop the nonsense about objectivity in their ethics code.
But that would leave the media emperor wearing no clothes, wouldn't it? Probably not a pretty sight, but at least a real one.
Richard Moore podcasts The American Investigator at www.rmmoore1.com.