A Victim of the Phony "Objectivity" Cult
This is nuts. ABC News has suspended producer John Green for expressing political opinions in two private email messages, written one year ago and eighteen months ago. The older message expressed disgust over President Bush's tactics in a debate with John Kerry; the more recent criticized former secretary of state Madeleine Albright for having "Jew shame." The proximate cause: Green's messages were revealed by Matt Drudge and The New York Post, exposing him and his employer to the wrath of the right.
The Albright comment gives ABC bipartisan cover for their disciplinary action. But it's hard to imagine that Green would be in trouble if he hadn't offended the Repugs. Has anyone scoured John Stossel's email lately? Would he be suspended for having written something like, "Bush creamed Kerry in the debate tonight. You'd have to be nuts not to vote for him"? Can't see it.
As usual, it matters very much whose ox is gored in any specific case. But in the bigger picture, this whole cult of journalistic "objectivity" is crazy, and the new John Green standard only worsens its craziness. Why on earth would we expect or want journalists to be devoid of political opinions? The only people who never express any feelings about politics are those who know and care nothing about it--not exactly the kind of people who are likely to be our most talented journalists. There are already plenty of TV reporters like Suzanne Stone, the gorgeous, ambitious hack played by Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Is this actually the model we want young journalists to emulate?
In fact, of course, most journalists do care about politics, which means they express opinions about it all the time. If the John Green standard becomes generally accepted, it will simply lead to public inquisitions similar to the ridiculous Kabuki dance of Supreme Court confirmation hearings, in which journalists are forced to declare that they have never written, spoken, or thought about politics and that their minds are like fields of virgin snow--white, pure, and empty. Such a standard would reward skillful liars and punish the honest.
Of course we want journalists who separate their personal opinions from their coverage of the news, and report all the relevant facts of a story no matter what political positions those facts tend to support. We should gauge the professional competence of a journalist by that standard and by the skill, maturity, and sophistication with which he or she makes the crucial judgments of the craft: Which stories are worth covering? Which facts are most truly relevant? How should those facts be arranged and presented to most closely approximate the "truth" as I see it? How much reporting must I do before I can be reasonably certain the story is ready for release?
The day-in, day-out performance of a journalist in answering questions like these is the relevant basis for judging his or her integrity--not the ability to avoid expressing political opinions in private. All the John Green standard does is give partisan operatives a new weapon with which to attack journalists they dislike. Outlets beyond ABC News should actively and explicitly disavow it.
Tags: John Green, ABC News, journalism