U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Objectivity Question

Today I’m reading Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (Basic Books, 1978), Michael Schudson’s smart and wonderfully readable history of the ideal of objectivity in journalism.schudson

I’m not sure that the subtitle (the “social history” part of it anyhow) would the best descriptor for this book if it were written now, because Schudson’s object of inquiry is really an idea, a new conception of the role and rules of journalism that developed in response to early, broadly shared 20th-century anxieties about epistemological uncertainty. However, he is not concerned with this idea in the abstract (n.b.: is there any such thing as an idea in the abstract, really?), but rather with how this idea found expression in the social world of the newsroom and the cultural artifact of the newspaper page. Still, calling this study a social history made good sense, I think, in 1978, when the wings of intellectual history’s angel were just beginning to turn the wind, or turn upon it, in new directions.

Since the object of Schudson’s inquiry is the emergence of the idea of objectivity as a professional norm for journalists (connected, not incidentally, to the emergence of journalism as a profession), our readers might be interested to know that Peter Novick gets a grateful nod in the book’s acknowledgments. “For reading the entire manuscript and advising me on it,” Schudson writes, “I acknowledge the help of Morris Janowitz, Peter Novick, Paul Starr, Gaye Tuchman, and my most thoughtful editor at Basic Books, Martin Kessler” (ix-x). It’s interesting to speculate how Schudson’s examination of “the objectivity question” for journalism may have informed Novick’s own thinking about a project on “the objectivity question” in history. (Novick does cite Schudson in That Noble Dream, on pg. 163.)

Here are a couple of key passages from Schudson, sketching out the emergence of the ideal of objectivity in journalism:

At the turn of the century and even as late as the 1920s, ‘objectivity’ was not a term journalists or critics of journalism used. Newspapers were criticized for failing to stick to the facts, and the Times boasted that it printed ‘all the news’—by which it meant information. But this was not objectivity; the attachment to information did not betray much anxiety about the subjectivity of personal perspective. The Times in 1900 trusted to information, that body of knowledge understandable in itself without context (or with a context taken for granted). That was not to last. By the 1920’s, journalists no longer believed that facts could be understood in themselves; they no longer held to the sufficiency of information; they no longer shared in the vanity of neutrality that had characterized the educated middle class of the Progressive era. In the twentieth century, the skepticism and suspicion which thinkers of the late nineteenth century, like Nietzsche, taught, became part of general education. People came to see even the findings of facts as interested, even memory and dreams as selective, even rationality itself as a front for interest or will or prejudice. This influenced journalism in the 1920s and 1930s and gave rise to the ideal of objectivity as we know it.

The last decades of the nineteenth century and the first years of this century saw the emergence of the American university, the proliferation of professional associations, and the beginnings of ‘scientific management’ in industry and in city government, but this was not the same as, nor did it produce, a belief in objectivity. Not until after World War I, when the worth of the democratic market society was itself radically questioned and its internal logic laid bare, did leaders in journalism and other fields, like the social sciences, fully experience the doubt and skepticism democracy and the market encouraged. Only then did the ideal of objectivity as consensually validated statements about the world, predicated on a radical separation of facts and values, arise. It arose, however, not so much as an extension of naïve empiricism and the belief in facts but as a reaction against skepticism; it was not a straight-line extrapolation but a dialectical response to the culture of a democratic market society. It was not the final expression of a belief in facts but the assertion of a method designed for a world in which even facts could not be trusted. (pp. 120, 122 – emphasis mine)

This seems to me to be a slightly different conception of objectivity than that employed by Novick – though, as Thomas Haskell points out in his review of That Noble Dream, what Novick seemingly despairs of as an epistemic impossibility he very ably practices as a set of professional norms and procedures for quality control. (See Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory 29, No. 2 (May 1990), 142-143.)

Of course what makes these professional norms and procedures useful and helpful is that they are shared – “objectivity” is not simply (or perhaps even primarily?) the methodological aim of the individual historian, but rather a shared regulatory practice of the profession as a whole. (I mean “regulatory” in a functional sense as much as – or more than – a normative sense – “regulatory” like a self-regulating steam engine.)

And – though I am still in the middle of Schudson’s book – my surmise is that he is headed in a similar direction. Earlier in his book, as a sort of preview of the discussion to come, Schudson had defined objectivity more aphoristically than in the passages above: “Objectivity,” he wrote, “is an ideology of the distrust of the self” (71). Whatever Schudson ends up arging that this has meant for journalists, I think what it has meant for historians is that we somehow have to maintain a “self-regulating” methodological system that allows us to be skeptical of ourselves but trusting of one another.

However, in addition to reading Schudson, I am also in the middle of Jon Wiener’s Historians in Trouble. So maybe the watchword for us as a profession is – forgive me, but I just can’t resist! – “trust, but verify.”

What do you all think?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this post. As I mentioned on Twitter, this book and the ideas it argues for are a major part of journalism history. Often times I believe we as intellectual historians would be well served looking more and more to that sub-genre of history whenever we can, and your post here is a reminder why.

    And I cannot help but connect this book and its arguments to contemporary debates about the “objectivity” of cable news and how that relates to the recent history of American journalism. This is definitely a fascinating book to discuss and cannot wait to hear more about it from you.

  2. I also think these two pieces published in *The Atlantic* in the last ten years offer some food for thought. Here’s James Fallows on the changing media landscape from 2011: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/04/learning-to-love-the-shallow-divisive-unreliable-new-media/308415/

    And here is William Powers arguing in 2005 that the media was reverting to a 19th century, partisan model: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/01/the-massless-media/303668/

  3. Great post, L.D.

    My current book project is an intellectual history of the first fifty years of X-ray use. In it, I am developing the argument that the rising model of mechanical objectivity (which begins its wax in the middle decades of the 19th c.) is indispensable to accounting for the power of the X-ray across a variety of social domain. So in some sense, I am trying to write as an historian of objectivity, at least in its 19th and 20th c. incarnations.

    I was following the excellent discussion on Twitter, and I was pleased to see the reference to Daston and Galison’s 2007 book on objectivity, which IMO is the seminal recent work (and is the basis for my own theoretical framework, such as it is). So, tracking Daston and Galison, I would want to say that inasmuch as journalism in the first quarter of the 20th c. in the U.S. should and does track the model of mechanical objectivity. (Obviously, the five models D&G discuss are permeable and overlap considerably in time and space — and there are others to boot). But as I am working with the half-century between 1896 and 1945, I am quite comfortable asserting that mechanical objectivity is a major, if not the principal framework in which tensions over truth, doubt, and deception are interpreted and managed in the first quarter of the 20th c.

    I write this here not to disagree with Schudson’s interesting claims; I know little about the history of journalism, and have not read the book itself. But the idea of mechanical objectivity has more going on than a fact-value separation, or a correspondence theory of truth (although I think characterizing these as important to the idea of mechanical objectivity is roughly accurate).

    I’ll stop here mostly because I have a terrible habit of never stopping here. 🙂

  4. LD wrote: “However, he is not concerned with this idea in the abstract (n.b.: is there any such thing as an idea in the abstract, really?), …”

    Serious or no? If the former, I’d say that this is where the Critical Theorists’ notion of reification comes into play. You could argue that our abstractions are always rooted in some material beginnings (very Aristotelian). But I would counter that human creativity, both intellectually and materially, transforms new abstractions into new material realities–i.e. things.

    In the case of Schudson’s book, journalism made objectivity into a thing, a structure of social-professional relations—between “journalists” and between journalism and the public. Objectivity became a reality, for those involved (and the public by implication). But was journalistic objectivity the deepest thing in operation? Some late-century conservatives would argue that objectivity covered an insidious liberalism/leftism.

    In sum, I’ll be interested to hear how Schudson ends his account. – TL

    • Also, did that reification enable a larger commodification of journalism? Or did “objectivity” serve to restrict the commodification by controlling the market? In sum, did the reification of objectivity serve the public or the newspaper industry?- TL

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