If Transparency isn’t the New Objectivity it Damn Sure Oughta Be

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I couldn’t agree more with the argument in David Weinberger’s article “Transparency is the new objectivity.”

While socially we’ve valued transparency as a virtue for some time, the bureaucratic nature of a lot of information made transparency hard to define or even declare as necessary. As Weinberger says, “Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links.”

So while we valued transparency as an overall virtue, during the Age of Paper it wasn’t something that affected the journalistic medium. Sure, attribution has been used to some extent for a long time, but the ability to assert a false attribution no longer exists. Yet, for some unexplained reason, print media has been far more affected than other media forms by these new levels of transparency. Television and radio pundits still seem to get away with murder by being so powerful that no one can destabilize them from their positions as the end-of-the-road on a range of assertions.

Sure to some extent this isn’t true, the internet is a fact-checking tool the likes of which we’ve never seen before, but the lack of ability that that fact-checking tool has to influence the norms of how television and radio operate is confounding. Hannity, Rush, and Beck all spew blatant lies, and only the most egregious are fact-checked by other mainstream players in a fashion which actually holds them accountable.

“Transparency subsumes objectivity,” Weinberger argues. And it would appear that he is more and more right with each passing day. Sure, objectivity is still valued, but if you can’t back up your “objective” viewpoint with documentation that objectivity ain’t worth a damn thing. In Weinberger’s words, “Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.”

This, in fact, is the very argument Glenn Greenwald often expresses on journalism, most recently in his email argument with the Times’ Bill Keller last month.

David Carr, while a bit more sympathetic to the goal of advocacy journalism than Keller, professes what seems to be the stereotypical Timesian argument against quote-unquote advocacy journalism in his column “Journalism, Even When It’s Tilted.” Carr admires Greenwald’s tenacity to bring justice to certain civil rights but does  say that “I do think that activism — which is admittedly accompanied by the kind of determination that can prompt discovery — can also impair vision. If an agenda is in play and momentum is at work, cracks may go unexplored.” This is true, but Carr doesn’t address the fact (which in my opinion was the argument that Greenwald beat Keller with in their email exchange) that an agenda isn’t MORE likely to drive the content of a story simply because one is forthcoming about it. The Times also has an agenda, they just don’t say so.

Additionally, when one is as open about a viewpoint as Greenwald, those wishing to check his assertions have more of an understanding of why he might have asserted or argued something, whereas that reason is often unclear in “objective” journalism.

I’m always shocked when I hear fellow journalism students say that they think there is no place for opinion within journalism––and that’s an opinion I’ve heard twice in the last week. Yet, for a long time we’ve accepted opinion on the margins of conventional journalism. Every major paper endorsed national politicians (yet individual journalists themselves seem to think that if they reveal who they’re voting for then their work is untrustworthy). The only explanation I can come up with, is that these narratives of objectivity are so entrenched in our journalistic and educational models, that even though the media structure has begun to crumble, most aspiring members of that structure are too frightened by the growing cracks in the existent model to admit that their futures will be unpredictable.

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