Objectivity Routines and the Missing Context

Robert Jensen

Transcript of the video interview in Austin, Texas on February 06, 2003

I think – everybody says – the media sucks, the media is bad, I hate the media. These things circulate all over in the US, no matter what side of the fence you are on – on the right or left. Everybody has got complaints about the media, but vague complaints like that aren’t particularly useful. The question is "Why are our media bad?", which means you have to articulate criteria on which you are going to evaluate the media. So the fundamental question is "What do citizens need or want from mass media in a democracy?". That is, what do citizens need so that they can make good on citizenship and actually participate and not simply be sheep? That is the question, and I think that you can really articulate three main things that people need from news media in a complex industrial society like our own.

The first thing people need is an independent source of factual information. By independent, I mean independent of other centers of power, so that your needed information doesn’t simply come from your government, or doesn’t come from corporations, the two main power centers in the world we live in. So you need a reliable supply of factual information. But that is not enough, because everybody understands that facts in and of themselves, random facts, have no particular value. You need a context in which to understand them, historical, political and social. So journalists, while not being historians, who are going to write a book everyday, do need to provide some context for the facts they are reporting. The third thing, I think, we need from journalists, is to express or to give space for the expression of the widest possible range of opinion in the culture, because everyone understands that the process of belief formation involves rubbing up against other people’s ideas. You don’t figure out what you believe by going into a room by yourself and pondering. Most of us figure out what we believe by engaging other people in their arguments. So those are the three criteria in which I would evaluate news media in a democracy.

I think that the American news media fails routinely on all three of those, and the place where you see that failure most profoundly is in coverage in general of foreign policy, but specially coverage of foreign policy and foreign affairs that involves militarism, military activity, the US going to war. It is at war time that you see the absolute failure of American journalism, and I think there are a couple of basic reasons for that. 

One is that we are The Empire. I think it’s important to start understanding America as an empire. And you may want to ask the question: what does one expect from people in the heart of the empire? Empires aren’t based on dissent and critical activities. Empires are based on power and power operates to enhance conformity. So from the intellectual institutions of an empire, and the main intellectual institutions I am talking about are basically the academy and journalism – the places where knowledge is produced and disseminated – it is hardly surprising that both of those are sites of high ideological conformity to the goals of the empire. You don’t advance in journalism and you don’t advance in the academy by being a critic and a dissenter. It doesn’t mean the institutions shut out everybody who is critical. It means that those people who tend to advance are going to be those who conform to the demands of power. 

This is not surprising. It is hardly idiosyncratic to the United Sates. I am sure that if you look closely at nineteenth century Britain, at the height of the empire you would find basically the same kind of configurations. In the United States that ideological conformity, which you would expect in any great power, especially in an empire, is enhanced I think, by a couple of other things. One is the nature of media ownership which is now highly concentrated and completely commercialized. That is, the vast majority of people get the vast majority of their information from commercial entities. And those commercial entities are almost always organized around corporate hierarchies. Those institutions have their own interests. And their main interest is in seeing the existing system continued. 

So again, it is hardly surprising that journalists who come out of a corporate setting, are in some ways connected to, wedded to, the existing system of power. Again, it doesn’t mean that no critical journalism is allowed, what it means is that the basic tenets of the system, the naturalness of capitalism, the appropriateness of corporate hierarchies, the sort of willingness to just subordinate yourself to authority, that is so taken for granted in this culture, that despite all the rhetoric of freedom is a culture that highly encourages subordination to power. It is hardly surprising that out of those institutions you would get that orientation, you would expect it. In fact it would be dramatic if it weren’t the case. And it is the case.

The second one is the professional journalism routines that have evolved over time. As the United States moved originally from really a press connected to the freedom struggle, or at least the freedom of certain people in the culture, into a partisan press, into a penny press – the evolution of American journalism has taken us to a point where journalistic practices, journalistic routines, that is, the way in which day to day journalists go about assembling, writing, producing and distributing stories, has been collapsed into a set of what we call 'objectivity norms' or routines. And the thing about objectivity norms, it is crucial to understand, is they inherently – as they exist today in American journalism – they inherently privilege power. That is, they take as trustworthy and credible sources of information to be those centers of power. So if you look at a report on anything that has to do with American foreign policy, the main sources of information are going to be the White House, the State Department, and the corporate supported think-tanks that are basically in-line with those other two institutions. 

That’s the picture of the world that emerges, because those are the people that are deemed to be credible and trustworthy sources. You can have dissenting information sometimes included in a story, but it is going to be marginalized, it is going to be dissent from what it is accepted as the obvious way to view the world. Those objectivity routines and norms privilege power, and therefore in combination with the institutional structures, the business plan of journalism, corporate capitalism, the objectivity routines, and the ideological conformity that goes on in the culture, what do you get? You get a press that is fundamentally unable to fully inform citizens about policy.

Robert Jensen is a Professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas. He writes opinion and analytic pieces on such subjects as foreign policy, politics and race for alternative and mainstream media. He is an author of "Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity" and "Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas From the Margins to the Mainstream."