Tuesday, September 09, 2008

MSNBC

The recent sacking of Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews from their anchor chairs by MSNBC gives rise to a few observations.

For decades, journalists have held forth the ideal of the objective reporter. In fact, pure objectivity, regardless of the tools used, is not psychologically possible, and it is notable that reporters, who sometimes praise cynicism about the motives of everyone else as a necessary part of the journalistic enterprise, have managed to be so credulous regarding their own biases. News consumers, having been promised unbiased reporting, have resented the failure in delivery, even as news producers, who have often managed to convince themselves of their own objectivity, have resented the impudence of their accusing customers. Ending the myth of this sainted objectivity would perhaps ease those mutual resentments.

Given the impossibility of objectivity, one might ask then if journalists are then free to go about their business as a propaganda exercise pushing their individual or collective agendas. Well, no, not if their intention is to be taken seriously. The repudiation of the myth of objectivity does not eradicate the distinction between opinion journalism and hard reporting, nor does it validate the merger of the content of the news sections and the editorial page. What it does do is compel the journalist to acknowledge his biases, rather than pretend that they are either not present or not relevant.

There is no crime in reporting news from a given philosophical vantage point, but to be credible the reporter must manifest a willingness to follow the truth wherever it leads him, a desire to be comprehensive in his approach to the journalistic enterprise, and an effort to treat the arguments of those on all sides fairly. A reporter, regardless of philosophical bent, can produce a valuable service if he does this. One who fails, or does not even try, lapses into the role of propagandist, whether honestly or dishonestly.

This was the failure of MSNBC's anchors. If MSNBC wished to set out to be a left leaning alternative to Fox News, that is not necessarily an illegitimate enterprise, though conservatives will wonder how the network will manage to differentiate itself from CBS, PBS, ABC, and all the others already filling that role. Be that as it may, Mr. Olbermann, who is probably not capable of filling the role appropriately, and Mr. Matthews, who perhaps could, failed the test and could not be taken seriously. For that reason, they had to be removed from that role.

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