David Roberts @drvox Seattleite transplanted from Tennessee; now blogging for vox.com/ about energy politics. Climate hawk, deficit dove. Not a doctor. Jul. 08, 2018 4 min read

1. I really need to stop ruining my Sunday with Twitter, but before I go enjoy actual life, a few words on "objective" political journalism -- & here I refer specifically to the odd amalgamation of habits & strictures that dominate mainstream US political reporting.

2. The pretense of objective journalism (OJ) is that reporters are not supposed to favor one side of a political or policy dispute. That would be "bias" & would cast doubt on their veracity & reliability. "Just the facts, ma'am." Straight shooter. No fear or favor. Etc.

3. There's a germ of something worthwhile in the premise -- reporters should obviously be honest & fair -- but it has calcified into a set of useless, arbitrary habits & prohibitions, in ways that dozens of people have written about. (see esp. @jayrosen_nyu)

4. The point I'd throw in the mix is that conforming to this arbitrary set of practices has effects on the journalists involved. I mean, imagine covering substantive disputes every day but *not allowing yourself to develop opinions about them*. It takes will & effort!

5. I've had occasion to talk to "objective" reporters many times in my life & I always try to probe, to find out what they think about particular policy & political disputes. And I always discover the same thing.

6. On matters of substance, "objective" political reporters tend to be mind-bogglingly naive & unsophisticated. Shockingly so. It turns out, when you suppress your critical facilities as part of your job, you lose the ability.

7. Political/policy analysis, when done well, is developed through *dialog*. It's developed through arguing, testing, pushing, finding weaknesses & incorporating feedback. It's a muscle that requires exercise. And "objective" reporters don't exercise it. So it withers.

8. I've seen it again & again: when I can cajole "objective" reporters into sharing their opinions on, oh, the national debt, or climate policy, or electoral dynamics, those opinions are almost always shockingly flat-footed & childlike.

9. What's worse, all such substantive judgments are placed in the bucket of "partisan," which "objective" reporters are trained & acculturated to view with disdain. Strong opinions about matters of policy become, in a perverse way, disqualifying among VSPs.

10. Meanwhile, even as they are trained to suppress critical judgments on matters of substance, ALL political reporters, even & especially "objective" ones, lovingly cultivate their "savvy," i.e., their opinions on matters of "optics" & appearance & process.

11. For some reason, judgments about what "works," or how something "plays," are not considered subjective-in-the-bad-way. Because such judgements are, at least on the surface, non-partisan, they aren't considered biases.

12. Here's the thing, though: on matters of, say, health care, there are actual facts. There is actual knowledge to be had, actual numbers, actual evidence. There's a tether in the real world. But when it comes to matters of political "savvy," there is no such tether.

13. "Knowing" something about political optics just means *knowing what the DC chattering classes are saying about it*. There are no actual facts & very little evidence. It's not just an insular form of knowledge, it is *defined* by insularity. The insularity is the premise.

14. So you get this whole class of reporters who disdain subject matter knowledge but treasure the insular circle-jerk knowledge of their cozy social class. It is a toxic combo. And worst of all, it makes the journalists in question *incredibly easy marks for liars & hucksters.*

15. Coverage of Scott Pruitt has been such a case in point. Objective reporters (who, I hasten to add, have done some incredible investigative journalism around Pruitt) are allowed to say that it's bad & wrong for Pruitt to, say, get chauffeured around seeking lotion ...

16. ... but they're not allowed to say it's bad & wrong to allow coal companies to dump more toxins in the water. As it happens, on the substance, there is NO justification for that policy. It is *bad on the merits*, a naked corporate giveaway. Still ...

17. ... because it's policy, they aren't allowed to adjudicate the dispute. It's for someone else, some "partisan" journalist, to educate readers on the merits of the substantive disagreement. Objective journos can only have an opinion on how pro-poison policies "play."

18. Consequently, the next EPA administrator is going to push the same terrible, destructive policies, without the process-based scandals, and "objective" journalists will have absolutely nothing to say about it. They're not allowed to be anti-poison.

19. And so here we are: the journalism that most Americans get about politics contains a surfeit of BS savvy & absolutely nothing about the matters of substance that actually affect their lives. They get played like fiddles by liars & crooks again & again ...

20. ... but as long as they stay in the herd, report the same way the others are, they're safe. They'll get no social censure from the peers & powerful people they care most about. And the American people will be misinformed & the US will continue devolving to shit. Yay. </fin>


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