The Fall of Objectivity

Last week a nightly news anchor, someone whose journalism I typically respect, started his program by listing the sixteen different women who had accused President Trump of varying degrees of sexual harassment and assault. The presentation was spurred on by the President calling out Senator Al Franken for the sexual abuse he inflicted on tv personality Leeann Tweeden. With each successive name and alleged accusation the anchor ticked off the list, he seemed to become more satisfied with himself and the quality of his “reporting.” Yet, as he progressed through the list, I couldn’t help but think, “Is this where “journalism” has gone? Is this how the free press feels they can best serve democracy? Is this not the worst way to begin a discussion about sexual assault if your intention is for all sides to listen?”

Now, please do not misinterpret what I am saying here. I believe that each of the accusations needs to be investigated to the fullest extent possible in order to figure out what exactly happened and bring justice if it is due. However, at a moment when the country is so divided, I do not necessarily think the top of a news hour is the time nor venue for that accounting to occur. I also do not believe it does anything to further the very important conversation this country is having about sexual abuse, harassment, and assault.

If anything, it is more of a distraction and counterproductive than beneficial to anyone in anyway. In fact, I think in a lot of ways, starting a show in such a partisan way diminishes the perceived veracity of the accusations and just pushes the two sides of the divide further apart, causing one side to almost immediately tune out of a conversation that needs to happen. Yet it seems more and more this is what our free press is doing and in a lot of ways journalists are endangering themselves and the profession they call their own.

When journalists, editors, and producers trade-in objective indifference for invested emotion, choose to make news instead of report it, and favor the flash of opinion editorials over evidenced-based reporting, the institution of the free press suffers a crisis of legitimacy and democracy is diminished. Furthermore, when the sensational becomes preferable and the unremarkable but consequential becomes dismissible, hard news, the type of news that is essential to the well being of a democracy, loses its hold on the public’s consciousness and becomes susceptible to being confused with “fake news.” In a period of time when the role of the free press is continuously under assault by the President, and people’s faith in its purveyors is faltering, it seems that journalists are only inflicting more mortal wounds upon themselves by lessening their commitment to objectivity and becoming more opinionated.

This evolution is not one that happened over night, nor with the advent of Donald Trump, the politician. However, it seems that the more the free press is questioned, the further it slips down the slippery slope upon which it rests, and in a lot of ways, more effectively discredits itself than an antagonistic president ever could. The seemingly unstoppable slide that continues today began twenty to thirty years ago during a time in which we witnessed a fragmentation of the media environment like never before.

As cable news came of age, and the internet era began, media outlets multiplied. Consumers were granted the opportunity to choose getting their news from a wider array of sources than ever before. At the same time, newspapers and media outlets had to adjust their business models to remain viable in a vastly different environment than that which existed previously. Given that media outlet’s revenue is generated from advertisers, and that the amount they can charge those wishing to advertise with them is directly related to their readership or viewerships levels, media companies have had to figure out how to attract more subscribers in an evermore competitive market.

In an age of ever increasing political polarization it seems that the formula media outlets and newspapers have settled upon is a move from the center of objectivity to either the right or left, entering a space that on both sides of the aisle has come to be filled with subjective conjecture presented as news. If you are on the liberal side of the spectrum you can tune into MSNBC or CNN, or pick up a New York Times and delight in an editorial slant that suits your views. If you are a conservative, you turn on FOX News or read the Wall Street Journal and have your views reflected back to you.

The problem with this formula, while it may very well pay the bills for those who make a living as members of the free press, is that it not only turns off a lot those who want news from the middle, it also pushes the two sides further apart. When all you hear is how bad the other side is, how could you ever find common ground? When certain media outlets become nothing more than a mouthpiece for a particular point of view, is not their influence diminished?

The sad thing is there are some incredibly talented journalists, both in print and on television, on the left and right, who have fallen prey to the media environment they find themselves in. Maybe editors and producers are pushing them towards being more subjective, or maybe they are just getting swept up in the larger, more bitterly partisan world we seem to be stuck in. Which one it is, I am not sure. What I do know is that this is not what the free press was intended to look like nor how it was supposed to function. I also know that what we are being given is far short of the standards by which journalists use to hold themselves.

When the factual reporting of hard news loses favor to bombastic blowhards spewing partisan hot air and when reasoned debate devolves into tribalistic conjecture, we all lose. Nobody wins in an environment where verifiable facts are dismissed simply for political reasons and fake news is accepted as fact when politically convenient. The troubling thing is, this where we are, and it is not because of Donald Trump. No matter how much he would love to take credit for the diminution of our free press, he is not the cause.

Instead it seems somewhere along the line, the objectivity of the free press was hijacked by an ever increasing pressure to chase profits, and in doing so, the calculus was arrived at that the old journalistic standard of objective fact would have to fall prey to subjective thought. It seems that corporate media managers have forgotten that journalism, at its very best, does not pick winners and losers, does not speak for one team or the other, or inject itself in the debate. Nor does does it replace resourced fact with speculative conjecture and innuendo. The free press is and always should be free to print and broadcast whatever they deem fit for the news. After all, they are the free press. However, they may want to remind themselves that they are a very important part of our democracy, and in remembering that fact, start acting accordingly.

Since before the United States was established, it has long been accepted that a free press is a necessary part of any free society. Often times referred to as the “fourth estate” in the United States, alongside the three branches of the federal government amongst which institutional power was divided by the Constitution, the importance of a free press has rarely been questioned given its protection being so prominently placed within the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Ideally, the free press operates as an illuminative instrument of the people, shining light upon the government and its officials ensuring that they are upholding the commitment entrusted to them, and sworn by them to, “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

While this arrangement has not always been the most comfortable for those holding public office, it has generally been accepted as a necessary evil of democracy by those who wield the instruments and power of the government. As President John F. Kennedy once said,

“There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily. Even though we never like it and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”

Though President Nixon would probably beg to differ, given that his administration was felled by what many consider the height of investigative journalism that exposed the Watergate scandal, the role and the importance of the free press has rarely been questioned by those under whom the spotlight has been turned. Yet as I have argued in this article, the free press has been under assault in recent times, from the outside as well as from within.

The attacks from outside have been transparent enough that their lasting impact will likely be one of little direct importance. After all, when a president lashes out and calls anything he disagrees with “fake news”, his cries can be dismissed just as easily as a boy who “cries” wolf whenever he sees a shadow move in the dark. When the application of such a misleading term is applied only to adversarial sources and stories, its legitimacy is diminished and only further undermines the slight to which the President has perceived to have been dealt. However, I would argue that the way the press has reacted to such claims by the President, and the way in which the free press has devolved over the past few decades – becoming one that is much less objective, more partisan, and ultimately less influential – are much more concerning and dangerous to democracy than a delusional man seated behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.


“So what are you?”, asked a gentleman I had met only a few minutes prior whom I was discussing politics with. The question was ambiguous enough that I was not exactly sure what he was hoping to find out, though innocuous enough that I was not offended.

I replied, “What are you referencing?”

He said, “I’m a libertarian nationalist, what are you?”

His response was immediate enough that I could tell he had clearly thought and arrived at this self-description previous to our interaction. Though his response intrigued me, I hung on to his words for only a moment, before my mind slipped back to something else I have been thinking about a lot lately.



They’re not just for packing anymore. We put ourselves in them. We put others in them. We have shortcuts for everything these days – not just the things we type or the route we take to and from work – but also the world in which we live. The ways in which we define ourselves and to an ever increasing extent each other, is limited, detrimentally I would argue, to mental shortcuts, or boxes, that we use to sort out the world around us. “Liberal”, “conservative”, “snowflake”, “nationalist”, etc. Nuance, reasoned debate, conceptual dexterity – are dead. The diversity of color is out, black and white is in.

Either you are with us or against us. Unity of purpose, community, compromise – are history. In their place, a dependence on zero-sum calculations, detrimental individuality, and an adherence to rigid belief systems that render compromise impossible. There is no middle ground anymore, no intellectual space where principled positions are debated and moderate solutions agreed upon. There is this or that or nothing at all. The place where we used to stand together is now a void, all that remains is the space between. There once was a time when we united and overcame, today it seems all we do is divide and conquer.

I hate it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I will defend my beliefs and the things I stand for as voraciously as anyone. After all, if you don’t stand for something, you in turn stand for nothing. However, the ways in which we stand today – the way we dissect and divide the world, put each other in boxes and burn the bridges that once connected us to one another – I would argue is as corrosive to our democracy as anything outside of maybe the exaggerated influence that special interests and money have on the development of policy by our elected leaders.

It’s not that we disagree, it’s that we are disagreeable when we do so. Let’s be honest, in a country as large and diverse as the United States is, people are going to hold differing views of the world and different beliefs as to what they feel are the best solutions to the problems we face. Each of our experiences in this country are unique and therefore no two viewpoints will ever be exactly the same. Diversity – of people and beliefs – in the United States is as natural as air we breathe and the water we drink.

However, over the past few decades, it seems that we have lost track of the fact that at the end of the day, we are all Americans. Before any other defining characteristic is applied to us, even before our sex is determined by a doctor, we are already American. Everything else comes after. Whether we end up being Democrats, or Republicans, liberal or conservative, all comes after when we become Americans.

Yet increasingly so, it seems we want to divide ourselves by any means possible, and do everything we can to distinguish ourselves from those whom we disagree with. It’s not enough to just disagree with someone, we must now be vehement in our disagreement. It’s not enough to be a Democrat, you must also now be a liberal. Our divisions have become almost tribal in nature. Each time an issue comes up, it seems like an ideological purity test is applied. If you do not happen to run far enough to your side of the aisle, well you might as well be standing on the opposite side of the aisle. You are an enemy of your own.

It’s ridiculous.

It’s not just average citizens either, although we are just as at fault as our leaders. I do not think I will ever forget hearing then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say that Republican’s number one goal was to ensure that President Obama was a single-term president. Now, call me crazy, but I am pretty certain that there should have been some other more important goals they could have dedicated themselves to at the time. Maybe helping to stop the economy from collapsing, or finding a solution to people’s rising healthcare costs, or containing an evermore dangerous North Korea…the list goes on and on. The fact of the matter is that if Barack Obama was a one-term president the country as a whole would have probably been worse off, and that would have been a far worse outcome than President Obama being in office for another four years.

More recently, I heard an elected official from the state of Alabama say that if he had to choose between voting for a Democrat or a child molester, he would not vote for the Democrat. Now let that sink in for a moment. An elected official literally said that we would rather vote for a child molester before a Democrat. It’s astonishing that something like this could be said, but that’s the nature of the world in which we now live and it’s absurd. Though I am a Democrat I am not making a partisan point here either. I would be just as quick to call out a Democrat if he or she made such a ridiculous statement. My point is, it’s sad that our politics have become so toxic that such statements are made at all.

When you have two governing parties that seem to have forgotten what compromise is, retreated into their respective, but far from respectable, political corners, and are willing to fight to the death before they give so much as an inch, we all lose. When those on the left and those on the right fail to talk to each other and instead yell right past one another, the voice of reason becomes inaudible. When each issue is used as a wedge to drive the divide deeper instead of an opportunity to build a bridge that spans the space between, we all slip a little deeper into the void. When opposition is nothing more than opportunistic, and debate devolves into disagreeable disarray, our democracy is damaged. No one wins when all we do is talk and never even bother to listen. When political leaders find the necessity to draft legislation in the dark, the light will surely fail to shine equally across all of those whose laws are being written in secrecy. Yet, let us not be confused – the full throated opposition of those not included in the process is just as corrosive to our democracy as those operating in secrecy. For how can a party reject, in its entirety, something they are complaining about having not had the chance to even read?

None of it makes sense.

Yet as average citizens we have found a way to make sense of it. We do so by putting ourselves and everyone else into boxes and separating them however we see fit. We make mental notes and use shortcuts, buy into oft repeated stereotypes, pay attention to only the headlines and not the details. We accept unverified claims as fact, fail to dig deeper, and fall prey to fake news and false innuendo. We all too often surround ourselves only with people whose beliefs are congruent with our own, while failing to take into account that just because someone does not agree with you, does not necessarily make them wrong.

The vast majority of us have built a bubble around ourselves, constructed of the company we keep, the media we consume, and the values we espouse to hold dear. The longer we go without venturing outside of our bubbles, the more impenetrable they become to conflicting views and alternate viewpoints. We dig our trenches deeper with each headline we consume that is cognitively harmonious with our constructed belief systems. The space between us and those who we do not agree with only grows wider as days go by.

In this sense, we are just as culpable in the diminution of our democracy and dissolution of reasoned debate and compromise as our leaders. After all, we live in a representative democracy where our leaders are elected by the citizens they represent. If we continue to divide ourselves further, fall prey to fake news, and fail to seek truth and understanding, then the natural result will be elected officials who do the same. We can no more fault them for not listening to each other than we fault ourselves if we fail to listen to one another as well. When we are so quick, and devastatingly comfortable, to put ourselves in boxes such as “libertarian nationalist”, we are just as comfortable to put others in boxes as well. Therefore, we should not be surprised at the current state of affairs.

Donald Trump is not an accident or an aberration. He is the summation.

He is the product of the divided country in which we live. What most of us failed to realize, which he cynically latched on to and rode all the way to the Oval Office, was that maybe for the first time in America’s history, or at least since the Civil War, Americans are more comfortable being defined by what divides us than what unites us. I would even go so far as to say that we can more readily express what we stand against than what we stand for. Donald’s campaign seemed to understand that people are more comfortable with being put into boxes and labeled by others than ever before. In fact, before anyone else puts us in a box, we put ourselves in one first.

The 2016 campaign did not divide us, it just exploited the divisions that already existed, and sorted the boxes accordingly. The faults that opened were not new, nor surprising, their roots can be traced back through generations of Americans. The fact is, the wounds of our past never fully healed and were easily reopened by a campaign whose driving force was division.

In this respect, we should not be surprised by the impact that fake news had on the views of voters. Fake news is only as effective as the divided atmosphere in which it enters, only persuasive to the mind already primed with preexisting beliefs that agree with the media being consumed. In an era when we rarely seek out information that challenges our beliefs, when all we want to consume is what we already believe, then we are exceptionally susceptible to anything that reinfoces our beliefs.

We are not only the creator and guardian of our boxes, but also the prisoner trapped inside.


My answer to my questioner’s inquiry could have been that I am a Democrat, but I had boxes on my mind. The fact is that I have voted for the Democratic nominee for president for four consecutive elections now, but I am not bound to do so for forever. If we were keeping score on my selection for president, my record would be 2-2, but that fact is irrelevant and I am okay with that. In a democracy, you are going to win some elections and lose some as well. Losing an election is not the end of the world, just a new opportunity for debate.

I have always felt that the values of the Democratic Party more closely aligned with my own than those of the Republican Party and therefore I have leaned in that direction since I can remember. That does not mean that I am oblivious or dismissive of all Republicans or the Republican Party as whole though. As I said before, I am just as quick to criticize a Democrat as a Republican. I mean, Anthony Weiner and Rod Blagojevich were an embarrassment to Democrats after all. Being a Democrat also does not mean that I hate all things conservative or love all things liberal. To be honest the extremes of either end of the political spectrum have always been a little uncomfortable for me.

I do not believe in putting people or myself into boxes. I have never liked constriction. So to be narrowly defined, by myself or anyone else, just does not fit with who I am. When we do that – when we put people into these narrowly defined boxes – we eliminate nuance, diminish our ability to find common ground and destroy our ability to relate to one another. Rigid adherence to worn out dogmas limits our ability to empathize, understand, and reach common sense, agreeable solutions to the problems we confront that are acceptable for all parties concerned.

So with that mind, my answer to his question was simply what we all are, long before we ever package ourselves for the world:


and I fucking hate boxes.”