Rebirth of Reason


Good Night David Brinkley
by Tibor R. Machan

Many moons ago, when he was still with NBC-TV, I wrote to David Brinkley and we got into a brief correspondence about journalistic objectivity. He was against it. Well, actually, he just didn't think it could be achieved, however hard anyone might try.

The exchange we had was very friendly, civil and substantive. Brinkley thought about this stuff, seriously, but not in the characteristic convoluted fashion of many academics. He was what might be called plain spoken. When he moved to ABC-TV and started his wonderful This Week with David Brinkley, which the poor network has been trying desperately to live up to since he left -- first with Sam and Cokie and now with George Stephanopoulos -- I watched every Sunday and waited, especially, for his final commentary. It never failed to be pithy and funny and very much in the unique Brinkley style.

Not very long after Brinkley left ABC-TV he got a TV gig pitching for Archer-Daniels-Midland Company, the firm that had sponsored him before. He was no longer a journalist and we all knew this. Still, that little pipsqueak Andy Rooney couldn't leave matters alone and spent one of his five minutes on 60 Minutes dissing the old master. That was a pitiful moment -- Rooney, who has little more than bile to him as far as seeing the world is concerned, trying to belittle a classic, the superb professional!

For me Brinkley helped focus my mind. I decided in time to work on a book about objectivity and include a chapter on how it plays out, if at all, in journalism. Brinkley's comments, in the letter he wrote me, called attention to a problem with how people understand that concept. What many deny is not the possibility of objectivity but that of neutrality or non-partisanship. No one, it is true, can approach the human world without some guiding values or principles. We are always having to make choices and to do so we invoke standards of what is best, what is right or good, and try to act accordingly. Journalists do this too, in spades. Every day they face the challenge of which stories to cover, which to leave be. They have umpteen people they could interview but choose only one or two. They could review all kinds of movies or books but have space but for a few and these they have to select on the basis of some idea of what's important.

If by "objective" one meant "without implicitly or even explicitly taking sides," then objectivity would indeed be impossible, just as David Brinkley thought. However, that is not what objectivity requires. Take, as a clear case, medicine. There is no such thing as neutrality here. All doctors, nurses, researchers, teachers and whoever has anything to do with the field are partial to good health! Only mad doctors deviate from this, the Frankenstein types, and mostly in fiction. They have been corrupted by something - ambition, fantasy, what have you. The rest are largely conscientious professionals who objectively assess symptoms, cause and effect, what's the best theory going, the comparative merits of medication and cures, and apply the results to furthering something they are very partisan about, namely, human health. So, clearly, medicine involves both scrupulous objectivity and unabashed partisanship. Thus objectivity isn't about neutrality at all. So, what is it about?

It's about getting things right -- being accurate, factual, relevant, and knowing what is important, what is less so and what is out and out trivial. Yes, these things are a matter of objectivity -- no one would dispute that rushing in to rescue people and horses where there's a fire is more important than rushing in to rescue ants or hey, not unless the ants and hey are objectively very special indeed.

Journalist, too, must have a clear enough idea of what is important -- editors need it, reporters do, and so forth; and they must also stick to the facts of the matter and do so carefully, accurately. That's why quoting out of context is such a failing, or getting the relevant facts wrong.

So, the reason journalists, including David Brinkley, tend to deny that it's possible to be objective is they are confusing it with neutrality. And they know they aren't neutral, that they take sides. What would remedy matters a lot is if they fessed up to that squarely and not pretend they are "independent" of values, of "biases." What they need to do is get the right values and stick to them faithfully and openly. That would make it easy to trust them and they could then also be held accountable to be objective, not neutral.

Thanks David for helping me get clear on this, at least for now, and for the wonderful work you did in journalism. And Good Night!

Sanctions: 12Sanctions: 12Sanctions: 12 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (13 messages)