What's Wrong With Objectivity

The New York Times reported today that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s office asked a Manhattan high school newspaper to alter quotations of the Justice following a talk he gave at the school. As a result, the high school paper’s story on the talk was delayed.

Although Justice Kennedy is apparently a strong advocate of the First Amendment right to free speech, what is more surprising is that a high school newspaper is being treated as a powerful, unforgiving news source. But that is how the media are today: powerful and unforgiving.

Powerful because media purport to tell the truth, and should you nag about big-T Truth, they are at least meant to be accurate; objective is usually the word used. Objectivity was a fine standard when events simply happened before a reporter’s eye and the facts were dutifully recorded, but those times are gone. Today companies and individuals have public relations outfits meant to control what people understand about them.

Public relations is defined as the practice of managing the communication between an organization and its public. It is a relatively recent industry, one made possible by mass communication. The BBC documentary The Century of the Self traces the history of the public relations industry back to Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Here is an interview of Bernays explaining how he developed the industry.

“I decided that if you could use propaganda for war you could certainly use it for peace. ‘Propaganda’ got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it, so what I did was to try to find some other words, so we found the words ‘Council on Public Relations’,” Bernays said.

The media is unforgiving because print and video now function like a steel box from which no one is permitted to escape; that someone misspoke now proves them completely incredible on all accounts. Apparently despite all of Justice Kennedy’s considered opinions on the bench, the possibility of a damning quotation in a high school newspaper is threatening.

The media need to account for public relations machines when reporting and stop pretending that objectivity is the ultimate journalistic standard.

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