It seems that Keith Olbermann takes issue with Ted Koppel, who recently eulogized “real journalism” at the hands of the opinionated hosts on cable news:

Much of the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening, separate but together, while Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know.

Olbermann turns Koppel’s paean to “objectivity” in journalism on its head:

“The great change about which Mr. Koppel wrings his hands is not partisanship nor tone nor analysis. The great change was the creation of the sanitized image of what men like Cronkite and Murrow… and Koppel did. These were not glorified stenographers. These were not neutral men. These were men who did in their day what the best journalists still try to do in this one: Evaluate, analyze, unscramble, assess. Put together a coherent picture or a challenging question using only the facts as they can be best discerned, plus their own honesty and conscience.”

Olbermann goes further:

Insist long enough that the driving principle behind the great era of journalism was neutrality and objectivity and not subjective choices and often dangerous evaluations and even commentary and you will eventually leave the door open to pointless worship at the temple of a false god. And once you’ve got a false god, you’re gonna get false priests. And sooner rather than later, in a world where subjective analysis is labeled evil and dangerous, some political mountebank is going to see his opening and seize the very catechism of that false god: words like ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ and ‘two-sided’ and ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ and he will pervert them into a catch-phrase, a brand name.

Olbermann’s trademark subtlety and pomposity is at work here, but looking beyond his personal vendetta against Fox News, we see a kernel of truth: objectivity in journalism is a practical impossibility. Olbermann points this out when he notes Koppel’s own process for crafting each episode of the long-airing Nightline:

Each night for 26 years, Mr. Koppel and his producers, and his employers subjectively selected which, out of a million stories, would get the attention of his slice of American television for as much as a half hour at a time. Which story would be elevated and amplified and which piles upon piles of stories would be postponed, tabled, or discarded, or ignored.

All of this makes me think of the ongoing academic debate about who can and cannot be counted amongst the pantheon of “real historians.” In particular, the notable Catholic historian and writer Hilaire Belloc comes to mind. When I attended Franciscan University, I remember hearing about a rather contetious debate amongt the faculty concerning Belloc’s bona fides as a historian. When I looked for some information on the subject, I came across Michael Hennesy’s adapted introduction to one of Belloc’s works, published as an article in the (now-defunct) Seattle Catholic. Hennesy addresses the most common critiques of Belloc’s work in detail, but most relevant to our topic, he takes on the charge that Belloc was a (gasp!) biased historian:

Firstly, it has to be understood that no history can be written, humanly speaking, with absolute objectivity or lack of bias. The golden ideal (as some moderns would have it) of “perfect history” is unattainable by man (and therefore, thank God, by machine). It is impossible for any historian not to be selective in his facts and evidence. All historians (except some of the moderns who think such things beneath them) attempt to reach conclusions, and in so doing can logically be accused of bias and selectivity in that attempt. The amusing charge of propaganda I will come to later.


I will now come on to a fourth point, which I think lies behind much of the above criticism of Belloc’s historical writings, and which is touched upon by the accusation of propaganda. Belloc is a deliberately and strenuously didactic historian. This a great heresy these days, as it was to some degree when he wrote; and is an even greater heresy on account of what Belloc was being didactic about. In our universities, more frequently than not, history is now written as a bare, turgid stream of data capped with a pleading codicil from the author that the facts are so complicated that he can see no pattern but the hope remains that some pattern may be discerned in the future. (Some hope! Students trained by blind teachers will seldom understand what they see, even if they see it.) When opinion surfaces at all, it is tentatively held and robustly restrained from being presented as fact.

Journalism is, in a sense, today’s history being written in the current moment. There is a connection between the notion of objective historians and objective journalists, insofar as that they are both creatures of fantasy. History and journalism are both endeavors of human beings – living, breathing, rational, emotional animals. We have biases, opinions, feelings. We all bring our own unique perspective to the facts.

They say that history is written by the victors, but journalism, inasmuch as it is the history of the current moment, is written by men struggling and striving for victory. Ideological victory. Provided that the facts are presented honestly, without obfuscation, without intentional distortion, should opinion in journalism really be considered a bad thing?

Or is opinion journalism really the only truthful kind?

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