Let’s Be Subjective

I have sometimes been described as a critic who refuses to observe the usual professional standard of objectivity. That fit the paper I wrote for, of course, since the Village Voice was always known for its “advocacy journalism.” I never figured out what “advocacy journalism” meant – or rather, what was supposed to be the alternative. I always advocated a healthy, lively, diverse music scene, whereas if I had been a truly “objective” music critic, I suppose, I wouldn’t have given a damn whether new music concerts thrived or ceased to exist. In any case, this excellent article by Michael Kinsley at Slate perfectly expresses my feelings about objectivity, that it is a self-delusion, an unattainable goal, and a goal that would be inhuman if obtainable; that it is a dishonest foundation on which no truth can be erected.

Nobody believes in objectivity, if that means neutrality on any question about which two people somewhere on the planet might disagree. May a reporter take as a given that two plus two is four? Should a newspaper strive to be open-minded about Osama Bin Laden? To reveal–to have!–no preference between the United States and Iran? Is it permissible for a news story to take as a given that the Holocaust not only happened, but was a bad thing–or is that an expression of opinion that belongs on the op-ed page?….

Opinion journalism can be more honest than objective-style journalism because it doesn’t have to hide its point of view. It doesn’t have to follow a trail of evidence or line of reasoning until one step before the conclusion and then slam on the brakes for fear of falling into the gulch of subjectivity. All observations are subjective. Writers freed of artificial objectivity can try to determine the whole truth about their subject and then tell it whole to the world. Their “objective” counterparts have to sort their subjective observations into two arbitrary piles: truths that are objective as well, and truths that are just an opinion. That second pile of truths then gets tossed out, or perhaps put in quotes and attributed to someone else. That is a common trick used by objective-style journalists in order to tell their readers what they believe to be true without inciting the wrath of the Objectivity cops.

Factual accuracy, he points out, is something different, and is vitally important. But objectivity is, after all, the principle on which Republicans have managed to finagle equal time for creation science whenever evolution is mentioned, as well as the principle by which the Pulitzer Prize winners continue to be presumptively regarded as America’s greatest composers. If “opinion journalism” indeed becomes the norm, maybe I’ll suddenly find myself in fashion.