What is objectivity?

by Dave Maier

Gladstone A most interesting book I've been reading lately is The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media (comix art by Josh Neufeld). Gladstone's main point so far seems to be that while the (news) media have an obligation to be “objective” in the sense that what they tell us must be true (or at least aim at truth, employing fact-checkers and so on), they also hide behind that obligation. As I would put it, one sense of the term “objectivity” is “fairness,” which can make it seem that media should not “take sides” on any of the contentious issues on which they report. This leads to the sort of he-said-she-said, “scientists say earth is round; others disagree” news reporting Gladstone is complaining about. According to her, journalists justify their failure to stick their necks out, even when what they (should) say is true and documented (and thus “objective” in this sense), by saying that journalistic “objectivity” requires them to stay out of political battles. Gladstone finds this ideal perverse, and this book is dedicated to combating it.

Gladstone invokes numerous historical and cultural figures in the course of her argument. In a remarkable drawing which I will not attempt to describe here, Gladstone's avatar proclaims: “Few reporters proclaim their convictions. Fewer still act on them to serve what they believe to be the greater good. Even now, arguably another time of profound moral crisis [that is, besides the ones she's already discussed], most reporters make the Great Refusal.”

This last, she has already mentioned, is Dante's term (Inferno, Canto 3) for a renunciation of one's responsibility to take a stand. I had forgotten this part, but apparently (ironically enough given our context) Dante has prudently omitted to identify the particular shade he takes to exemplify this sorry lot. An internet commentator fills us in:

“From among the cowardly fence-sitters, Dante singles out only the shade of one who made “the great refusal” (Inf. 3.60). In fact, he says that it was the sight of this one shade–unnamed yet evidently well known–that confirmed for him the nature of all the souls in this region. The most likely candidate for this figure is Pope Celestine V. His refusal to perform the duties required of the pope (he abdicated five months after his election in July 1294) allowed Benedetto Caetani to become Pope Boniface VIII, the man who proved to be Dante's most reviled theological, political, and personal enemy. An alternative candidate is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who refused to pass judgment on Jesus.”

Gladstone's first mention of this Dantean term occurs when she quotes W. B. Yeats's bitter denunciation of journalists: “I hate journalists. There is nothing in them but tittering, jeering emptiness. They have all made what Dante calls “The Great Refusal.” The shallowest people on the face of the earth” (this from a letter to Katherine Tynan dated August 30, 1888, when the poet was 23).

Now comes the puzzling part. After representing “most reporters” as making the “Great Refusal” [“Dante would say the hottest places in Hell are too good for them”], she continues: “On the other hand, an important poem penned in the devastating wake of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution fervently asserts: Deeply held conviction leads to mayhem.” And after quoting the poem (the familiar lines from The Second Coming): “Damn you, Yeats! Pick a side! […] Yeats is the typical news consumer. On any issue — where one person sees moral courage, another sees culpable bias.”

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