The View from Nowhere: Questions and Answers

Nov.
10
“American journalism is dumber than most journalists, who often share my sense of absurdity about these practices. A major reason we have a practice less intelligent than its practitioners is the prestige that the View from Nowhere still claims…”

After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism. By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics.
—Brian Stelter, Two Takes at NPR and Fox on Juan Williams, New York Times, Oct. 21, 2010

(This Q and A was conducted by Jay Rosen, solo. He did the questions and the answers.)

Q. You’ve been using this phrase, “the view from nowhere,” for a while–

A. Yeah, since 2003

Q. So what do you mean by it?

A. Three things. In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.

Q. Well, does it?

A. What authority there is in the position of viewlessness is unearned– like the snooty guy who, when challenged, says, “Madam, I have a PhD.” In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Illuminating a murky situation because you understand it better than almost anyone. Doing the work! Having a track record, a reputation for reliability is part of it, too. But that comes from doing the work.

Q. Who gets credit for the phrase, “view from nowhere?”

A. The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote a very important book with that title.

Q. What does it say?

A. It says that human beings are, in fact, capable of stepping back from their position to gain an enlarged understanding, which includes the more limited view they had before the step back. Think of the cinema: when the camera pulls back to reveal where a character had been standing and shows us a fuller tableau. To Nagel, objectivity is that kind of motion. We try to “transcend our particular viewpoint and develop an expanded consciousness that takes in the world more fully.”

But there are limits to this motion. We can’t transcend all our starting points. No matter how far it pulls back the camera is still occupying a position. We can’t actually take the “view from nowhere,” but this doesn’t mean that objectivity is a lie or an illusion. Our ability to step back and the fact that there are limits to it– both are real. And realism demands that we acknowledge both.

Q. So is objectivity a myth… or not?

A. One of the many interesting things Nagel says in that book is that “objectivity is both underrated and overrated, sometimes by the same persons.” It’s underrated by those who scoff at it as a myth. It is overrated by people who think it can replace the view from somewhere or transcend the human subject. It can’t.

Q. You are very critical of the View from Nowhere in journalism. It’s almost a derisive term for you.

A. That’s true. I let my disdain for it show.

Q. Why?

A. Because it has unearned authority in the American press. If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it. The View from Nowhere doesn’t know from this. It also encourages journalists to develop bad habits. Like: criticism from both sides is a sign that you’re doing something right, when you could be doing everything wrong.

When MSNBC suspends Keith Olbermann for donating without company permission to candidates he supports– that’s dumb. When NPR forbids its “news analysts” from expressing a view on matters they are empowered to analyze– that’s dumb. When reporters have to “launder” their views by putting them in the mouths of think tank experts: dumb. When editors at the Washington Post decline even to investigate whether the size of rallies on the Mall can be reliably estimated because they want to avoid charges of “leaning one way or the other,” as one of them recently put it, that is dumb. When CNN thinks that, because it’s not MSNBC and it’s not Fox, it’s the only the “real news network” on cable, CNN is being dumb about itself.

In fact, American journalism is dumber than most journalists, who often share my sense of absurdity about these practices. A major reason we have a practice less intelligent than its practitioners is the prestige that the View from Nowhere still claims in American newsrooms. You asked me why I am derisive toward it. That’s why.

Q. Okay, but as I’m sure you know, smart journalists figured out a long time ago that complete objectivity is unattainable. They are quick to acknowledge that. They may say that it’s a goal worth striving for, but they are not unaware of the problems you mention. Many of them think fairness a better goal, anyway. Why go on and on about it, when these concessions have been made?

A. Well, part of the reason I started using the term View from Nowhere is to isolate the part I found troublesome. About that larger contraption, newsroom objectivity, I have a mixed view. When people talk about objectivity in journalism they have many different things in mind. Some of these I have no quarrel with. You could even say I’m a “fan.”

For example, if objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense. Don’t you? If it means trying to see things in that fuller perspective Thomas Nagel talked about–pulling the camera back, revealing our previous position as only one of many–I second the motion. If it means the struggle to get beyond the limited perspective that our experience and upbringing afford us… yeah, we need more of that, not less. I think there is value in acts of description that do not attempt to say whether the thing described is good or bad. Is that objectivity? If so, I’m all for it, and I do that myself sometimes.

The View from Nowhere is my attempt to isolate the element in objectivity that we don’t need, and call attention to it.

Q. What happens if the attempt fails and the View From Nowhere continues on, unaffected by any of these criticisms?

A. I could be wrong, but I think we are in the midst of shift in the system by which trust is sustained in professional journalism. David Weinberger tried to capture it with his phrase: transparency is the new objectivity. My version of that: it’s easier to trust in “here’s where I’m coming from” than the View from Nowhere. These are two different ways of bidding for the confidence of the users.

In the old way, one says: “I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t have a view of the world that I’m defending. I’m just telling you the way it is, and you should accept it because I’ve done the work and I don’t have a stake in the outcome…”

In the newer way, the logic is different. “Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have no view. Instead, I am going to level with you about where I’m coming from on this. So factor that in when you evaluate my report. Because I’ve done the work and this is what I’ve concluded…”

If the View from Nowhere continues on, unchallenged, trust in the news media will probably continue to decline.

Q. Your counsel would be to drop it, then?

A. No, to challenge it. I think it’s wiser to be ecumenical about this. A great deal of progress can be made with a pluralistic solution. Let’s have View from Nowhere people flourishing side by side with “here’s where I’m coming from” journalists, and see what happens. Ease up and let both systems operate– sometimes within the same news organization. During the episode in which a fine young reporter, Dave Weigel, lost his job at the Washington Post because he was perceived as insufficiently uncommitted, Ben Smith of the Politico stood up for this kind of pluralism: “My personal view is that ideological and neutral journalism can flourish side by side, each going places the other is unwelcome, and each correcting for the other’s weaknesses.”

I wouldn’t use the terms he used, but I am willing to sign on to the remedy.

Let some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality, which has advantages for cultivating sources and soothing advertisers. Let others experiment with transparency as the basis for trust. When you click on their by-line it takes you to a disclosure page where there is a bio, a kind of mission statement, and a creative attempt to say: here’s where I’m coming from (one example) along with campaign contributions, any affiliations or memberships, and–I’m just speculating now–a list of heroes and villains, or major influences, along with an archive of the work, plus anything else that might assist the user in placing this person on the user’s mattering map.

52 Comments

  1. When MSNBC suspends Keith Olbermann for donating to candidates he supports, because it suggests he may not be impartial — that’s dumb. When NPR forbids its “news analysts” from expressing a view on matters they are empowered to analyze — that’s dumb…

    The paraphrases here are incompetent. For the sake of your argument, you minimize the seriousness of the criticisms against Keith Olbermann and Juan Williams.

    NBC News did not suspend Olbermann because his campaign contribution “suggests he may not be impartial.” The contribution converted him from a suggested partial observer to into an outright active partisan. Worse, one of the donations coincided with the appearance of the recipient as Olbermann’s interview guest on Countdown. One does not have to be a die-hard supporter of the View from Nowhere to find the practice of making campaign contributions to one’s own interview subjects beyond the pale. I can imagine no scenario in which such a donation enhances the interviewer’s “bid for trust” with his audience.

    NPR, according to the quote from CEO Vivian Schiller in your link, does not forbid its news analysts from “expressing a view on matters they are empowered to analyze,” in your paraphrase. You elide key words in her statement opposing “strong personal opinions on controversial subjects in public settings.” In the particular case in dispute, it is impossible to interpret Juan Williams’ confession of a personal prejudice against Moslems dressed in devotional garb — and his implicit claim that such bigotry was nothing to be ashamed of — as “expressing a view on matters he was empowered to analyze.” Williams’ statement was precisely an example of the difference between a “strong personal opinion on a controversial subject” and the professional views of a news analyst.

    Personally, I think NPR’s kneejerk decision to fire Williams was an intemperate overreaction. Yet whatever it was, he was not fired for the reason you give.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Andrew: this post doesn’t mention Juan Williams or make a claim about whether he deserved to be fired. The NPR policy does in fact prohibit news analysts from giving their personal views or taking positions on controversial matters, which in my view would be most of the matters they have to discuss on air.

      I modified the reference to Olbermann.

      The rules in play at NBC state: “Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee.”

      http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1110/44734_Page2.html#ixzz14t3VpV3e

      • This post may not have mentioned Williams but the link to illustrate your point about NPR analysts had the title “How Juan Williams Got Fired” — if you are not making a point about Williams here, I suggest you delete the link.

        My distinction in the NPR case between professional analysis and personal opinion still stands. Williams’ firing offense, in NPR’s eyes, was expressing a controversial personal opinion. Be that as it may, your comments concerning the incoherence of NPR’s “analyst” category are well taken, this distinction notwithstanding.

        • Abe says:

          It’s surprising that Jay doesn’t seem more, well, embarrassed when he’s called out on the kind of distortions that have been pointed out here. One ought to be able to make an argument without distorting the positions one is arguing against.

          On the broader question:

          Most journalists are trying to do honest work, and to do it fairly. We know that biases of many kinds come into that work at every stage, yes, but unlike Jay, we seem to recognize that that’s no argument for becoming partisan shills, giving money to candidates, accepting gifts, etc.

          We don’t avoid those activities because of some rule imposed on us. We don’t do them because we don’t want to take sides.

          It’s baffling that Jay doesn’t seem to understand that, while not taking sides doesn’t ensure we’ll be trusted, taking sides certainly ensures that we won’t be. And won’t deserve to be.

          Keith Olbermann is no journalist. He’s an entertainer. (Obviously, NBC’s error is in having him anchor election night coverage.) But even for him, giving money to someone you had on the show that night ought to be clearly out of bounds.

          • Jay Rosen says:

            I don’t understand what your complaint is.

            You seem to want to defend the non-partisan mode of newsroom behavior, which is well and good and part of what comment threads are for, but you’re phrasing it as a criticism of “distortions” in this post, which is BS.

            “… MSNBC suspends Keith Olbermann for donating without company permission to candidates he supports…

            and

            “… NPR forbids its ‘news analysts’ from expressing a view on matters they are empowered to analyze….

            are not distortions at all, but accurate statements of what is.

            Cheers.

          • Abe says:

            Andrew called them incompetent paraphrases. I called them distortions. (Not dissimilar to the distortion that Olbermann himself made when he said, oh, I had never been informed of this policy.) Of course, Olbermann would never have received permission to donate to candidates, much less candidates who appear on his show — the real offense, of course, was the donation, not the failure to gain permission. Everyone knows this, no?

            You say Olbermann was suspended for donating to candidates he supports. The most neutral possible rendering of the offense. (An incompetent paraphrase or a distortion?) What he was suspended for was embarrassing himself and his news organization for giving money to someone he was interviewing (or that evening, had interviewed). Everyone sees this, no?

            But let’s not get sidetracked. Jay, you like to respond only to the part you feel comfortable responding to. Let’s stick with the main issue. Again:

            Most journalists are trying to do honest work, and to do it fairly. We know that biases of many kinds come into that work at every stage, yes, but unlike Jay, we seem to recognize that that’s no argument for becoming partisan shills, giving money to candidates, accepting gifts, etc.

            We don’t avoid those activities because of some rule imposed on us. We don’t do them because we don’t want to take sides.

            It’s baffling that Jay doesn’t seem to understand that, while not taking sides doesn’t ensure we’ll be trusted, taking sides certainly ensures that we won’t be. And won’t deserve to be.

    • “When MSNBC suspends Keith Olbermann for donating to candidates he supports,”

      I really wish we could stick to the facts here and not the conventional wisdom which has supplanted said facts. Olbermann was not suspended for donating to candidates he supports. Even Olbermann acknowledges that wasn’t his “crime”. What the actual suspension was for depends on whether you believe MSNBC statements that it was for not following established NBC policy about getting clearance for making donations or the rumors that he was suspended for not wanting to go on the air and issue a mea culpa. Whichever it was, it still wasn’t for making campaign contributions.

      The distinction is technical but very significant. Being suspended for giving campaign contributions invokes a plethora of different responses and reactions than being suspended for either not following established procedure or insubordination does. The former makes Olbermann into a martyr. The latter two make him either uninformed or a loose canon.

      I too have no problem with Olbermann giving contributions nor do I have any problem with any journalist making contributions as long as they are disclosed in some manner. But Olbermann making contributions isn’t the issue and isn’t what got him suspended.

      • Jay Rosen says:

        The piece reads: “When MSNBC suspends Keith Olbermann for donating without company permission to candidates he supports– that’s dumb.” So please correct your comment.

        • I was responding to Andrew’s post and cited the text in italics. Andrew didn’t specifically knock down that generalization by mentioning what he was suspended for, preferring instead to concentrate on how serious he felt the issue really was. I felt it necessary to state the obvious because this generalization is one I’ve seen all too often the past five days all over the internet.

          But I seem to be late to the party since you did apparently change the text around. I should have kept on reading the thread instead of hitting reply. For that I apologize.

        • Jay Rosen says:

          Thank you. When alerted that my phrasing may be inaccurate, I change it until it is accurate. That’s the way I have always done it.

          • Ok, here’s a serious question from a “civillian”…

            In your three part definition of TVFN (you just know it’s going to wind up being turned into an acronym on the internet ala MSM at some point so I might as well start it) you seem to me to be arguing against faux impartiality as a badge of honor and a quest for (incorrectly perceived) legitimacy that should be adhered to.

            Fine. I see no flaws in your argument. But what I would wonder is how you differentiate between attempts at TVFN and attempts at basic objectivity and fairness? And how are we to recognize the difference? I know it probably sounds simplistic to you but from a civillian’s eye it doesn’t appear to me to be so easy.

            I’ve seen you lob more than a few grenades at CNN for adhering to TVFN. But are they really? Or, are they aiming for objectivity but sometimes missing the mark?

            This question is complicated by the fact that in cable news what a news operation does is not always reflected in the way the network promotes itself. CNN’s PR statements are clearly trying to advance the idea that not taking a side is a plus. But is that “not taking a side” really an adherence to TVFN? Not taking a side could also be interpreted as a ham handed way of describing attempts at objectivity.

            To reference another part of your thought provoking article, a lot of what CNN does could be considered as “trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts” or “trying to see things in that fuller perspective Thomas Nagel talked about–pulling the camera back, revealing our previous position as only one of many”, both of which would fall under the “attempt at objectivity” category, though as you point out you can pull back until the end of time and still not see the complete spectrum of positions. This is why I ask the question, how do we differentiate between the two? More importantly, how do THEY differentiate between the two?

          • Actually there’s a corollary question which just occurred to me…

            How do we differentiate news organizations that use TVFN as a PR point but don’t adhere to it structurally inside the newsroom from those that do?

            I suppose a secondary question would be is the above premise invalid?

          • Jay Rosen says:

            If CNN was interested in genuine objectivity–grounding its news in verifiable facts–and not in advertising its viewlessness or the View from Nowhere, then it wouldn’t keep doing this. CNN leaves it there:

            http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-october-12-2009/cnn-leaves-it-there

  2. Karen Weintraub says:

    Jay, you talk about letting “some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality,” and others “experiment with transparency as the basis for trust.” But in some cases, as with Marc Ambinder, it’s the same person playing both roles. Ambinder, after five years as a blogger for the Atlantic, has decided to go back to more conventional reporting – the View from Nowhere. Is it possible to go back to being from Nowhere if you’ve spent five years Somewhere? Isn’t Ambinder now and forever vulnerable in his “objective” reporting to people looking back to his blogs and accusing him of bias? In other words, are individual journalists putting their careers and their credibility at risk when they transition between these two points of view? Can journalists be nowhere and somewhere at the same time?

  3. Mark Austin says:

    That was an illuminating post,Jay. But could you explain what you meant by “a style of criticism that is fully anticipated”?

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Yes. Political journalists sometimes pretend to be exasperated and dismayed by getting hit from the right for being “the liberal media,” and getting hit from the left for being insufficiently skeptical of the conservative agenda. But in reality they regard these complaints as a completely ritualized, and the apparent symmetry in the criticism seems to them a kind of backhanded compliment, proving that they steer things straight down the middle. Since they anticipate getting hit from both sides like this, they need something to say back. The View from Nowhere provides it.

      • Tim says:

        Tuchman described this “objectivity” in anticipation of criticism well as a “strategic ritual”. More

      • Mark Austin says:

        OK, I get you now. An example would be the BBC figuring it “must be doing something right” because its motives are always viewed with suspicion by successive Labour and Conservative governments.

        Forgive a trite but burning question (for me, at least): How does a non-View from Nowhere journalist report what Americans call a “10-bell fire”?

        • Jay Rosen says:

          When the journalistic work to be done is simply to find out what happened at that fire and get it right, I don’t think “view from” even comes into play.

          • Mark Austin says:

            But doesn’t that pose all sort of epistemological problems? You imply the existence of a sort of Rubicon–let’s call it the fireman’s hose, to extend my metaphor of a “banal” story for which you suggest View from Nowhere thinking is not required–upon whose near bank are situated simple “facts” easily revealed and reported, and upon whose far bank lie fire-breathing dragons only tamable or slayable with VfN thinking. My question is: Who decides where the fireman’s hose lies/is laid? The reporter?

  4. Clyde Smith says:

    These issues take me back to discussions in qualitative research methods courses at OSU in the 90’s. We used different terminology but were considering the same issues of objectivity though most would hold that even those playing the “View From Nowhere” card did have a position that was simply covered up in objective-sounding language.

    But I think a pluralistic approach might work well. At times, in those discussions, I felt like there was such a rejection of certain research modes that we cut ourselves off from richer possibilities for research.

    But I also think there has to be an education process for the readers. For example, if I regularly followed a publication that took a “view from nowhere” tone, which often reads as a God’s eye view of everything, and then suddenly encountered a journalist inserting herself in the presentation, it might be a bit startling.

    I’ve often found that folks who don’t recognize what they’re seeing, i.e. a journalist who doesn’t hide their position but exploits it for deeper insights as well as greater transparency, will simply be thought of as a bad reporter or a misplaced op/ed writer.

    On a side note, I also found that when you discussed historical issues with students and revealed that the party line, so to speak, lacked the nuance of what the historical record revealed, they were often more likely to question my competence than to recognize the constructed and sometimes tenuous nature of serious research. Kind of sad but also indicative of the additional education required when presenting such approaches to readers, whether editors or the general public!

  5. gnarlytrombone says:

    Great post, Jay. I thought I groked this, but you added several interesting dimensions.

    I’m still wresting with the disclosure thing. It can be quite tricky. If I as a latte liberal were unfamiliar with Julian Sanchez and used his CV, interests and ideological affiliations as a guide to his credibility, for example, I’d probably come away with a very distorted picture of his worldview. At worst, I might shy away altogether, especially if I happen to start with something he writes with which I vehemently disagree.

    Sanchez’ excellence is embodied in the totality of his work; I also get cues from his less “serious” web writing, his Twitter feed and even his interactions with other writers. If he weren’t so ubiquitous in the online space I inhabit, my view on his credibility would be quite different and I may not have been challenged by and benefited from his “liberaltarianish” POV.

  6. Wes Rolley says:

    Most of the talk of “fairness” involves the media presenter and the various sources they use for a story. It ignores the media consumer, some of whom have more knowledge of some subjects than the media presenter has.

    As a consumer of media, of journalism, I expect that there are always at least 3 versions of every story. The one most often left out is the factual. There are a very few working journalists today whose words I trust to present the facts, as well as the he said, she said partisanship.

    This is most apparent to me when the subject is ecological in nature: climate, water, agriculture. In California, most of the major media presenters have lost the reporters who really understand the ramifications of water. That expertise which takes a long time to develop is no longer there. Staff reductions have taken care of some. The lucrative attraction from big money water wholesalers have hired many of the rest. The few that are left often have to cover other things. As a consumer of journalism, I have to look far and wide to find the expertise. It is still there, often with a blog, but almost never reaching the general public with the facts.

  7. Taylor Wray says:

    Great post, Jay! You’ve really isolated the most problematic element of American journalistic objectivity. I think the rise of cable TV and Internet has created a much freer market, in terms of media, so now consumers are using that freedom to demonstrate that they prefer genuine perspective in their reporting, rather than he-said, she-said false equivalencies.

    The problem is, how much perspective do you allow into your reporting? FOX reporters tend to editorialize A LOT, often at the cost of accuracy and credibility, whereas CNN will refrain from coming to even obvious editorial conclusions if they appear to favor one side or the other.

    I’ve found a happy medium in NPR. It definitely caters to my progressive sympathies in terms of the news it chooses to break, but the stories tend to be fact-based and well-researched. Plus, it’s not part of a giant corporate media empire, which I think is a key motivator for many young media consumers.

  8. Jay, as a reporter who believes in letting it all hang out, I agree with your criticism of the view “from nowhere.” However, Weigel couldn’t have possible been fired for being “insufficiently uncommitted,” when un-fired colleagues like Ezra Klein are unabashedly opinionated, and indeed in good standing at WaPo.

    Weigel’s real offense was deception: He claimed to have some sympathy for conservatives, when he was saying nasty things about large swathes of the conservative movement behind their back, joking about Rush Limbaugh dying, bemoaning all the conservative extremists he had to cover, etc.

    BTW, I also think Olbermann did nothing wrong. Just by openly proclaiming his views, Olbermann was active in politics, with the blessings of his bosses — indeed it was his job description. Giving money is simply an extension of his activism. Now had Olbermann *taken* money from people he praised, that would have been an ethical breach.

    • Tim says:

      I agree with your conclusion on Weigel. The deception and betrayal are important factors. Weigel’s own recognition of such was also important to regainig trust.

      Olbermann’s contributions were less of a betrayal. He could have disclosed his contribution to an interviewee, and I would prefer he did, but how is it much different from Op/Ed writers who advise campaigns or write speeches for politicians behind the scenes?

  9. mommadona says:

    Here’s a question ~ how does one ‘become’ a journalist today without ‘going along to get along’ in that atmosphere?

    And I know many intelligent, capable and pragmatic bloggers who fit your bill for ‘objective with the understanding of being human and up on your subject’ ~ with not a chance of a snowball in hell of ever getting to a Luke Russert legacy gig.

    I know. “Life’s not fair” ~ well, I question the crony factor too.

  10. Jazzaloha says:

    Jay,

    I sympathize with a lot of your criticisms of contemporary journalism (including the View From Nowhere), but I’m wondering if the bigger problem is that journalists–either with or without a view–often aren’t doing the work. By “work,” I mean the following: a.) giving readers enough details and information to put subject of the story in a proper context; b.) using logical and thorough analysis in coming to conclusions; c.) showing readers other perspectives or arguments and addressing the strengths and weaknesses of each. (The one place I see this type of journalism is in The Economist.)

    • Tim says:

      I think a way to improve trust in the “work” of a journalistic product is to follow a “show your work” ethic. This is also a way to add value to the product for subscibers.

      Journalists do operate under constraints that limit the quantity and quality of the work completed for specific products. Sometimes they cut corners and cheat

    • While I sympathize with Jay’s “View from Nowhere” meme, I don’t think the answer is full disclosure about one’s political leanings and prejudices. I think the problem is what you describe. It’s the false equivalencies in presenting arguments. Detail is often cut and replaced by useless quotes. They don’t add anything to most stories. Unfortunately, “thorough analysis” and “addressing the strengths and weaknesses” take time. Most media outlets would probably argue that they don’t have the bandwidth. With limited number of reporters and large news holes to fill means the “he said, she said” stories are all reporters have time for. I may be being generous here, but I think the real culprits are corporate accountants.

      One thing I’d like to see if major papers ignoring the daily tit for tat and concentrating on the more analytical stories. But good luck with that.

      • Jay Rosen says:

        “Political leanings and prejudices” tend to emphasized because that is where the loudest debate and hottest conflicts are, so everyone is focused on that. But in fact what I mean by “here’s where I’m coming from” is not necessarily the politics of the journalist, though that would be involved in many cases. It’s really whatever forms of disclosure make the most sense for the kind of work that journalist is doing.

        Keep in mind that what’s at stake here is the user’s right to know how to filter and assess the work based on this information about where the journalist is coming from.

        On your point about fake balance substituting for more expensive acts of reporting that thinned out newsrooms cannot undertake…. yes. I included that observation in my post about He Said, She Said Journalism, which is part of the series I have been doing on the View from Nowhere at Twilight.

        See:

        http://archive.pressthink.org/2009/04/12/hesaid_shesaid.html

        “Turn the question around for a moment: what are the advantages of the newswriting formula I have derisively labeled ‘he said, she said?’ Rather than treat it as a problem, approach it as a kind of solution to quandaries common on the reporting trail. When, for example, a screaming fight breaks out at the city council meeting and you don’t know who’s right, but you have to report it, he said, she said makes the story instantly writable. Not a problem, but a solution to the reporter’s (deadline!) problem.

        “When you kinda sorta recall that Hank Greenberg is a guy who shouldn’t necessarily get the benefit of the doubt in a dispute like this, but you don’t know the history well enough to import it into your account without a high risk of error, and yet you have to produce an error-free account for tomorrow’s paper because your editor expects of you just that… he said, she said gets you there.

        “Or when the Congressional Budget Office issues a report on ethanol and what it’s costing us in higher food prices, the AP reporter to whom the story is given could just summarize the report, but that’s a little too much like stenography, isn’t it? So the AP adds reactions from organized groups that are primed to react.

        “This is a low cost way of going beyond the report itself. ”

        For the series see:

        http://pressthink.org/2010/07/objectivity-as-a-form-of-persuasion-a-few-notes-for-marcus-brauchli/#p24

        • If that story is so important on deadline, wouldn’t it be nice if the Post or the Times or many other papers simply ran with the AP story, thus freeing a reporter to get more analysis, etc. for the next day? Instead we have every paper’s reporter trying to write the same “unbiased, objective,” story, though often betraying their view in the lede or the close or who they quote. It’s really quite silly, isn’t it.

        • Jazzaloha says:

          Jay said, “It’s really whatever forms of disclosure make the most sense for the kind of work that journalist is doing.”

          What would be an example of that (besides the political leanings of the journalist)?

      • Jazzaloha says:

        “Most media outlets would probably argue that they don’t have the bandwidth. With limited number of reporters and large news holes to fill means the “he said, she said” stories are all reporters have time for. I may be being generous here, but I think the real culprits are corporate accountants.

        One thing I’d like to see if major papers ignoring the daily tit for tat and concentrating on the more analytical stories. But good luck with that.”

        Yeah, I agree with what you’re saying. I find this type of journalism useless and something I’m not willing to pay for. But I would be willing to pay more for news that was more thorough, etc. I just hope there a lot of us out there to make this type of news economically viable.

  11. Alan Sunderland says:

    This is a really interesting piece of analysis, but I still think there is a crucial and vital piece missing at the heart of it.

    The “view from nowhere” and the “here’s where I am coming from” are not two distinct camps that need to exist side-by-side to see who wins the competition for public trust.

    I think you are just side-stepping the only interesting question in the whole debate, which is how you synthesise the two. In other words, the need to create the “here’s who I am, BUT here is how I am operating”. Transparency is NOT the new objectivity, it is (potentially) a vital tool in contextualising the process of objectivity, but I remain convinced the process is a valid one. For me, the best definitions of journalism encompass access AND process, and both are factors which differentiate journalism from other forms of writing and commentary.

  12. Evelyn Messinger says:

    Dear Jay,

    Thanks for clarifying the View From Nowhere. I remain interested in how the View From Somewhere works, so I’ve summarized your three reasons, and proposed their opposites:

    – Viewlessness vs. Viewpoint
    – Defense against bias charge vs. Acceptance of bias charge
    – Universal legitimacy vs. Niche legitimacy

    You quoted Brian Stelter in the NYTimes, setting up a similar contrast: “By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics.”

    I know you didn’t write that, but the three opposites above, and Stelter’s observation, point to Fox News as the best example of a View From Somewhere. And yet, I have a feeling that having all news media follow Fox’s example isn’t what you are envisioning. Please elucidate: What is the preeminent View From Somewhere outlet doing that others should emulate? And what is it doing that others should avoid?

  13. Jay Rosen says:

    Fox is not a good example of the view from somewhere, for several reasons. Ask the people who run Fox if it is a conservative take on the news and they will lie to your face and say no. Our news is objective, and in prime-time we have opinion shows, they will say. Right there they flunk the transparency test. There’s no page we can be sent to find a description of the ideological somewhere from which Fox comes; instead there’s the deliberately meaningless slogan, “Fair and Balanced.” This is the opposite of transparency.

    I would add, before someone does it for me, that MSNBC is not doing so well on this score, either, with its meaningless “lean forward” campaign.

    For a better approximation, though not a perfect example, of the View from Somewhere, I would point to Ezra Klein’s work for the Washington Post on health care. Klein, a liberal, made it clear that he thought there needed to be a health care reform bill, and he talked openly about what he thought a good policy would be, as well as what a disaster (to him) it would be if the whole thing failed. He had also mastered his beat, and he covered the legislative battle in a newsy fashion without trying to pretend that he had no stake, preference or view of the health care reform universe. What made his coverage work was the combination of a journalist who knew a ton about the subject–Klein is a true wonk–and knew where he was coming from.

    For another example, I’d point to the almost all the reporting work of James Fallows of the Atlantic, who never gives you the sense that he’s coming from nowhere.

    • Hunter says:

      Always glad to see someone giving Klein and especially Fallows a shoutout. However, since they’re both print based, is it possible to have an video form view from somewhere?

    • Roy says:

      I agree that Ezra Klein and James Fallow are both good examples of the View from Somewhere. But I’d like to press the Fox News idea. You say Fox News, as a network, isn’t a good example because they claim objectivity and impartiality. I’ll give you that. But what about Bill O’Reilly’s show in particular. He seems to be uprfront about his views and opinions; would you consider his show a good example of The View from Somehwere? And what objections would you make to his program?

      • Jay Rosen says:

        I would agree that O’Reilly lets you know where he’s coming from. Here’s the post I wrote about him years ago:

        http://archive.pressthink.org/2003/10/21/oreilly_voice.html

        “Network journalism had long ago decided it didn’t need that kind of tension—anchormen who join the national argument—and so it promoted to the top spot only masters of the ‘cooler’ style, which became the standard. O’Reilly (who can do cool when called for) does not anchor the evening newscast on Fox, but he is its leading figure. The face of the brand is a talker with a booming public voice, a thinking person who has convictions, and whose convictions are part of his news persona. O’Reilly is both a news person doing a commentary program on Fox, and an protagonist in the public arena in constant struggle with Fox’s political enemies.

        “There’s never been a face-of-the-brand in network news who is deliberately styled hot (in McLuhan’s terms.) O’Reilly blows up a lot. He is wired for argument and controversy because he is willing to fight the spin of others with righteous spin of his own. And he has another advantage, for which he does not get enough notice. He’s willing to make fans by having active enemies. Indeed, making enemies is basic to his appeal, and that’s where Terry Gross and the rest of the establishment press factor themselves in. They supply what O’Reilly’s genre—resentment news—demands….”

        • Evelyn Messinger says:

          Thanks for your reply, Jay. I also want to thank Hunter for noting the differences between text and video (I would have replied similarly if he hadn’t); and Roy for returning the focus to Fox News.

          I hope you will allow me to pick at this a bit, like an itchy scab. Please be assured that my aim is to request that the best thinker about mass media today – you – take a new look at today’s Fox News. Seven years is a long time!

          I take away from your comments that TRANSPARENCY about its political leanings is what’s missing for Fox News to qualify as New From Somewhere. But by your response to Roy’s comment, you can’t mean to hold Bill O’Reilley up as an example to be emulated of News From Somewhere. In the post you linked to, you quoted Richard Hofstadter on the paranoid style in American politics, and said, “that is where O’Reilly comes from.” Surely you are not advocating that journalists become O’Reilley-style paranoids.

          So we are back to why Fox is not an example of News from Somewhere. You say: “Ask the people who run Fox if it is a conservative take on the news and they will lie to your face and say no,” and “There’s no page we can be sent to find a description of the ideological somewhere from which Fox comes.”

          First, let’s admit that we both know that Roger Ailes would tell us this: “Jay and Evelyn, you are both known Liberals, otherwise you would be demanding that ABC, CBS and NBC have a page describing their ideology, too. If you were Conservatives, you would, like millions of people, know that our news is no more or less a ‘conservative take’ than those others are ‘liberal takes’ on the news, and that we would be deeply offended by the assumption that we ‘lie to your face’ when we say our news is not ideological.”

          There are only two possible answers: either your advice to move away from the News From Nowhere is addressed only to print journalism, because TV News is not capable of a true View From Somewhere; or something new is going on at Fox News that needs to be added to the equation.

  14. @Inside Cable News asks:

    “…how [do] you differentiate between attempts at TVFN and attempts at basic objectivity and fairness…I’ve seen you lob more than a few grenades at CNN for adhering to TVFN. But are they really? Or, are they aiming for objectivity but sometimes missing the mark?… is that ‘not taking a side’ really an adherence to TVFN? Not taking a side could also be interpreted as a ham handed way of describing attempts at objectivity…”

    @Evelyn Messenger suggests:

    …[this post points] “to Fox News as the best example of a View From Somewhere. And yet, I have a feeling that having all news media follow Fox’s example isn’t what you are envisioning.”

    Why is CNN not merely “ham-handed objectivity” but something worse? Because CNN, in Jon Stewart’s words, loves to “leave it there.” Its frequent goal is the mere reiteration of partisans’ talking points without venturing to evaluate them on behalf of viewers.

    Why is FNC not a stellar example of the View From Somewhere? Because it so often operates as a political organization rather than a journalistic one. Its frequent goal is the dissemination of tendentious partisan talking points rather than the enlightenment of viewers.

    The reason I like Chuck Todd’s political analysis is because he adheres to objective principles in describing the actions of politicians (not even ham-handedly) but then draws an analytic conclusion, as a result of his reporting, that puts the viewer’s needs first (rather than the need of NBC News to preserve its neutral status and prestige).

    Consider Todd’s reporting on the role of healthcare reform legislation in the midterm elections. He reported that it was a major GOP talking point on the stump but then told us how to understand it use: “The bad economy has set the national mood but healthcare is the rhetorical weapon of choice for Republicans. They use it to tie Democrats to Obamacare or to make a point on government overreach or even to say it is the reason why businesses are not creating jobs.” Later, with the input of polling data, he argued that GOP calls for healthcare repeal were neither popular nor to be taken literally: ”While healthcare is perhaps the most heated debate topic it is still the economy that is viewed as the top issue in our new poll. On healthcare the rhetoric may be clear but the public’s views on it are very nuanced — and nuanced is something politicians do not do well 13 days before an election.”

    Here, Todd has a rooting interest in how the rhetorical battle on the campaign stump is waged — his interest is neither pro-Republican nor pro-Democrat but pro-voter.

  15. Mark Austin says:

    Sorry–in my last post, please substitute “View from Somewhere thinking is not required” for “View from Nowhere thinking is not required.”

  16. Mark Austin says:

    And “VfN” should read “VfS,” obviously.

  17. Evelyn Messinger puts imaginary words in Roger Ailes’ mouth: “Jay and Evelyn, you are both known Liberals, otherwise you would be demanding that ABC, CBS and NBC have a page describing their ideology, too. If you were Conservatives, you would, like millions of people, know that our news is no more or less a ‘conservative take’ than those others are ‘liberal takes’ on the news, and that we would be deeply offended by the assumption that we ‘lie to your face’ when we say our news is not ideological.”

    Messinger then wonders why Ailes’ news channel does not count as a legitimate example of journalism with a View from Somewhere

    Her imaginary Ailes has answered the question for her:

    1) Journalism with a View from Somewhere holds itself to a different standard than journalism with a View from Nowhere. If legitimately committed to the View from Somewhere, having an ideology-describing page would be a badge of honor — and the fact that the broadcast networks did not have such a page would be all the more reason for Ailes to post one, not an excuse not to.

    2) Journalism with a View from Somewhere is a method of escaping false binary oppositions rather than embracing them. No journalist legitimately committed to the View from Somewhere would be interested in the pseudo-symmetry of “no more or less a ‘conservative take’ than those others are ‘liberal takes’.” The existence, or lack thereof, of a liberal View from Somewhere would be a matter of indifference to a journalist offering a conservative View from Somewhere.

    3) If this imaginary Ailes were legitimately committed to journalism with a View from Somewhere he would never be “deeply offended” by Rosen’s assumption of bald-faced lying. On the contrary, he would agree that for such a journalist to claim to be producing non-ideological news would be, on its face, mendacious.

    That said, is Bill O’Reilly’s Factor an example of the View from Somewhere? For my taste, it is not his paranoid style that disqualifies him (although I recognize Rosen’s characterization). My problem is with his too-frequent use of innuendo and insinuation. If you listen to his commentaries literally, his actual talking points often turn out to be mere suggestions or questions, not statements at all. He loves to hint to his viewers that he shares a sense of outrage that he invokes — but then he’ll modify it with a just askin’ shrug that makes his journalism less declarative and his view, strictly speaking, much closer to Nowhere than his tone would imply.

    The View from Somewhere has a hard time speaking with a style that manufactures controversy, enjoys argument for argument’s sake, and hints at outrages without spelling them out.

  18. michaelfgu says:

    As a “civilian” I find this whole discussion fascinating.

    I vote for transparency & honesty as being the overriding principles that would best suit journalism going forward.

    Journalists are overwhelmingly liberal as many studies have documented and your only hope of beginning the regeneration of your badly damaged profession seems to me to be transparency.

    I don’t think journalists have any idea of the contempt that many (if not most) members of the general public have for your profession.

    Reform or die…

    • Josef says:

      I’ll tell you who I have contempt for:

      Anyone who can repeat “Journalists are overwhelmingly liberal as many studies have documented” as if that explains the problems with contemporary media.

  19. beejeez says:

    Regardless of whether Jay’s examples are well chosen, I think his point still stands as a worthwhile consumer’s-guide approach to news.

    I don’t think the example Evelyn posits, Chuck Todd, is a good example of what Jay or I want to see, though. What Todd does is the equivalent of a sports anchor who tells you the scores. Every motive in Washington is reduced to how it affects the balance of power, and this attitude affects viewers by driving away their hope in or understanding of political progress. Todd never acknowledges whether the goals and practices of an individual or party are good or bad, hypocritical or courageous, constructive or harmful. The reporters who deserve our attention are the ones engaged in the analysis of policy and issues, not the ones who examine the scene as if it’s not worth examining whether liberal and conservative approaches are of equal value.

  20. Ron Brynaert says:

    I think there’s a humongous difference between having a view and partisan activism.

    It is absurd for journalists to deny that they have leanings to the left or the right or the center, or conservative or liberal or libertarian, or mainstream or progressive or fringe.

    But to say that journalists who admit they are liberal or conservative is the same as journalists who support the Democratic or Republican party is an insult to reporters who care about their objectivity.

    Of course journalists have a right to donate money to politicians…but to pretend that those that do it aren’t choosing to give up at least some objectivity is wack. And when pundits don’t mention those donations when they go on TV or write editorials..they deserve criticism.

    No one should have to assume so-and-so may have donated to such-and-such because he leans this way. Disclosure matters.

    And if you provide coverage for someone in the media on TV or in print but don’t tell the audience that there is a financial connection…then you owe your audience and your editors or producers or bosses an apology at the least.

  21. Josef says:

    I followed the link in the word “decline” from

    “When editors at the Washington Post decline even to investigate whether the size of rallies on the Mall can be reliably estimated because they want to avoid charges of “leaning one way or the other,” as one of them recently put it, that is dumb.”

    The Post article linked to does not mention anything about estimating crowd size. Maybe it was edited/changed?