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.
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 (scroll down for 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.