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September 15, 2012

Set your biases aside, or find some other profession

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The Daily Star

---- — The principle of objectivity is so deeply imbued in the ethics of journalism that it’s common to hear the topic mentioned frequently around the newsroom.

It will come up in discussions with reporters about the various angles to a particular story, or in editorial board meetings where the newspaper forms its stance on the issues of the day. But most often, questions about objectivity stem from the feedback we get from our readers.

In this regard, I’ve concluded that it’s probably best if a newspaper’s critics are scattered somewhat uniformly across the political spectrum, as sardonic as that may sound. No audience is ever unanimously pleased, and if you’re standing in the dead center of issues, occasionally you’ll get caught in some partisan crossfire.

Maybe the reason objectivity is such a frequent subject for debate is that – perhaps ironically – no objectively definable metric exists for determining whether a journalist attempting to report objectively has done so. Media watchdog groups such as the right-leaning Media Research Center and left-leaning Media Matters base their work on inherently subjective judgments about how to define fairness, or what constitutes positive or negative coverage.

It seems easier to define objective journalism by what it isn’t. Here at The Daily Star, editors Sam Pollak and Rob Centorani don’t always see eye-to-eye on all things editorial. But both agree that MSNBC hosts Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz should either take part in political rallies and campaign events or cover them for MSNBC – but not both. The same goes for Fox News, which employed Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee as paid contributors while all four were considering campaigns for the White House.

This question becomes a bit more nuanced in cases such as that of a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel intern who, according to Columbia Journalism Review, was fired this year after signing a petition in support of recalling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The Journal Sentinel tried unsuccessfully to find a different opening for her – since such activity wouldn’t be a problem if she covered, for example, sports or entertainment. But since the intern was to be assigned to the paper’s capitol news bureau, the paper determined that she had an insurmountable conflict of interest.

The intern’s case illustrates the harsh lesson that journalists should limit their political activity to voting and nothing else. As former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee once said of his reporters: “You can’t (expletive) the elephants if you’re gonna cover the circus.”

It is often said that journalism is the first rough draft of history. But it’s a profession for people who simply want to document history, not make it. Those who insist on viewing things through an ideological prism are better suited for some other line of work.

I was drawn to journalism by my interest in history, or more specifically, historiography – the study of how history is understood and recorded. One fascinating example of this is the first-century Roman emperor Caligula, known to history as an irredeemably cruel and deranged tyrant.

Our knowledge of Caligula comes from four sources. Two – contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger –

offer little more than anecdotes. Most of what we know about Caligula comes from Suetonius and Cassius Dio, who wrote 80 and 100 years after Caligula’s death.

The tales of his debauchery and violence are well-known. But, as our sources concede, Caligula brought back democratic elections for municipal officials and ordered the regular accounting and disclosure of public finances – two practices that were abandoned by the earlier emperors.

When the emperor Augustus ordered the works of dissident historian Titus Labienus seized and burned after a controversial trial, Labienus committed suicide. Thirty years later, Caligula ordered all Labienus’ works, and those of several similar authors, to be retrieved and republished in the interest of posterity.

Was Caligula an unhinged lunatic? Or was he champion of transparency, democracy and free speech who was simply victimized by a harsh press? This depends on how much faith one has in our sources, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere in between. History in those days was written by senators such as Suetonius and Dio – who couldn’t criticize sitting emperors, and settled instead for targeting those who were no longer present to defend themselves.

Today, history is being documented in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. But the debate over what constitutes objectivity remains as elusive and open-ended as ever.

JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com or 432-1000, ext. 216.