Robert Fulford's column about objectivity in journalism

(The National Post, July 23, 2001)

The Ontario Press Council's recent decision in the Wellington Advertiser case upheld the view that journalists shouldn't involve themselves in politics. That idea seemed thunderingly obvious to those on the council, but in historical perspective it looks more like a belief peculiar to our time, and not one that we should accept forever.

The case began with a complaint from Teressa Gibson Smye, who last year ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Guelph-Eramosa Township. She lost the election to David Adsett, editor of the Wellington Advertiser. She then complained to the Press Council that editors should not run for office.

The Advertiser replied that she had been treated fairly in its pages and that Mayor Adsett refrained from interfering in stories about local politics. He promised that this would be the policy when he first sought a council seat, and promised to continue it as mayor.

The Press Council, while accepting that he had made an honest effort to avoid bias, went on to say: "It believes the potential for a perception of unfairness remains. And, in upholding the complaint, it says it believes publishers, editors, and reporters, while actively engaged in journalism, should not seek or hold elective political office in the newspaper's distribution area."

Mayor Adsett remains unrepentant and the council's decisions of course have no legal power. Papers that belong to the council (the National Post, incidentally, does not) undertake only to publish the texts of council decisions, not to abide by them.

There is an argument to be made against the council's ruling, which seems to me more cosmetic than otherwise. Nobody imagines that newspapers are without bias, yet we believe that an editor who runs for election makes an ethical mistake -- not because he exhibits bias but because he reveals the bias that presumably lurks in his heart even if not in his paper. The council's words ("the potential for a perception of unfairness") make its decision sound more like a public relations exercise than a matter of principle.

We may have to re-assess the life of George Brown, another Ontario editor who was also in politics. He founded the Toronto Globe in 1844 to back the Reform campaign for responsible government. Later he began running for election and eventually helped create Confederation, all without ceasing to be an editor. He would have been astounded (as would all his friends and enemies) if someone had told him he should refrain from either of his professions.

In the first half of the 20th century the most admired small-town journalist in North America was William Allen White, who edited the Emporia Gazette from 1895 until his death in 1944. His editorials, including the one on free speech that won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize, were reprinted across the continent. The only thing most people knew about Emporia, Kansas, was that it contained White and the Gazette. Today, he and his paper are two of the five or six facts that standard encyclopedias carry about Emporia.

White was an active partisan politician who helped create Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party early in the 20th century. One year he wrote the state platform for the Progressive Republicans and in 1908 he spent the summer working for two friends who were successfully campaigning for governor and U.S. senator. Biographers describe his involvement with politics at the most basic level, right down to renting the tent for an election rally.

George Brown and William Allen White had great careers, but not careers that the Ontario Press Council could endorse. Why have we decided that their way was wrong? The prevailing wisdom in our period apparently springs from the same source as that dreaded word "objectivity." At some long-ago moment, our professional ancestors introduced objectivity into discussions of journalism -- and we have not been the same since. Objectivity is a killer. It kills style, it kills spirited writing, it kills narrative -- you can't possibly tell a story from a non-point of view. And, as anyone who ever helped edit a paper knows, it turns out to be impossible: The mere selection of a news item implies bias. The truly objective article would be chosen randomly and written in cold bureaucratic prose.

Yet many of us, as young reporters, were told that objectivity was our goal. Journalists mistakenly borrowed this notion from science, which drew its authority from the objective analysis of data. This method made science the governing intellectual style of modern times, and attracted the jealousy of other professions. Emulating science looked like the route to prestige. The study of society became social science, the study of politics, political science.

Our predecessors in journalism were social climbers like everyone else, though fortunately they stopped short of calling our profession journalistic science. Their historic mistake was to attempt the hopeless task of eliminating bias from a profession that would be dead without it. Whether there was any merit at all in their project should be a subject for discussion among everyone concerned about the future of journalism.

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