Newspapers: "Balance and Objectivity", the business plan

In "Say Everything", Scott Rosenberg devotes a chapter to the tensions between journalists and bloggers. The ideals of balance and objectivity--cornerstones of empirical rationalism--were among the sticking points. Journalists held themselves up as champions of neutrality and painted bloggers as screeching partisans. But on page 290, Rosenberg makes an interesting historical point: journalistic neutrality was a business decision.

"Yellow journalism", as you might remember from your history classes, was unabashedly sensationalistic and pandering (favoring the lower classes). But by midcentury, expanding circulation forced newspapers to come up with a new business model: don't offend anyone. In the days of Hearst and Pulitzer, it was fine to be populist at the cost of offending elitists, but the later megapapers needed everyone's eyeballs.

The early practitioners, retraining themselves to tell both sides of a story, knew that this neutrality was a business decision. But to the next generation it became a religion. Perhaps it helped journalists find meaning in their work. Perhaps with the growth of American industry during and after World War II, and the acceleration of technology, the public placed more faith in a scientific worldview.

That scientific worldview was itself born for other purposes. Early Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire were firstly against superstition and only secondly in favor of logic. Sickened by millenia of religious wars, they wanted to free people from control by self-interested authorities and give them tools to decide how to run their own lives. Empiricism was just a handy tool.

Two centuries later, we hardly know any other way to think. Cause and effect are the bedrock of our worldview. It is the closest thing I have to a religion. I am the modern analogue to the late-twentieth-century reporter who thinks that to write is to write about both sides. But just because rationalism wasn't invented as an end unto itself doesn't mean I'll cast it aside. And just because journalistic objectivity was an accountant's idea doesn't mean it's a bad one.