The conventional wisdom goes that there are two types of news: fake and real. The fake kind is an upstart, a scammy provocation designed by Macedonian teens and conservative operatives to infiltrate our social media feeds, suckering gullible baby-boomers into believing misinformation about George Soros funding Jade Helm antifa operatives as commanded by Hillary Clinton. The real kind is an old, august tradition, a centuries-long chain of journalistic integrity and devotion to bold truth-telling and upholding the principles of a free society. It’s a binary— the New York Times on the end of the real, InfoWars on the end of the fake.
Yet this binary only holds up on one end. While fake news is just as bereft of truth as its name suggests, conventional journalism— real news— does not quite live up to the ethical standards of its reputation. Much of modern mainstream journalism consists of institutions that report from the perspective of empire and capital, protecting the powerful while cloaked in a veil of objectivity and journalistic neutrality.
The very concept of the Objectivity as a journalistic ideal is a recent one, dating back only to the turn of the 20th Century. The American papers of the 19th Century, spurred on by the spread of the popular vote and increased civic participation that characterized the Jacksonian era, had proudly proclaimed themselves as organs of particular political parties or movements and reported based on those convictions in all regards. 3rd parties like the Anti-masonic party and the Republicans rose and fell on the strength of the newspapers that supported them— in an era where stump speeches made up most of popular campaigning, a published speech or an editorial in a newspaper In 1884, the intensely Republican-leaning Los Angeles Times took 11 days to report that the Democratic Party’s Grover Cleveland had won the 1884 presidential election.
The journalistic enterprises of the 20th Century— and the ones that survived the 19th— largely abandoned outright partisanship, evolving towards a constructed idea of journalistic objectivity shaped by figures like Walter Lippmann, widely considered the “Father of American Journalism.” In Lippmann’s ideal, journalists were to proceed in their craft “with a common intellectual method and a common area of valid fact,” reporting with skepticism and in avoidance of hewing too closely to a single source. Lippmann knew that people invariable had their opinions and biases, and that standards of journalistic rigor were required. The Lippmannian journalist writes as some figure beyond their own biases, able to put away everything else and report the facts of the matter. And as the core institutions of modern American journalism— the broadcast news networks, CNN, and nationally circulated Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post— established themselves as such, they became identified with that ideal of the objective journalist.
Yet Lippmann’s ideal of objectivity does not stand up to the realities of journalism. On a very basic level, journalism cannot be truly objective. A newsroom is run by people, figures with individual opinions who are continually having to make decisions about what to cover and how to cover it. In practice, then, upholding objectivity and neutrality as the ideal model for journalists fails to result in journalists that put away their biases and personal perspectives for the sake of reporting the truth but instead in journalism that is inherently informed by the perspective of those who created it. And in the case of the modern American mainstream media, that perspective is invariably the perspective of power, of capital, and of empire. While it would be reasonable to blame these biases on the grand corporate enterprises that fund journalism in America— by 2011, 90% of the media in the United States was controlled by 6 corporations— the proximate explanation for much of this bias is much more banal.
The impulses that have lead journalists into their alliances with the powerful are, paradoxically, noble ones. It’s perfectly reasonable for a journalist, in pursuit of reporting the most accurate and complete version of a story, to develop connections with officials and other sources within the centers of power that they report on. Detailed reporting on the inner workings of government agencies like the Pentagon and the State Department often relies on networks of leakers and anonymous sources. At best, this reporting can break vital cracks into the armor of secrecy worn by the state. Yet when these webs of connection develop into what Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman referred to in Manufacturing Consent as a “symbiotic relationship” between press and state, the objective stance of journalism becomes merely a façade. By becoming indispensable to the workings of the journalistic enterprise, the government can effectively enforce their perspective, their facts, as objective truth. If a reporter can only accurately report on what’s going on in the Oval Office by maintaining good relationships with sources that work in the inner circles of the president, then the reporter will be pressured by those sources to report information massaged to favor their perspectives. Moreover, by building personal relationships with individual sets of reporters, politicians and officials can profoundly shape both their own public images and the public image of the policies they support. This symbiosis is known as “access journalism,” and it, in its many forms, has come to dominate the mainstream of political reporting.
At its core, access journalism is just another style of journalism, no better or worse than other models— but the dangerous combination of the objective pose of modern journalism and the affinity to the powerful of access journalism has enabled the worst, most cowardly urges of modern journalism, working on all scales. Access journalism can warp the reporting of the most significant, broadly reaching events in recent memory. It is the force that led the Washington Post and the New York Times to blindly cheerlead the Iraq war based almost entirely on biased sourcing from the Bush Administration, and the force that led the Times to delay publication of a story revealing the NSA’s warrantless surveillance of American citizens and others for 13 months. In both these cases, the journalists and editors of esteemed, theoretically neutral publications carried water for militarists and the right-leaning Bush government because of an ingrown trust for government expertise, even when that expertise was questioned by equally credible experts that the newsrooms had weaker connections with. Both cases also reflect the fear and paranoia cultivated amongst the news media by the Bush administration during the early War on Terror, a sort of macro-version of the bind that war reporters embedded in combat units in Afghanistan face. It’s hard to criticize or contradict the people who control whether you live or die.
The militaristic misreporting of the Bush era is not the only form of access journalism, though. Access journalism is inherently a protean creature— its practitioners shape it based on who they are trying to gain access with. In the jingoist years of the Bush administration, it took the form of an incurious reverence for the military state. Yet in recent years, access journalism’s most noticeable manifestations have trended towards the more mundane. In response to the rise of social media, which has essentially given politicians a way to sidestep the traditional media entirely, many of the journalists who cover press-averse politicians have had to resort to softball, relationship-driven reporting. It’s the motive that has powered the speedy, Obama-era rise of publications like The Hill and Politico, who make no pretense of being anything but insider-focused, instead making that breach of objectivity their entire appeal. Yet due to the popularity of Politico and its hangers-on, even conventional publications that generally claim journalistic objectivity like the New York Times and the Washington Post have taken to using increasingly access-driven, conflict-averse journalism.
That contradiction, between the lofty, Lippmanian ideals of journalistic objectivity that the mainstream news media claims and the deferential, sympathetic-to-power access journalism style that it often perpetuates, is the crux of the crisis within real news. In an era where panic about fake news has risen to a fever pitch, with everyone from politicians to tech giants promising to “do something” about the issue, mainstream journalistic institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post have increasingly positioned themselves as bastions of truth, democracy, and independent adversarial journalism— witness the Times advertising by saying that “Independent journalism needs your support,” or the Washington Post plastering their new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” over every article. Yet over the past two administrations, journalists from these bold, independent publications have cozied up to the forces of power instead of confronting them.
To cover the Trump administration, a regime caught between its all-encompassing distaste for the “mainstream media” and its leader’s desire to be a topic of constant conversation, reporters have had to bend to its will to some degree. Figures like Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, who has been hailed as the “queen of political journalism” by Vanity Fair, have only been able to report on Trump by cultivating deep access. It’s hard to argue that Haberman’s approach hasn’t been effective— she’s gotten so close to the President that he called her to complain about the ACA repeal process unprompted— but the ethical issues raised by it are many.
This is the moral bankruptcy of access journalism, of its making of political issues that affect the lives of hundreds of millions into essentially tabloid material. The political movers of capital and empire in America— they’re just like us. And by adopting that epistemic lens, they breach objective journalism in a much more insidious way than the political press of the 1800s. Modern access journalists claim independence and objectivity while simultaneously cozying up to power, treating those at the helm of the most destructive political and bureaucratic institutions of the United States as friends or curiosities rather than adversaries. Their bias is one of omission rather than inclusion, a lack of proper understanding of the forces of empire and capital that control this country far more than how many diet cokes President Trump drinks or what color President Obama’s suit is. And by focusing on the trivial and the personal rather than the more important, but more hidden forces at play, the fourth estate just becomes an arm of capital.
Photograph: Live-fire range exercise prior to deploying to Iraq, 22 October 2009. Credit: US Navy