What We Talk about When We Talk About Neutrality

Jay Rosen says we’re really taking about trust, which we might very well be able to win through means other than neutrality.

For one, it’s far from clear that neutrality (or objectivity, insofar as the two are synonymous) ever really worked all that well for the business of journalism anyhow. (James Fallows writes a gripping story about how, starting with Mike Wallace insisting that he would endanger American troops in order to get a scoop. “No,” Wallace said flatly and immediately. “You don’t have a higher duty [to the troops]. No. No. You’re a reporter!”)

So then we have something called transparency. I don’t want to attempt the kind of unpacking of what trust really means necessary to justify the claim, but I think it’s pretty obvious that transparency is at least a good candidate for building trust.

With these two beliefs in hand, Jay’s makes a point that resounds if only for its understatement:

“Trust me because I mask my true feelings about the matter” is not an inherently better way to journalize or gain cred. “Trust me because I show you what my true feelings on the matter are…” can also work.

So here’s my point: Neutrality is expensive, but transparency is cheap.

It’s much more difficult for you to figure out what an unbiased party would think about something than it is for you to figure out what you think about it. Poststructuralist issues to one side, an imaginary dispassionate man-as-an-island ain’t easy for Peter Post to envision, and journalists qua humans may not be the best vessels to carry his sacred Truth. The adage that “honesty will set you free” applies doubly here (psychologically and economically). Your own thoughts are yours free for the taking.

So I can see at least one big reason modern journalism has maintained neutrality as its polestar. As a norm, neutrality will tend to price out upstart news outfits with smaller budgets. If you get your cred from neutrality, and neutrality is expensive, and you got precious few dollars in the bank, then you got no cred. If cred’s the norm, then you also got no trust, and if you don’t got trust, you don’t got a news business.

Ultimately, in a world where printing and distribution costs can help price out competition, piling on with artificial norms of doing business made sense. But in a world where the costs of printing are those imposed by wordpress (precisely zero), those artificial norms may become untenable as competition finds cheaper ways of building trust.

In a world of cheap interaction—or an edge economy—the ground on which old giants try to erect artificial barriers to entry won’t hold them fast. The ground will shift or sink, and the barriers will crater as unceremoniously as the revenues newspapers once earned from the classifieds. If trust is the true coin of the realm, and if trust is more easily earned through transparency than neutrality, expect transparency to come out on top.

Cheap and simple beats professional and sophisticated every time in a networked world.

But why did neutrality seem like such a good idea to being with? (Or, does neutrality approximate transparency for very large non-networked audiences?)

To contemplate an answer, let’s start by swapping out “unbiased party” above and slipping in “impartial spectator.” We’re conjuring Adam Smith here; we’re calling on his Theory of Moral Sentiments to help us imagine a kind of synthetic ethics of imagination in which we judge ourselves by putting ourselves in the shoes of those we observe. If there were an impartial spectator-journalist, the results of his pursuance of transparency would look like the results of a conventional modern journalist pursuing neutrality. That’s where the two concepts of neutrality and transparency overlap.

The problem is that there is no such thing as an impartial spectator-journalist.

I can’t say precisely why, but my gut tells me that the industrial press was able to tap our trust because we just didn’t see the distinction between different ways to earn it. Not thinking about it, we believed that trust existed within, and only within, the small place where neutrality and transparency coincide.

Since my not-too-distant days in Ithaca, I’ve always been interested in how philosophers cross the bridge between objectivity and normativity—in Smith’ case deriving morality from psychology. But the two often collide, as in Rawls’ reflective equlibrium. I don’t pretend to know the why or the how, but I suspect it’s a particularly 20th century accident of industrialization and concentration of power—of Haque’s massconomy, in short. There were few enough printing presses and expensive enough distribution channels that we told ourselves, inaudibly, that shoe-leather journalists were only being upstanding members of the fourth estate when they wrote from a privileged place of self-imposed impartiality.

Because a networked economy goes hand in hand with a relationship economy of the kind Doc Searls discusses, the end of the era in which neutrality can purchase trust is nigh. Neutrality just isn’t human. That’s why Jay reaches for the mask as metaphor. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone who’s wearing a mask.

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2 Responses to “What We Talk about When We Talk About Neutrality”


  1. 1 Jay Rosen 2008 June 17 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks very much for this, Josh. Your understand perfectly what I was saying in that passage. Rare! I sent your poss around on Twitter and Facebook and added it to my PressThink post.

    One thing you might add is that the very grand and sbtract claims that “traditional” media have made are becoming too expensive for them, too. The View from Nowhere is getting more expensive to maintain because the means for showing how much BS there is in it are so readily available. See this from former CBS News President Andrew Heyward.

  2. 2 Jay Rosen 2008 June 17 at 2:54 pm

    I left a comment for you that probably got swallowed by your spam filter.


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