I’ve taught journalism at a variety of colleges in New Jersey and I can’t resist offering lessons in the craft now that I have my own blog. Today’s lesson is how to deal with claims of objectivity, especially from main stream media.
First, this: I am not objective and I don’t pretend to be. I have opinions—for almost 50 years I was paid by The Star-Ledger to express them. I won’t stop now. Anyone who has read “Bob Braun’s Ledger” as a blog, FB page or Twitter knows I have opinions and they know what they are. I am not ashamed of them. I am proud of them and I will use them to inform my reporting and writing. Slap me if I screw up facts but my opinions are at least as valuable as anyone else’s.
My problem is with main-stream media outlets that pretend to objectivity and attempt to create trust on the grounds they are reporting only objective truth. There is, of course, no such thing as objectivity in media. There is fairness, maybe, but every time a reporter sits down to write a piece and an editor reads it and approves it (after assigning it), these basic decisions are riddled with subjective judgments.
Let’s talk about the way The Star-Ledger has covered the school crisis in Newark. To the extent it has covered it at all, the stories appear to be straightforward and unbiased. But here’s the rub—The Star-Ledger has hardly covered it at all and that boycotting of important stories is a subjective judgment. It is a judgment that says to its readers: “We do not believe what is happening in Newark is important enough to spend our limited resources in covering it.”
That’s fine. I understand that. But please don’t pretend that ignoring a story is the exercise of an objective judgment. It’s not. It’s a subjective judgment.
Now, let’s get more specific, a little more nuanced. Today, The Star-Ledger ran a story about the Newark mayoral race between Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries. Just to help things along, I have written more about Ras Baraka than I have about Shavar Jeffries. So far, I agree a lot more with Ras Baraka than I do with Shavar Jeffries. As a lawyer, I was disappointed by Jeffries’ (also a lawyer) refusal to accept the evidence that Cami Anderson, the Christie-appointed Newark schools superintendent, sent out an insulting letter to Newark families suggesting crime would rise if children were out of school. Through a spokesman, she denied sending it out and that was a lie. Jeffries wrote to me he couldn’t believe Anderson would write such a letter.
Back to today’s Ledger story. The headline for the on-line version is “As Newark race tightens, familiar tropes may not apply.” But has the race tightened? What evidence is there it has? The reporter only cites evidence Baraka is far ahead. Because two candidates dropped out? That doesn’t necessary follow. Ah, but the story suggests—subjectively– this will be a close race, thereby suggesting to readers that Jeffries is, or soon will be, every bit as popular as Baraka. Evidence for that? None. Bias? Of course.
The story is premised on the notion Baraka is calling Jeffries an “outsider” in much the same way as former Mayor Sharpe James called Cory Booker an outsider. I have been following Baraka’s campaign for several weeks. I had a long interview with him. Not once did I hear him call Jeffries an “outsider.” It is, as a reader has pointed out, a straw man. Set it up, then knock it down. Bias? Of course.
But an important one, because the article also compares Baraka to James. James, as we all know, was convicted of a crime—never mind how dubious the indictment and trial—and sentenced to jail. So not only does the article create a non-issue, it tends to smear Baraka—who, the article fails to note, also ran against James in a mayoral race. Quite apart from that, Baraka has been in elected office for a far shorter time than James was when Booker challenged the mayor. I am not sure comparing Jeffries to Booker helps Jeffries in a city that probably would have denied Booker re-election as mayor. But Booker has a glowing reputation among people outside the city who don’t closely follow Newark politics—and comparing Jeffries to Booker will help bring in outside money and the kind of clueless volunteers who helped make Booker a United States senator. (Full disclosure—I worked briefly for Rush Holt’s senate campaign—and I hope he runs against Booker in this year’s primary).
The article calls Baraka a “pol” and “fiery” and “charismatic.” Interesting word choices—totally loaded and hardly objective. A “pol” hardly has positive connotations and suggests he has been an establishment politician for years—and he hasn’t. “Fiery”—what does that mean exactly, especially in Newark? Especially when the article mentions Baraka’s father, controversial poet and playwright Amiri Baraka. “Charismatic”? I guess that’s positive, but still subjective, the writer’s opinion. I like Baraka but, frankly, I don’t consider him either fiery or charismatic.
While noting Jeffries’ scholarships and hard-luck early childhood, Baraka is described in words like “threat” and “disrupter.” Yikes.
What the article doesn’t call him is what he is—the principal of Central High School in Newark. Relevant? I would say so. Not mentioning it is a decision and it’s not an objective decision.
Then, in 17 paragraphs devoted to Jeffries’ background, the article insists it is not true Jeffries is an outsider. Well, no one ever said it was. But the heavily lopsided article—in addition to the interesting word choices, Baraka gets only seven paragraphs–helps create the impression that these candidacies are equal. Fair—I don’t know, maybe. Objective? Hell, no.
I know the writer and he is a damned good reporter. I have no problem with what he wrote. I do have a problem with how the newspaper presented the article. It should have been a column or, at least, labeled as an analysis. It was not a straight news story but, rather, an effort to make sure Jeffries starts getting as much ink as Baraka has.
It is the beginning of the effort by the newspaper to inject itself into the race. Just sayin’—if you depend on so-called “objective” media to get your news, read very carefully.
Class over. Thanks for paying attention.