Okay, after a solid bout of teaching, I can return to this piece. Rosen has attacked my interpretation, and rightly so. I ascribed to him views he did not hold. But, as I say elsewhere, this blog is for ill-formed thoughts that happen to pass through my forebrain. The particular form of ASD I undoubtedly have leads me to rapidly skip from what is said to what I think that it means, which is what happened here. I have therefore edited the piece but left my original comments struck out so you can see what I said that raised his ire, and the edits are in bold.
Jay Rosen, a professor in journalism at NYU, has for some time been critical of what he calls “the view from nowhere” in the media. By this he means
Three things. In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.
Instead, Rosen thinks that journalists ought to make a virtue out of the necessity that arises from having a point of view, and just assert what it is. Fox News (“Faux Noise”) already does just that, and the recent kerfuffle over Olbermann supporting Democratic candidates suggests that the Left does it too (but surely not to the same extent!).
Something is lost here.
The view from nowhere is a phrase that was used to describe an impossible epistemology, by Thomas Nagel: that we could know the world other than as parts of it, as observers. Rosen has taken this into the artificial world of the media. Journalists are embedded in the political world; they cannot disavow this in order to assert their authority.
I have a problem with this,
both Nagel’s and Rosen’s as it seems to imply that we cannot be even slightly objective. The ideal of objectivity is necessary if we are not to fall into the rather pervasive and sometimes postmodern view that all viewpoints are equally privileged. It is not that we can reach it, necessarily, but there are degrees of objectivity that serve as counterbalances to the noisy viewpoint warfare of modern politics (and it is all about politics, even in Nagelian contexts). As Browning famously and quotably said, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” [Andrea del Sarto 1855].
The ideal of objectivity prevents anyone from saying “I have a viewpoint and I must be listened to with equal seriousness”. One cannot take, for example, the views of a fascist as seriously as the views of a proponent of the rule of law.
Yet, this is what it seems Rosen wants. It appears to me that abandoning the ideal of objectivity means we have to take every view equally seriously, in a tu quoque: if it’s okay for Olbermann, then it’s okay for Beck. Rosen implicitly accepts this, although (as you will see in the comments) he explicitly denies it. I can understand why he does, but the asymptotic ideal of getting it right should not be forgotten. To illustrate my point, allow me to use an example from philosophy of science.
There is a problem known as the Pessimistic Metainduction: all our previous scientific theories turned out to be wrong; ergo our present ones will too. An implication often made by epistemic relativists is that therefore any view is equally good, for it is all just duelling authorities. Creationists, who love to argue that science is just another religion, adore this argument, but it has a serious point in defending antirealism.
Now, would we want to say that one perspective on science is just as good as any other simply because science is a human enterprise? Global warming is as good as Climate Change Denialism and the only difference is that one is privately funded? Really? There are degrees of rightness and wrongness. Our global warming models will inevitably turn out to be wrong in some degree; that is, they will be inaccurate in some manner. But the claim there is no such thing, or that humans do not cause global warming is false, flat out.
Consider this in the context of reportage for human politics. Sure, we do not have to give equal time to those who think that the US Constitution was Christian, does not give the government the right to tax, and so forth. That doesn’t mean we should at least strive to find the debate where a legitimate one exists. Journalism ought to be about trying to find out the truth even when it is recognised that truth is a very human thing that involves some debate.
What Rosen is rightly opposed to is false controversy, the finding of dramatic narrative where there is none to report, just because that is the very nature of the media. It requires the essential element of narrativium. But where there really is a story, the reporter should not make the mistake of thinking their own prejudices and preferences are the story. That was the error into which Gonzo Journalism fell. From the truism that the reporter cannot be objective they drew the conclusion that the reporter ought not even to try. The reporter became the story. We are dealing with the unintended consequences of that fallacy ever since. It needs a name, so I will call it the Hunter S. Thompson Fallacy.
This explains, I think, why a liberal theoretician like Rosen thinks that a liberal satirist like Jon Stewart is a “wonk” (as he recently tweeted). Stewart thinks that we can and should present legitimate debates without fear or favour. Rosen seems to think that because some debates are just the political views of some proprietors with big industry interests, all debates are equally a matter of personal choices. If that were true, then I would agree they should just state it up front, and treat all media as op-ed. But it isn’t. It’s a slippery slope fallacy.
Objective reporting is important, and while we may never achieve a God’s-Eye View (another philosophy metaphor, this time by Hilary Putnam), heaven acts as a target to prevent us from sliding into he-said, she-said narrative drama. From Browning’s poem again:
My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here.
In later developments, Olbermann justifies his position here, and Ted Koppel attacks it here. Both deal with the objectivity issue, and debate it here. It seems that appeals to objectivity are seen by the partisan as a dog whistle for allowing false equivalence of views, mostly by the right. I do not think that it must be a dog whistle of that kind. The right have debased a lot of ideas lately (as the left have in their turn, or do I really need to mention Brave New World and 1984?), but that doesn’t mean the ideas themselves are false in consequence. That is a well known fallacy – several in fact.
To summarise: Rosen’s epistemology implicitly denies that knowledge can be had. He may claim not to be relativistic, but I fail to see how he can avoid it if he really thinks that reportage is all about opinion. Given that he doesn’t believe he is a relativist (and neither do I), I think that he cannot give unqualified support for the View from Somewhere.