Judgment and objectivity in media
Kevin Drum examines the notion of journalistic objectivity via cap-and-trade:
The biggest difference between the two cap-and-trade plans, of course, is that Obama seems to actually believe in his proposal whereas McCain pretty plainly doesn’t. For him, it’s just window dressing that would almost certainly have been forgotten as soon as he got in office.
But how do you get that across? I’m pretty sure I’m right about this, but I certainly can’t prove it. And any straight news reporters who took my line would (rightfully) be accused of massive bias. They could work around this by quoting other people on McCain’s priorities and making clear that the GOP base hates cap-and-trade and would fight it, and then hoping that readers got the point. But maybe readers would and maybe they wouldn’t. And if they didn’t, the story would be fundamentally flawed.
Exactly. As I see it, I don’t have any unique advantage as a reporter, any special inside sources or privileged location (I’m in Seattle for eff’s sake). Mainly I just read and talk and think about this stuff more than
normal other people. It’s my job to pay attention.
People who are paying attention noticed that Obama has held steady to his original, ambitious green proposals while McCain has slowly morphed into a Cheney clone, focused obsessively on fossil fuels and nuclear power. He’s a "coal booster" now, drill baby drill. What are the chances a guy who won on that platform would impose a serious, mandatory carbon cap, over the active and passive resistance of a skein of Republican functionaries and donors connected in one way or another to industries that would be heavily impacted? Even if he passed it, McCain’s cap-and-trade program is fatally weak — it allows 100% of compliance through offsets for the first several years, which amounts to delay.
This is information that seems relevant to my readers. If I pass it along am I being "objective"? Well, I believe it to be objectively true — that is, true regardless of what I or anyone else happens to think about it — based on the available evidence.
I won’t say there’s no meaningful distinction between "objective" fact and "subjective" opinion — obviously there are clear cases on either side. There’s also a large gray mush in the middle, and the places where mainstream journalists draw the lines are arbitrary and contingent. Why is it objective to say that coal is cheap but subjective to say that coal harmful? These things aren’t written in stone and it’s the job of people writing for a living never to accept the landscape they inherit at face value.