Ed Yong has a great blog post up asking Should science journalists take sides? He rightly answers: yes, “a commitment to the view from nowhere has many problems.” Among those problems, this opinions-on-shape-of-earth-differ style is “a disservice to journalism,” reflective of “laziness” and “a poor understanding of one’s audience,” and a sign of “naiveté” among journalists who adopt the pose. It can force writers to make “ethical breaches.” Lastly, he notes that it derives from – and more importantly contributes to – a “failure to understand the nature of science.”
Other bloggers have rightly praised his post, but I want to make one quibble. “Science journalism,” Yong writes, “is a fundamentally different beast to, say, political reporting. Here, there is an objective truth.” But politics must rest on objective truth, as well, and science reporting can shade into discussions of policy implications where objective truth is elusive.
More importantly, political reporters had this debate, learned the value of speaking truth, and then forgot that when people figured out they could buy things with money.
I’m reminded of this by a passing line in Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s excellent Merchants of Doubt. They write about how Edward R. Murrow bought into the tobacco industry’s insistence that “facts are not established and must be sought by scientific means such as the research activities the Tobacco Industry Research Committee will support.” Oreskes and Conway note that Murrow made his bones in journalism by being willing to take sides, that he rose to prominence during World War II because saw no need to “balance Hitler against Churchill.”
What a line! What truth! And it gets better.
Because searching for the source of the quotation, we get the exact debate Ed Yong is wading into, recapitulated in 1940s political journalism. Here’s the relevant passage from David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be:
His was a unique coming. No other broadcast journalist would ever again accumulate the prestige both inside and outside the company that Murrow had. There were many reasons for this: part of it was that it was all so new, radio broadcasting so experimental, that he proved to be so good and the story proved to be so big that there were not a lot of complicated internal systems to keep him down and limit him. Indeed, it was quite the reverse, as his comet ascended, so too did that of CBS; he took CBS with him, the network was the direct beneficiary of his excellence; he was, at the start, bigger than the network. So there was little desire to restrain him, to keep him within the narrow limits of objectivity, in part because of the very nature of the war he was covering. It was not the Vietnam War. It was not something complicated and divisive; rather it was seen as the story of the survival of Western civilization, the most heroic of all possible wars and stories. He was indeed reporting on the survival of the English-speaking peoples. A commentator who went as far as Murrow and who wholeheartedly supported the cause of the democracies (and who did not balance Hitler against Churchill) did not offend his audience or any large part of his audience; rather he came to symbolize and embody the passions of that audience. When it was all over, he was in his own way as much a hero and a personage of that epic era as Eisenhower himself. There was during those great years no need to see the German perspective, to report what the isolationists felt; journalists simply trusted their own intelligence and instincts (Murrow, appalled in later years by growing pressure to balance out viewpoints for the sake of an artificial fairness, compared this to balancing the views of Jesus Christ with those of Judas Ischariot).
(Source. Emphasis added).
What does this tell us? First, that a new and experimental medium is more amenable to this sort of honest reporting. Second, that doing so still requires a heroic stand, and a willingness to declare oneself solidly in one camp and not in another. What killed CBS News, and much broadcast TV and radio journalism, was the realization that you could save a lot of money and attract a lot of viewers by being balanced around certain topics, by being sensationalist, and by running puffy “news you can use.”
Blogs rose up as a reaction against the bogus pseudo-objectivity and general uselessness of early 21st century journalism. They had everything Halberstam describes about early radio reporting, and everything that proponents of New Journalism had in the 1960s. But bloggers are discovering that there’s money to be made in expanding one’s audience, and that even-keeled, thoughtful, discursive pieces that pop people’s bubbles might not be the best path to fame and fortune. Ed is fighting the good fight, and I hope he and other pioneers of this new sort of journalism will succeed, and find a way to save blogging, and science journalism, from Murrow’s fate.