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Lou Dobbs Challenges The Great Objectivity Scam

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CBS 60 Minutes' piece on Lou Dobbs last night told us a lot more about traditional journalism's biases than it did Dobbs' on any given issue he covers. Throughout the interview, CBS correspondent Leslie Stahl (who I actually think is quite a decent reporter) seems appalled at the entire concept of "advocacy" journalism, essentially asserting that a reporter having any opinion whatsoever offends the Principles of Journalism sent down from Mt. Olympus. Not only does her surprise display a stunning lack of basic education about the history of the very journalism profession she works in (Leslie - please google the terms "muckraker" and "penny press"), her own 60 Minutes piece about Dobbs displays her own very subjective opinions. The only difference is that while Dobbs is honest and admits to his biases, Stahl - and other traditional journalists - mask their very subjective world views in the veneer of objectivity, making their own advocacy far more devious than Dobbs could ever be.

Take, for instance, this line in the 60 Minutes piece, delivered as an authoritative, nonpartisan, objective fact:

"Dobbs is full of contradictions: he's pro-abortion rights, but against gun control; a fiscal conservative who supports government regulation."

Stahl would have us believe that believing the consistent libertarianism inherent in the dual beliefs that government shouldn't dictate decisions between a woman and her doctor nor decisions about who should own a gun is a "contradiction." She would also have us believe that being a fiscal conservative (aka. for less government spending and balanced budgets) is a "contradiction" for someone who supports government regulation (aka. consumer protections, environmental laws, etc.). She offers no proof of these claims. Factually, of course, they are absurd, meaning at best such claims are Stahl's own (very odd) opinions. Yet, her opinion is portrayed as non-partisan objective fact akin to stating that water is wet.

Same thing with the entire frame of the piece. Stahl decides to focus almost the entire piece on Dobbs' crusade against illegal immigration, to the exclusion of the other major issues Dobbs covers, such as free trade, job outsourcing, corporate crime and America's narcotics problem. While it is certainly true that illegal immigration has been an important and controversial issue for Dobbs, Stahl would have us believe that is the only thing Dobbs really covers, when in fact one of the most important stories about the rise of Lou Dobbs Tonight is its position as the only show on corporate-owned television that consistently questions Corporate America on a whole host of economic issues. But because that's not what's interesting in Stahl's personal opinion (or, perhaps, that's not a topic area that's looked on kindly at the Viacom-owned CBS network), the 60 Minutes piece is framed narrowly to create a distorted picture.

This Great Objectivity Scam - the assumption that traditional reporting is automatically "objective" while advocacy journalism is automatically not - joins other omniscient and equally dishonest Establishment-backed assumptions like the Great Education Myth and the Great Labor Shortage Lie that I have written about in the past. In the same way we all laugh at Fox News's claim to being "fair and balanced," we all know that there simply is no such thing as real "objectivity" - even in the highest echelons of Establishment journalism. From the moment a writer starts reporting a story, their subjective opinions on what is and is not important are affecting their stories.

You can see it at the media-wide level, below merely the most brazen examples of typical Beltway-centric, power-worshiping bias, and down near the more root foundation of editorial decisions. For example, most of the Beltway press makes a subjective decision to focus much of its attention on "stories" about haircut prices and campaign plane gossip rather than on real issues that affect millions of Americans. Such a decision is not "objective" - it's the personal preference of lazy reporters who don't feel like doing real "reporting"; opportunistic editors who know that such topic areas require a minimum amount of expense and labor; and biased media owners who often have a financial stake in making sure major issues such as corporate power and kitchen table economics are not covered.

You can also see this subjectivity on the individual story level, where, for instance, trade reporters have refused to ask basic questions about Corporate America's hypocrisy in pushing to stop unions from demanding enforcement of labor laws at the same time business wants to be able to legally demand enforcement of intellectual property laws. Apparently, these reporters feel that asking such questions are either unimportant or unacceptable - but the decision not to ask such questions when the issue is front and center during what could be the most important trade negotiations in a generation is a decision that flies in the face of objectivity.

Regardless of how you feel about Lou Dobbs or his positions on given issues, at least he's not trying to pretend he has no opinions. You know where he's coming from, and he doesn't try to hide it. I'd say that's far more straightforward than many traditional reporters, who are equally as opinionated, only less honest about the fact that they are often pushing a very subjective agenda.

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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)

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