Michael Schudson on the rise of modern objectivity
What we might call modern analytical and procedural fairness dates to the 1920s. Analytical fairness had no secure place until journalists as an occupational group developed loyalties more to their audiences and to themselves as an occupational community than to their publishers or their publishers’ favored political parties. At this point journalists also came to articulate rules of the journalistic road more often and more consistently. The general manager of the Associated Press, Kent Cooper, announced his creed in 1925: ‘The journalist who deals in facts diligently developed and intelligently presented exalts his profession, and his stories need never be colorless or dull’ (Gramling, 1940: 314). Newspaper editors formed their own national professional association for the first time in 1922–23, the American Society of Newspaper Editors. At their opening convention, they adopted a Code of Ethics or ‘Canons of Journalism’ that included a principle of ‘Sincerity, Truthfulness, Accuracy’ and another of ‘Impartiality,’ the latter including the declaration, ‘News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind’ (Pratte, 1995: 206).
This newly articulate fairness doctrine was related to the sheer growth in newsgathering; rules of objectivity enabled editors to keep lowly reporters in check, although they had less control over high-flying foreign correspondents. Objectivity as ideology was a kind of industrial discipline; a Weberian condition was at work. At the same time, objectivity seemed a natural and progressive ideology for an aspiring occupational group at a moment when science was god, efficiency was cherished, and increasingly prominent elites judged partisanship a vestige of the tribal 19th century. (Purcell, 1973) Here Durkheimian affiliation was a factor promoting the articulation of a norm of objectivity.
Another Durkheimian condition was also at stake: journalists not only sought to affiliate with the prestige of science, efficiency, and Progressive reform but they sought to disaffiliate from the public relations specialists and propagandists who were suddenly all around them. Journalists had rejected parties only to find their new-found independence besieged by a squadron of information mercenaries available for hire by government, business, politicians, and others. Early in the 20th century, efforts multiplied by businessmen and government agencies to place favorable stories about themselves in the press. A new ‘profession’ of public relations emerged and got a great boost from President Woodrow Wilson’s attempt in the First World War to use public relations to sell the war to the American public. The war stimulated popular public relations campaigns for war bonds, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the YMCA. By 1920, one journalism critic noted, there were nearly a thousand ‘bureaus of propaganda’ in Washington modeled on the war experience. Figures circulated among journalists that 50 percent or 60 percent of stories even in The New York Times were inspired by press agents. The new Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia was churning out more graduates for the PR industry than for the newspaper business. The publicity agent, philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1929, ‘is perhaps the most significant symbol of our present social life’ (Dewey, 1930: 43; Schudson, 1978: l2l–59).11
Journalists grew self-conscious about the manipulability of information in the propaganda age. They felt a need to close ranks and assert their collective integrity in the face of their close encounter with the publicity agents’ unembarrassed effort to use information (or misinformation) to promote special interests. When Joseph Pulitzer endowed the School of Journalism at Columbia (in 1904 although classes did not begin until 19l3), he declared that he wanted to ‘raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession’. By the 1920s, it seemed to at least some of the more intellectual-minded advocates of journalistic professionalism, that this meant a scrupulous adherence to scientific ideals. ‘There is but one kind of unity possible in a world as diverse as ours’, Walter Lippmann wrote. ‘It is unity of method, rather than of aim; the unity of the disciplined experiment.’ He wanted to upgrade the professional dignity of journalists and provide a training for them ‘in which the ideal of objective testimony is cardinal’ (Lippmann, 1920: 67, 82).
Nothing was more threatening to this ideal than the work of public relations. ‘Many reporters today are little more than intellectual mendicants’, complained political scientist Peter Odegard in 1930, ‘who go from one publicity agent or press bureau to another seeking “handouts” ’ (Odegard, 1930: 132). Just before the First World War, New York newspaper editor Don Seitz assembled a list of l400 press agents for the American Newspaper Publishers Association, distributed the list to ANPA members, and urged them not to accept material for publication from any of them. But this was a losing battle and by 1926 he complained that the Pulitzer School of Journalism ‘turns out far more of these parasites than it does reporters’ (Seitz, 1926: 2l0).12He may have been right. By the time sociologist Leila Sussmann wrote her dissertation on public relations in 1947, her survey of some 600 public relations agents found that three-quarters of them had worked as newspaper journalists before turning to public relations (Sussmann, 1947: 87).
At this point – the 1920s – the objectivity norm became a fully formulated occupational ideal, part of a professional project or mission. Far more than a set of craft rules to fend off libel suits or a set of constraints to help editors keep tabs on their underlings, objectivity was finally a moral code. It was asserted in the textbooks used in journalism schools, it was asserted in codes of ethics of professional associations. By the 1930s, publishers would use the objectivity norm as a weapon against unionization in the newsroom (how could a reporter be ‘objective’ if he joined the Newspaper Guild?) – the Weberian condition of social control inside the organization gave publishers reason to promote the objectivity norm even if they had done little or nothing to invent it (Schudson, 1978: l56–7).13
From Michael Schudson, "The objectivity norm in American
journalism" Journalism Vol. 2(2): 149–170