Partisans of all stripes accept as unproblematic the distinction between “reporting” and “editorializing,” or “journalism” and “commentary.”
In so doing, they accept as unproblematic the more fundamental distinction between “fact” and “opinion,” “knowledge” and “belief,” or “objectivity” and “bias.” But is that sound?
Even a slight familiarity with the history of philosophy reveals the problem with that assumption.
While philosophers from around the globe and throughout the ages may have agreed on relatively little, they agreed that every claim to knowledge presupposes an epistemology, a philosophy of knowledge.
What’s the difference between knowledge and belief? Is there a difference? Are “knowledge” and “fact” synonymous terms? If so, how so? If not, then what is the difference between them? What exactly is a “fact?” What exactly is an “opinion,” and does it differ from a “fact?” If so, how so? Is there a way to objectively determine that something is a fact, as opposed to being an opinion? If so, what is this way? If not, then how can we differentiate facts from opinions? For that matter, what does “objectivity” mean? Is objectivity possible? If not, then are we forever destined to be trapped within our own subjective ranges of experience? Are facts separate, atomized entities in the world, propositions designed to correspond to reality, or are they always and only dependent upon the theories that suppose them? What is truth? Can we ever have knowledge of the truth? If so, how so?
These are the kinds of epistemological questions to which philosophers of knowledge have been devoting their attention for as long as philosophy has been on the world scene.
At the very least, though, and regardless of the specific responses that they’ve submitted to these queries, previous thinkers, unlike today’s scribblers and chatterboxes, at least have recognized these problems had to be addressed. They realized that the line between, say, fact and opinion is scarcely the hard and fast one that current political rhetoric would have us believe.
Some have insisted that there is no line, that every “fact” is only ever an item in a theory, and that what makes it a “fact” is not that it corresponds to the features of some allegedly objective reality but that it coheres with the other claims of the theory. Supposed “facts” are relative to the frameworks of thought that assert them.
In drawing attention to these perennial conflicts between philosophers, it is not my intention to side with any of them. Rather, the point is threefold:
First, the distinction between journalism and commentary, reporting and editorializing, is not self-explanatory, for the more basic distinction upon which it depends is not self-explanatory.
Second, given this last, it follows that the distinction between journalism and commentary needs to be justified.
Third, in order to justify it, we must first contend with at least some of the epistemological issues with which philosophers have grappled for millennia.
While we should confront these issues, most people—particularly those regarded as journalists and commentators—are evidently unwilling to do so. Nor is it difficult to understand why.
The distinction has served well the interests of the media and political classes. Those regarded as “commentators,” like Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow, can (and have) dodged legal challenges to some of their commentary by insisting that they never purported to be “journalists”—i.e. figures to whom the public turns for “news,” by which is meant “objective” reporting and analysis of events. Conversely, those regarded as “straight news” anchors and reporters can and regularly do exploit this perception as a veneer behind which to advance their own biases—a phenomenon that has been so amply documented that it is a matter of stating the obvious at this juncture.
Still, it should be a no-brainer that the line between journalism and commentary, while politically and perhaps even socially useful, can never be anything other than blurry at best. At worst, it scarcely exists.
Journalists are human beings who are finite and inescapably ridden with biases. Some biases may be more or less reasonable than those of others, for sure. Some biases may even be true beliefs. Still, the kind of “God’s eye view” implied by the popular notion that so-called “journalists” are, or are supposed to be, “objective” promises to be elusive for as long as human beings inhabit this life.
Second, human language, reflecting as it does the limitations of the human condition, is a messy phenomenon: Ridden as it is with a seemingly endless supply of terms and phrases that are emotionally laden—terms that are connotative in meaning, no less than denotative—language is awash in imprecision and ambiguity. In fact, it is recognition of the constraints, intricacies, and open-textured nature of language that, in the 19th century, provoked mathematicians and logicians to develop what would be called “symbolic,” “propositional,” or “mathematical” logic. This is an algebraic calculus that was designed to serve as a purer language composed exclusively of symbols. It was an attempt to rid our understanding of all of the vagueness and ambiguity with which words are saddled.
Bearing these considerations in mind, it should be clear that while journalists can try to be as honest and fair as possible, they—or, rather, their employers—ultimately decide what constitutes not only an event worth reporting upon, but the criteria for determining what constitutes an event per se. “Events,” after all, are not entities like cars that anyone can effortlessly identify in a parking lot. There is a significant sense in which events are constructed by the interests of the human beings who refer to them. In this respect, journalists are no different from historians.
It’s not that there aren’t happenings that unfold in the world. Of course, there are. But an “event” is something else, a happening or phenomenon rendered more intelligible, more concrete, by being situated within a narrative.
And a narrative, obviously, must be told by someone, a person or class of people who will differentiate their narrative, their story, from other possible narratives by way of the terms within which they decide to frame it. Conversely, the narrative’s authors will decide which terms not to employ in construing the events that they deem “newsworthy.”
Some narratives may be more plausible, more defensible than others. But a narrative, however tenable or not it may be, owes a considerable debt to human imagination, choice, bias.
Narratives are inherently selective, configured as much by the terms that they omit as by those by which they are expressed.
That commentators all too frequently masquerade as “journalists” is a charge that has been leveled against the media for quite some time. What this essay is meant to suggest is that perhaps it is impossible for things to be otherwise. Perhaps it is high time to reconsider whether the distinction between journalism and commentary just may be a fiction that, while serving the purposes of media and political elites, has harmed the rest of society.
We may need to consider whether this isn’t a fiction that needs to be exposed—and retired.