Fresh on the heels of the release of his first book, On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News published by Harvard University Press, Professor Matthew Pressman was featured in Time magazine and Vanity Fair.
In Time, Pressman wrote a feature article entitled "Journalistic Objectivity Evolved the Way It Did for a Reason."
In the piece, Pressman traces the emergence of "objectivity" as an espoused value in journalism and draws parallels between the plight of journalists today with their predecessors in the 1960s.
A lying president. Political polarization tearing the country apart. Protest movements demanding an end to sexist and racist power structures. In such a climate, can journalists be expected to report the news objectively? Should they even try?
That's the dilemma that faced the American press in the late 1960s, and a parallel debate is playing out again today. Back then, objectivity survived — just barely — as the bedrock principle of American journalism, but this time the outcome may be different.
Although some people think objectivity is the press' natural mode, for most of American history newspapers were proudly partisan. Not until the 1920s did objectivity catch on as a professional ideal. A wave of newspapers mergers and closings (which would continue for the rest of the century) meant each city had fewer papers, and the surviving papers had to appeal to a broader swath of the public. Overt partisanship in the news pages would alienate large parts of the target audience.
Objectivity was far from perfect, though. As practiced in the 1940s and '50s, it turned journalists into stenographers: they simply reported what powerful people said and did, without providing context or analysis. As the famous radio commentator Elmer Davis noted in 1953, that kind of objectivity "lets the public be imposed on by the charlatan with the most brazen front."
In Vanity Fair, Pressman discusses war reporting, as portrayed in the newly-released movie, A Private War, which depicts the life of renowned correspondent Marie Colvin. Entitled "The Endangered Art of War Reporting Gets Its Much-Deserved Close-Up in A Private War," Pressman notes, however, "Of course, A Private War isn't simply the story of one fascinating individual. Like The Post and Spotlight, it's a demonstration of journalism's power and purpose."
There are three jobs that few journalists do, but nearly all journalists revere. Two of them have recently been the subject of critically acclaimed blockbuster films. Spotlight depicted local investigative reporting at its finest, and The Post showed journalists exposing the U.S. government's lies and misdeeds.
A Private War, out in limited release this week, aims to complete the trio with its portrayal of war reporting, as personified by the renowned correspondent Marie Colvin. Based on the 2012 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, A Private War shows the impact of Colvin's fearless work documenting the horrors of war, as well as the terrible toll it took on her—culminating in her death in Syria, in 2012, apparently a targeted killing by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Read Time magazine, "Journalistic Objectivity Evolved the Way It Did for a Reason."
Read more about Professor Matthew Pressman's book, On Press: The Liberal Values That Shaped the News, from Harvard University Press.
Read a review of the book, in which Politico's Jack Shafer refers to Pressman's "erudite" work as "an answer" to his "prayers."
Categories: Arts and Culture