Photo: Michael Seto
Beyond Left And Right: It’s About RealityIn the wake of the news that The Huffington Post is joining up with AOL, much speculation has ensued about what this means for the future of our journalism. Given the spirit of engagement the HuffPost has fostered in just a few years, there is naturally some concern among the denizens of our Web community about the prospect of change — and what sort of change.
Much of the conjecture centres on decoding the meaning of a phrase much in vogue here, the idea that we are aiming to lift the conversation above left and right. As an editor who oversees the HuffPost’s business and economic coverage, I thought it might be useful to offer some thoughts on what this means to us and, just as important, what it emphatically does not mean: We are in no way seeking to retreat to the phony version of journalistic objectivity that pretends the truth always lies in the middle, between two generally exaggerated and intellectually-disingenuous extremes.
For far too long, the public has suffered under the tyranny of dueling narratives served up by one or another interest group seeking self-serving shortcuts around nuanced truths, all the while shortchanging the clarity of important debates about the biggest issues of the day — from health care reform to defence policy to education. Journalists have too often perpetuated the false notion that seemingly any issue can be cleanly divided into right and left, conservative and liberal, because these labels make our work simpler, supplying us with a handy structure we can impose at will on typically uncooperative facts.
Journalists so frequently deal in the false liberal-conservative dichotomy because it generates the sort of tension that feeds narrative, and narrative makes for more accessible stories. Simply dividing up he interests into two neatly-differentiated competing camps enables lazy beat reporters to claim to have painted all of reality with but two phone calls. Why venture outside and talk to ordinary people — whose experiences and views almost always challenge the traditional labels — when we can simply sit at our desks and dial up a D and then an R and gather a pair of quotes that supposedly cover the whole spectrum of the American take on anything?
Political hacks trade in the labels of right and left because it allows them to manipulate the public with shortcut phrases that demonize those in the other camp, making it easier to derail whatever initiative needs killing at the moment. Banking reform is neatly pilloried as a leftist assault on free enterprise by financial institutions intent on perpetuating corporate welfare policies. organised labour too sweepingly dismisses expanded trade — even foreign purchases of U.S. companies that create jobs for U.S. workers — while decrying the trend as part of a an assault from the right.
Time and again, we see how these sorts of divisions function as a divide-and-rule strategy, nearly always choreographed by one special interest or another, usually in the service of some piece of legislation that is really just an employment bill for lobbyists or a means of raising campaign cash for incumbents. These crude labels reinforce a sense of division that cuts off the great majority of Americans from their own non-special interests — the desire to work at a job that affords a decent living; to live in a decent home and secure health care; to educate their children, take a vacation every now and again, and eventually retire.
What we need now is an active journalism engaged in figuring out how to restore those basic middle-class aspirations, without getting sidetracked into tendentious debates about right versus left and which side is winning.
What do these labels really mean, anyway, and who gets to assign them, and for what aim? Does anyone not paid to traffic in such labels really subscribe to the notion that we are so easily divided? Take, for example, the need to create jobs. Who is the loser in this undertaking? labour unions — a supposedly liberal concern, and certainly a key source of campaign cash for Democrats — obviously benefit, but so do businesses both big and small, a slice of America that is supposedly part of the conservative core. When more people are earning paychecks and walking around with money to spend, that is good for retailers, for car dealers, for insurance companies, lawyers, short-order cooks and banks.
Who really wants businesses to suffer, as the anti-business label that gets thrown at self-identified progressives directly implies? Advocating that Wall Street banking giants ought to be reined in against risks that can trash the economy is not anti-business. Indeed, it is really pro-business, so long as we are not letting the financial lobby frame the terms of the argument. It is about making sure money flows to start-up companies whose new ideas can power the economy and create jobs. Who is for more bailouts of the financial system? Not liberals, who deride the socialisation of losses while private hands keep the profits; not conservatives or libertarians, who tend to champion a smaller role for government in the private sector.
Who loses if we launch a serious effort to build out U.S. infrastructure? This is a way to create jobs, to create orders for factory-made machinery, to spur innovation by modernizing schools, upgrading research laboratories, easing transportation via high-speed rail and more efficient roads and ports. Who is among the constituency that would lose out in the face of the additional economic growth that would emerge if we embrace infrastructure building?
To which one might be tempted to consider the debate over the federal budget deficit, because the refrain goes: We cannot afford infrastructure. Here is the classic right-left divide in which Keynesian progressives argue for more spending now and supposedly callous conservatives focus on simply slashing spending to balance the books. There are divisions here, genuine ideological disagreements about how to approach so many of these problems, and only a naif would dismiss that. But journalism that simply elucidates those differences and effectively perpetuates them with crude labels rather than helping find the way to good policy is failing to offer a vital public service.
No liberal with any integrity would argue that we can simply ignore the deficit and need not fear the potential consequences — higher interest rates, inflation, a debased dollar — if we merely carry on. No conservative engaged in the genuine pursuit of enlightened policy would claim that we can simply slash away at discretionary spending, make speeches about living within our means, and thereby solve our problems. For journalists, getting beyond left and right means not allowing the agenda to be set by interest groups that are clearly stumping for votes and air time on cable television at the expense of reality. It means airing out the constructive arguments and helping get us somewhere useful — a place in which the economy is growing and producing jobs, while we are credibly planning to pay off our burgeoning debts. It means not worrying so much about balancing up our stories with equal quotes from the dubious camps that frame our stories and putting the spotlight instead on basic truths.
Left versus right: These are overly-simplified labels that perpetuate division, and we ought not cater to them, because that amounts to lazy journalism. That is about who won the week, and who controls the conversation, as opposed to the much more difficult, nuanced and crucial questions that remain operative irrespective of phony ideological labels: How will we make the economy function again for the vast majority of Americans, for whom the last quarter-century has delivered downward mobility? How will we get our fiscal house in order while adding quality paychecks and making health care affordable? These are concerns that are common to nearly every household, regardless of ideology, and these are questions that must be pursued at face value, with good information, critical scrutiny and the pursuit of pragmatic policy.
But — and here comes a major but — ditching the bogus left-right frame is not about moving reflexively to the centre. It is rather a rejection of the very concept that left, right and centre are a good way to map the crucial debates of the day.
In the sort of journalism I am interested in practicing here, I want my reporters to reject the false idea that you simply poll people at both extremes of any issue, then paint a line down the middle and point to it as reality. We have to reject the tired notion that objectivity means the reader can get all the way to the bottom of the story and not know what to think. We do have to be objective in our journalism, but this does not mean we are empty vessels with no ideas of our own, and with no prior experiences that influence what we ultimately deliver: That is a fantasy, and an unhelpful one at that, because every time the reader discovers that personal values have indeed “intruded” into the copy, they experience another “gotcha” moment that undermines the credibility of serious journalism.
Rather, objectivity means that we conduct a fully open-minded inquiry. We do not begin our reporting with a fully-formed position. We do not adhere to the contentions of one think tank or political party or government organ as truth. We don’t write to please our friends or sources or interest groups. Rather, we do our own reporting, our own independent thinking, our own scrutinizing. But at the end of that process, we offer a conclusion, and transparently so, with whatever caveats are in order. We do not concern ourselves with how others may describe our place on the ideological spectrum, and we do not hold back when we know something, or lard up our journalism with disingenuous counter-quotes to cover ourselves against the charge that we staked out a position. As long as our process is pure, so is the work.
And this sort of objectivity is the real argument for diversity in newsrooms — the need to ensure that we have people in place who can tell a greater range of stories, so that we collectively see and understand the breadth of the American experience. You fill up a newsroom with Ivy League graduates who all know the same kind of people and go to the same parties and what you get is a constant reaffirmation of their view of the world. As the joke goes, news is what happened to your editor over the weekend. The only way to attack that is to put people at the keyboard who represent the full range of the society we are writing about. To really get beyond right and left means having a variety of voices in the newsroom and allowing those voices to say what they will, within the bounds of fact-based journalism.
The point is that no ideological position can be counted on to deliver the facts, and any journalism that loses track of this ultimately reduces itself to a version of propaganda. Verifiable truth is our master, the one element that does not change when a new party takes over in Washington, when a new fashion sweeps the country, or a fresh approach prevails on university campuses. We work for no one but the reader, and we are advocates only for pragmatic solutions to real problems. We pursue our reporting through the lens of actual human experience — a messy, internally-contradictory frame of reference that simply cannot be described by hackneyed labels like left and right. We are concerned with the real-life experiences of actual people, and these are things that simply refuse to be divided into false dichotomies.
Left and right are the props of the cynical class who use them to convey a sense of sophistication in place of the messy, difficult work of finding things out, uncovering truths and reckoning with social problems in their fullest human dimensions. We need to aim for better.
Peter S. Goodman is the business editor at the Huffington Post.