Revisiting the View from Nowhere

Back in the day, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was known as the “most trusted man in America.” It was the highest praise a journalist could get because, at its core, the relationship between a journalist and his or her audience is nothing without trust.

A friend of mine in the TV news business told me the other day that the emphasis has shifted. Now it is more important for viewers to like the announcer than to trust him or her. That’s one reason that anchors in local news seem so darned friendly and nice. (Another reason is that they are friendly and nice.)

Aren’t the trust and likability two sides of the same coin? If you like someone, doesn’t that lead to trusting him? No. I like Bill Clinton but don’t trust him. I like Bill O’Reilly, but don’t trust him, either. When I was in college, I liked a lot of people who were entertaining and fun to be around. But I only trusted a few.

For most of the time I was editor of a newspaper, we emphasized trustworthiness. We asked questions about it on annual surveys. We created action plans to improve our trust ratings. It was a big deal. Being liked? Being liked wasn’t important. When you’re writing about topics that made some readers uncomfortable — same-sex marriage, to take a recent example — likability wasn’t in the cards. Did Woodward and Bernstein worry about being liked when the Republic was at stake? (Remember the look on Bernstein’s face in the movie “All the President’s Men” when Woodward told a source that he was a Republican?) Anyway, how can you worry about being liked when you take it as a creed to afflict the comfortable?

That’s one reason why I clung to the “View from Nowhere.” My thought, along with many traditionalists, was that if we’re straight down the middle, then readers couldn’t fault us for being unfair. (That didn’t work, of course. Many readers did accuse us of being biased.) It was easier, too, in many ways.

But if you believe that viewers — and presumably readers — prefer journalists they like, then perhaps it’s time to drop the View from Nowhere. Perhaps it’s time for the journalists to establish their authority in a different way. Letting people know where you stand may well make them like you and, eventually, trust you. From Jay Rosen, the NYU professor who champions challenging the journalistic View from Nowhere:  “If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it.”

It is too late for me, dammit, to challenge the View from Nowhere in a newsroom. But it’s not too late for you to experiment with it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, either.

Jay, again: “Let some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality, which has advantages for cultivating sources and soothing advertisers. Let others experiment with transparency as the basis for trust. When you click on their by-line it takes you to a disclosure page where there is a bio, a kind of mission statement, and a creative attempt to say: here’s where I’m coming from (one example) along with campaign contributions, any affiliations or memberships, and–I’m just speculating now–a list of heroes and villains, or major influences, along with an archive of the work, plus anything else that might assist the user in placing this person on the user’s mattering map.”

Lex Alexander proposed this approach years ago, and I didn’t pay him much attention. (Sorry, Lex, for my short-sightedness.) But you can be smarter than I was. Besides, given the media’s low trust rating and newspapers’ declining circulation nunbers, what do you have to lose?

Am I making too much of a leap that crashing the View from Nowhere will improve likability and then lead to increased trust? I don’t think so. Try this experiment: Google “most trusted man in America.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.

If your filter bubble is like mine, Cronkite’s name comes up on five of the first 10 links. Jon Stewart, a funny, likable faux newsman, a guy who explodes the View from Nowhere, comes up with four.

And that’s the way it is.

5 thoughts on “Revisiting the View from Nowhere

  1. As an early blogger (2002) and proud member of the Reality-Based Community(tm) and the Dirty Fucking Hippies(tm), I took to blogging because I was sick of, and no longer trusted the Corporate Media (Let ’em get their own damned trademark).

    Impartiality was not, and is not the problem. The problem was/is “impartial” reporting that is actually journalism by stenography. The media decided at some point that impartiality meant “all views are valid”, which is not the freakin’ truth and never has been. A journalists job is to:

    1) Report what people say or events happen.

    2) Sort fact from opinion and label them as such.

    3) Understand that when politicians/corporate spokesman “like” you, you have failed at your job.

    The most recent example I can cite of this is the whole “birther” issue.

    Obama’s place of birth is not a subjective opinion, it is an empirical FACT. People who say otherwise should be reported on in the way people who believe in Big Foot are reported on, i.e. we should hear about them in an initial report of the “controversy”, the allegation is then investigated and debunked, after which we never hear about them again outside the pages of the Weekly World News (yes, I know it is defunct, and so should reporting on these insane people).

    Being liked has killed journalism (well, that is one of the causes, I could name several others, but will save that for another day). You will note that political bloggers don’t care if they are liked. Those of us with any credibility live and die on how we factually back up our views and analysis.

    Every reporter should be tattooed on one hand “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts!”, and “Context is everything on the other”.

    And to address your last point, I would say that Stewart is trusted because he is telling the truth, and happens to be likable because he is a comedian. Stewart is in many ways a true journalist since he does present both sides of an argument, then reports the facts in context. Stewart has no political agenda, he has a comedy agenda, and politicians fall over themselves every day providing him with material.

    Stewart will never write a “news” story that quotes unnamed sources, without pointing out how farcial that is and how these people have an agenda/axe to grind. He is not afraid to ask the “wrong” questions when some scumbag pol stumbles onto his show, clueless to what it is all about. (I might add that Stephen Colbert is much more unmerciful with guests than Stewart. Colbert helps them tie the noose around their neck and select the right height for the chair).

    Today’s “beltway reporters” won’t ask rude questions since if they do they won’t be called on at news conferences or get invites to cocktail parties. They are WAY overpaid, and now have more in common with the elites in power than the public they purport to serve.

    For me, journalism died the day Matt Drudge claimed to be a journalist and every reporter in the country did not descend upon him and kick his ass to Mars and back.

    We are known for the company we keep.

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