Try something different: Objectivity

Rupert Murdoch, the international media mogul, is trying to buy The Wall Street Journal, and Bill Moyers of PBS is scared to death, not to mention angry.

Murdoch, he said in a diatribe on his TV show, is “to propriety what the Marquis de Sade was to chastity. When it comes to money and power, he is carnivorous, all appetite, no taste. He’ll eat anything in his path …”

Moyers went on to tell us that the Journal is one of the best newspapers in the country, that Murdoch is someone who uses journalism “as a personal spittoon,” and that we ought to think twice about letting “massive conglomerates” buy “local outlets” because, after all, they don’t use their First Amendment rights to check “excesses of private and public power.”

Moyers, in other words, wants to protect liberty by denying it — if there are those who do not bow before your expectations, enclose their rights with new laws. He might want to think twice about that, because people of a different sensibility just could urge a similar mechanism to pick on people he likely approves of, such as Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times.

Sulzberger, as a young man, once engaged in an argument with his father about the Vietnam War, according to a widely repeated story in the New Yorker. Asked whether he would rather an American or Vietnamese soldier be killed if the two came across each other, the son is said to have responded, “I would want to see the American get shot. It’s the other guy’s country; we shouldn’t be there.”

You might dismiss that extremity as the thoughtlessness of youth were it not for the adamantly ideological way in which Sulzberger has guided his paper. As another New Yorker article has recently pointed out, he exercises his control less visibly than Murdoch through what editors he puts in place, but still gets what he wants. A Times ombudsman once conceded that the paper’s stories on such matters as environmental protection and gun control were one-sided and liberal. Look at some of its coverage of politics — especially the last presidential election — and you can’t help but notice a decided bias.

Murdoch could be equally damaging to The Wall Street Journal, and maybe worse. He has said he would avoid playing politics with the paper’s content as he rescues it from financial travails, but his history is contrary to the promise, if not so dreadfully awful as Moyers would have you believe. The paper’s union is against the possible purchase, and those on the editorial page aren’t happy about the prospect, either. The writers and editors in that section may fear that even if it is conservative and Murdoch is as well on many issues, they would be subject more to whim than principle.

What some may not know is that the paper is not through-and-through conservative; its news content ventures into opinion sometimes, and is more liberal than not. Here we come to an answer far better than that of Moyers.

American journalism needs to get back to the idea of objectivity, which came into being partly for commercial reasons, but also for high-minded reasons, following the halcyon days of the partisan press. Cynics say objectivity in hard news reporting is an impossibility, but so is any ideal considered as an absolute. In getting at the facts and how they are to be strung together in coherent fashion, the job of the professional journalist in a mainstream newspaper is to be more like an impartial referee than a fan, and it’s simply false to suppose this can’t be done. It’s done all the time — in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and every other mainstream American paper, if not consistently and far from perfectly. Opinion in the press is important, too, but should be kept apart from news.

Our democracy will not disappear if we return to a partisan press, as we seem to be doing, but it will suffer grievously if people feel they have no place to find reliable information. Surveys indicate a majority of Americans have already come to feel that way. A return to stern objectivity standards would go far toward taming such people as Murdoch and Sulzberger without betraying freedom.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)


  1. Sandra Price

    I agree with Ambrose that we must return to stern objectivity standards which is the only way to keep our freedoms clean and strong. The Wall Street Journal should never slip into the mode of Fox News. I don’t know how this can be stopped legally. We have a free press and we cannot put limits to its ownership. Only the people can refuse to buy a slanted point of view and the people clearly support Fox News.

    If we see the Journal turn right over wrong, we need another newspaper that stays firmly objective. It’s an on-going problem facing all American news sources.


    We need to have a non-profit news to counter the endless pandering and lies of the profit media. Murdock just lowered the whole establishment to a lower level of pandering. He is the Hearst of his time. Some sort of Murdock filth would have come along at one time or another. It is the rotten institutions that elevate such filth.

    John Hanks, Laramie, Wyoming

  3. RSW

    While it’s nice to have, non-profit news is not always what it seems. In Minnesota, for example, we have the MPR network run by the Kling dynasty. Mr. Kling has controlled Minnesota Public Radio since it’s early day founding as a radio station of St. John’s University near St. Cloud. In those days, there was little public funding. Funding grew, allowing MPR to branch out, locating in St. Paul and other cities. To date, it has swallowed many of the small college stations (public radio, if you will), including it’s only competition in the classical music genre, WCAL, whose programming was, in my opinion, much more complete.

    MPR does some strange editing with NPR’s Morning Edition. It’s local news seems to have enough corporate and foundation backing so that it panders to those interests; its political coverage panders to those and government interests for the most part. This amounts to a controlled news outlet. If this is any indication, I doubt that small, if any, differences would be noticed by non-profit news making, though it would be nice if it worked.

    MPR used to carry Pacifica, and, if I’m not mistaken, was involved with the buy out attempt a few years ago. Pacifica was dropped by them. This pattern applies to many fine programs that MPR used to carry. I could go on and on, but I don’t spend much time with them anymore, and my facts could get messy.

    There is a community station with progressive roots in the Twin Cities area (KFAI). This station has not been swallowed up by corporate interests yet, but it has some corporate sponsoring, including Clear Channel, which I find perturbing. This station carries Pacifica. It also carries Democracy Now (which gets some CIA funding dispersed through front foundations). It has developed a relatively good local news coverage over the years. There are good college stations as well, though it’s difficult to know who listens to them, and what, if any, original news of community or state wide concern is presented by them.


  4. allan hirsh

    mr. hirsh:
    When I was a kid, the NY Post was as liberal as any paper in the country. The film and stage critics were class; even the sports. Sports is still good.

  5. Wayne K Dolik

    Mr. Ambrose fails to remark on the real failings of the consolidated corporate press of today. Since the press has been corporative, most of the real investigative journalists have been summarily unemployed. Making matters worse than ever, is that the news is no longer news. It’s entertainment now. There’s so much ‘fluff” on TV and in print it makes me want to puke!

    Back in the good old days when Ted Turner owned CNN it used to be a decent source of news. Of Course we all know what happened to CNN after corporate raiders stole it from Ted Turner. Michael Moore really made his point with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when he accused CNN and Blitzer over CNN’s lack of investigative qualities in the war on Iraq. Moore accused CNN of a lack of investigative journalism for years! Moore went on to critize CNN’s Dr. Gupta’s lack of fact checking in regards to medical statistics.

    Today’s news works hand and hand with the other two entities the Government and Special Interests. They get the words and repeat them after running them through spell check. They are as loyal to the First Amendment as Bush is to the Constitution. Mr. Ambrose only scratches the surface in his fluffy little article.


    I agree that there are major problems with non-profits, particularly when they are run to profit standards. A friend of mine calls NPR, National Pentagon Radio. Still, the profit racket just makes it that much harder to get any leverage at all. Air America is a good example of how the exception proves the rule sometimes, mainly because of its high liberal standards opposed by filthy conservative ones.

    John Hanks, Laramie, Wyoming