Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who revealed National Security Agency surveillance leaks from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, dueled this week with former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller over objectivity in journalism. Keller argued that impartiality forces a journalist to test all assumptions. Greenwald, however, countered that impartiality didn’t test assumptions as much as confer authority to each of them. He explained that his new reporting venture, a website funded by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar, would treat official pronouncements with skepticism.
But while this argument has been taking up a lot of the journalistic oxygen, Paul Thornton, head of the Los Angeles Times letters to the editor section, weighed in recently with a potentially more significant position. Thornton held brief for neither impartiality nor skepticism, but rather for a belief that facts matter — that they can lead to conclusions whether you happen to like those conclusions or not.
Thornton admitted that in his section, he does not run letters claiming there is no human source to global climate warming. Why don’t they run? Because, according to Thornton, “Saying ‘There’s no sign humans have caused climate change’ is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”
It should have been the journalistic shot heard ‘round the world, except not many people seem to have heard it. Get this: An editor at a major American newspaper had the temerity to say that on some issues there is such a thing as scientifically verifiable truth. In doing so, he challenged what may be the dominant force in American journalism over the past 30 years — not bias, but that standby of certain university English departments, deconstructionism, which insists there is no such thing as an immutable fact.
An editor championing truth over opinions shouldn’t be an earthquake. But it is. Journalistic extremes have long disregarded fact for ideology. However the bulwarks of American journalism — our mainstream newspapers, websites, magazines, and network news broadcasts — have opted for another principle: Every opinion, no matter how uninformed, deserves equal weight — and journalists dare not come down on one side or the other. It makes balance the new objectivity.