In eulogizing — and I use that word as loosely as possible — the death of President Richard Nixon in 1994, Hunter S. Thompson wrote:

“He was scum. Let there be no mistake in the history books about that. Richard Nixon was an evil man – evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it … Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism – which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place … You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.”

Many of the problems facing American journalism are structural. The emergence of 24-hour cable news channels and the explosion in online publishing have eroded newspapers’ traditional authority over “hard news.” People are consuming more news than ever before but, because news is more plentiful than it ever has been in the past, they are also less willing to pay for it. The consequence is that there are more arenas in which to publish journalism than ever before, even while making money doing so has become incredibly difficult.

But the most important problems facing American journalism are self-inflicted. Consider the notion of an “objective media.” In most senses of the word, objectivity refers to a lack of bias, meaning that journalists ought to report the “facts of the case” as closely and as accurately as they can. In most cases, however, that’s simply not a practical requirement. Most reporters have to cover such a breadth of topics that they cannot be expected to have expertise in each and every one of them, and they may not be able to discern what the true “facts of the case” actually are. With that in mind, journalists usually rely on a second, weaker sort of objectivity: simply reporting every point of view they can find on every issue.

These are not the same thing. A few weeks ago, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign aired a television ad in New Hampshire that included video footage of President Barack Obama, who claimed that, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” But that ad was a clear, if particularly audacious, lie-by-omission. The full, un-edited clip that the Romney campaign used showed Obama quoting a campaign adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose grim assessment of McCain’s chances in 2008 had been leaked to the New York Daily News. Romney’s advisors released a statement to the press conceding that the ad was misleading, but that disclaimer was not included in the ad itself, and thus, presumably, most of the ad’s New Hampshire audience would have taken it as a legitimate criticism of the administration.

With a truly objective press, the fallout from this flap would have been straightforward. Romney’s ad, even by the standards of political advertisements, was a lie. The objective press would have called it a lie, and Romney’s campaign would have suffered whatever backlash voters thought was appropriate. But we don’t have an objective press. We have a sort of objective press, which meant that reporters writing about this story had to outsource criticism to other sources. To wit, no reporters writing about the Romney ad said that Romney’s campaign had lied; they wrote that some Democrats claimed that the Romney campaign had lied. The distinction is subtle but powerful and reduces the lie in Romney’s ad to a difference in opinion between political parties rather than an objective reality.

The brilliance of Hunter S. Thompson’s political journalism was that his subjective, intensely emotional writing frequently got much closer to important truths than any of his objective counterparts in the traditional media. At the end of a year that has seen Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich claim the mantle of social conservatism among Iowa Republicans (Gingrich’s first wife, of three, was his high school geometry teacher; he divorced her while she was in the hospital fighting uterine cancer) and Michigan’s Democrat Sen. Carl Levin sponsor a bill that will give the White House the authority to put any American citizen it wants into indefinite military detention without trial, that’s a lesson worth remembering. Sometimes scum is scum, as painful as it may be to admit it.

Neill Mohammad can be reached at neilla@umich.edu.

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