Postrel on Objectivity

I’d like to highlight Virginia Postrel’s recent remarks on objectivity, prompted by a new book co-authored by one of my old professors.

Reading the book, I began to understand why I’ve never embraced my own profession’s celebration of objectivity. Real objectivity would turn the journalist into a C-Span camera, simply recording data without any sort of selection or pattern-making. With all due respect to C-Span, good journalism in fact requires trained judgment: about what’s important, what’s interesting, what’s worth telling. Good journalism includes story telling and analysis, even in straight news stories and all the more in features or analytical pieces. Mistaking fairness or accuracy for “objectivity” only confuses journalists, their audiences, and their critics.

This strikes me as exactly right.

On a tangential note, I spent an evening earlier this week listening to a gathering of professionals from the worlds of finance, policy, and media offering their views of the broad economic picture: whither the global economy, etc. Though I felt very lucky to be there, I was struck by the tremendous bias towards crisis-thinking, i.e., the firm conviction that this time everything is really different, whereas all those other times everything was just the same. Somehow our moment is always the most spectacularly grim moment, as though no one believed much the same thing during the collapse of Bretton Woods or the Asian financial crisis or … you get the picture.

There was, with a few notable exceptions, a lack of historical perspective. Virtually every seemed to agree that the US government needs to, among other things, invest in increasing broadband penetration, as though leapfrog technologies aren’t already being developed that will make their proposed infrastructure investments obsolete in the near future. A handful of supposedly successful high-tech interventions were cited. The minitel was not. Several of the participants were very excited about capital budgeting, an idea that’s been promoted by left-populists for decades. Somehow they were convinced that bridges to nowhere will have no place in this revival of infrastructure, and I say this as someone who is pretty sympathetic. One German gentleman rued the lack of a single, coherent energy policy. The fact that the EU’s single, coherent energy policy is accelerating the destruction of rainforests across the Malay archipelago was of little concern. Apparently singleness and coherence are valuable for their own sake, and America is, as ever, going down the tubes.

And of course everyone thought they were being perfectly objective. No wish fulfillment here, folks!

I actually think there are some things that are pretty unusual about this historical moment. The threat of human-forced climate change is to my (unobjective) mind the most important. But let’s consider that humans are an unusually resilient species.