Who is Marty Baron talking to?

What are we actually talking about when we talk about objectivity?
Alberto Ibarguen, President of The Knight Foundation, and Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, in a lunch plenary during the Knight Foundation's Media Learning Seminar 2017 held at the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay Hotel. The photo's focus is on Baron, with Ibarguen's back to the camera.
Knight Foundation / Flickr.

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Objectivity in journalism is a rickety thing. 

When arguing about it — against or for it — the definition and the way it’s implemented is always shifting. Many of the conversations about objectivity aren’t rooted in any serious desire for a discussion about how the word “objectivity” has been used to obfuscate racism, sexism, and transphobia in the newsrooms and the communities they cover. Instead, they’re often rooted in a reverence for a journalism that never existed. 

This is true for what former Washington Post Editor Marty Baron published in late March, a piece that “defends objectivity.” But there is a lack of clarity with Baron’s piece: Who is Baron arguing against?

Throughout the entire article, Baron doesn’t name a single critic of objectivity (see instead: “journalism professionals, encouraged and enabled by many in the academic world”). He instead says: “The true meaning of objectivity is not the straw man that is routinely erected by critics so that they can then tear it down.” 

Baron does give us some hints as to who and what he’s arguing against. He says some journalists believe themselves to be “moral authorities.” If that seems familiar, it’s because in 2020, Wesley Lowery wrote a piece for The New York Times calling for “moral clarity” in journalism. 

Lowery — who worked under Baron’s leadership at The Post and won a Pulitzer Prize — left after being mistreated by Baron and leadership at the paper. One of the key moments before Lowery’s departure was when Baron suggested Lowery “become an opinion writer, or work for an advocacy organization,” because he tweeted that the Tea Party in the 2010’s was “essentially a hysterical grassroots tantrum about the fact that a black guy was president?”

Relatedly, Baron, in his essay, goes on to say we should push back against “a madcap rush to social media soapboxes with spur-of-the-moment feelings or irrepressible snark and virtue signaling.” 

Baron says that the “true meaning of objectivity is not the straw man that is routinely erected by critics so that they can then tear it down.” But then he does the exact same thing: suggesting that some serious journalists want to “pre-cook” stories before reporting them. But who is arguing for this? What critique of objectivity is arguing against rigorous fact-finding?

When Lowery calls for “moral clarity” in journalism, he never argues against the merits or values behind fact-finding and rigor. When Lowery critiques how objectivity is often used to ignore the viewpoints of Black journalists and instead favor the perspective of white journalists, Baron seems to agree.

No serious journalist is arguing against the core of the objectivity Baron is describing — “thorough and open-minded research.”

The entire piece boils down to two things: Baron is talking at, not to, Lowery. And he is either making up arguments against objectivity or obfuscating what many other journalists, not just Lowery, have actually said. They are not in conversation because they are not talking about the same thing.

What is frustrating is how Baron doesn’t really engage with Lowery’s piece or with numerous journalism organizations that are reimagining journalism — instead choosing to address a seemingly nonexistent issue. Baron says “Objectivity’s detractors note, with merit, that American media have been dominated by White males” and that “Historically, the experiences of women, people of color and other marginalized populations have not been adequately told — or told at all.”

But if he wanted to have a serious conversation about the way the word “objectivity” has been used to diminish and harm others, in the newsroom and outside of it, then he would have started there. Instead, we’re just left with a question: Who is Marty Baron talking to?  

This piece originally came from The Front Page, our twice-monthly newsletter on that examines systems of power and inequity in journalism. Subscribe here.

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