In his recent piece “The GOP has become a party of nihilists,” Joe Klein, of Time Magazine, asks the question:

How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark?

The presuppositions of this question speak to so much that is wrong with contemporary mainstream journalism that I want to dwell on it a little.

First off, what does he mean, “the illusion of journalistic impartiality”? Is he admitting he disingenuously abjures the real thing? I really don’t know, but I’ll take him as meaning “the appearance of journalistic impartiality,” something that is not, like its illusion, inconsistent with its reality.

But the more important question is what he takes journalistic impartiality to be. Recent studies of the media (such as Jeremy Iggers’ Good News, Bad News) take such notions as impartiality and objectivity to be dangerous chimeras and might see Klein’s problem as stemming from his desire (albeit frustrated by Republican shark-jumping) for impartiality. But this seems to me itself a kind of nihilism. Impartiality and objectivity are certainly intellectual virtues and journalists should strive for them as much as they can. It is often held that it is impossible to achieve them – a view which rests on an absurdly inflated conception of what objectivity and impartiality are. What is alleged to make them impossible to achieve is the claim, which I accept, that we necessarily view the world from a certain epistemic perspective (roughly, with a certain set of assumptions and interests). Clearly, the inescapability of seeing the world from a given epistemic perspective often makes it hard for us to form beliefs free from insidious influence by our assumptions and interests. But that something is hard does not mean it is impossible. In judging a close finish in a race between A and B, the fact that I desperately want A to win does not make it impossible for me to recognize that in fact, B has won.

But Klein does not see the difficulties in keeping up the appearance of journalistic impartiality as deriving from considerations like these. It is something he thinks he has done successfully until now, when the Republicans have just made it too difficult for him. This is what is so puzzling in his position. What conception of impartiality must he be operating with for it to be made more difficult by GOP nihilism? In fact, he gives us the clue to his answer in the next paragraph:

I’ve written countless “Democrats in Disarray” stories over the years and been critical of the left on numerous issues in the past.

Klein seems to think that impartiality is simply equality of judgment. To be impartial is to say as many bad things about one side as the other and as many good things about one side as the other. To be impartial with respect to two sides, on his view, is to represent those sides as equally plausible or equally implausible.

So what is Klein worried about? He can still do this, no? But the problem, as he sees it, is that when one side becomes too outrageous, his conception of impartiality will be revealed as the sham it is. When it is just so obvious that one side is more ridiculous than the other, a journalist will look just a bit silly by carefully balancing criticism and praise. But of course, such ‘impartiality’ is just as misplaced if one of the parties is only slightly more ridiculous than the other; it’s just less obviously idiotic. Indeed, even if the two sides were exactly equally ridiculous, it would still be wrong to represent them equally just because. It would be like the stopped watch getting the time right by accident. What is really required by impartiality is representing things fairly. A fair representation of lunacy will represent it as lunatic. There is nothing partial in calling a spade a spade.

There is another deeply flawed aspect to Klein’s conception of impartiality. Just which sides is one supposed to be impartial with respect to? Evidently, Klein feels no need to extend his conception of journalistic impartiality to, say, the US versus Al Qaeda or even, lehavdil, to the US versus France (for example during the Freedom Fries Riots). Nor, within the domain of domestic policy, does he feel compelled, I imagine, to be impartial with respect to, say, the ACLU versus the KKK. So why with respect to Democrats versus Republicans? Well, obviously, those are the two parties among whom government is shared. But where does it say that government must be shared by these two parties and no others? The Founding Fathers were, like many eighteenth-century political thinkers, deeply distrustful of the whole concept of political parties. Parties have intruded themselves into the political landscape in a quasi-institutional way. This is already a pernicious fact. It is just one further pernicious consequence of Klein’s misconception of impartiality that it reinforces the distortion these parties impose on the field of political possibility. To put it in a nutshell, impartiality in Klein’s sense is an intrinsically conservative stance.  It has the effect of neutralizing genuine forces that might disrupt the shared hegemony of the Republicans and Democrats and of misrepresenting their existence as a fact of nature.

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