Objectivity Is IV: What All This Has to Do With Communications, Composing, 20/02/2015

Continued from last post . . . The modern model of journalism grew out of the reaction to the yellow press style of reporting and publishing. Newspapers no longer needed to shout over each other for attention to earn their sales. Instead, they could build a reputation for fair and informative reporting, and let their regular subscribers carry the bulk of their income.

Objectivity was the rule of the new game of newspapers that made their reputation in prestige. Contrast this with the public relations industry, which was still progressing its norms and techniques into territory just slightly more sophisticated than carnival barkers. The conditions were just right for the two industries to crystallize their public images that would sustain for decades. 

Hearst used his corporate newspaper empire to attack
Citizen Kane because he took personally its critique of
him as an egotistical blowhard who would use his
corporate newspaper empire to attack his enemies for
spite. It proved that he was exactly how Welles
depicted his thinly veiled character.
Cracks showed in the pristine reputation of the new objective ideal of journalism from the beginning, starting with the open secret that William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, promoted messages through his newspapers that boosted political ends he favoured. By the 1980s, the fragmentation of media through cable news created the conditions for the niche development of journalism. 

We all knew that, under the mythical veneer of total objectivity, particular publications had always slanted in particular directions either generally or on particular issues. The explosion of media channels, first on television and then on the internet, constituted a positive push in the economic environment for outlets to double down on their ideological biases to corner a loyal audience. Combine this with the economics of the click-through in blog-based media, and we have the modern resurgence of the yellow press. 

Public relations, meanwhile, was becoming corporate communications. Although there was still a great deal of unethical behaviour at the top of the profession, where the largest firms tend to work on behalf of the most dangerous projects, the industry was becoming more prestigious and professional. 

I think a lot of this had to do with the fact that corporate communications was becoming a female-dominated industry, overcoming the dickish egotism that tends to prevail in male-dominated fields. Finesse and nuance were the skills of thought and expression that you needed to advance and progress in corporate communications, no longer bullish competitiveness and the will to dominate.

It was also becoming more complex, adopting the tools of narrative creation that had been perfected in reporting and journalism. But they were adopted to build the images of corporate and community clients, not for any duty to report truths. Truthfulness was still important; outright lying is considered unethical in public relations practice, no matter how many prominent examples you can find among the richest companies. Riches corrupt, after all.

No one could even pretend that Sean Hannity's
softball interviews with Mitt Romney during the 2012
Presidential election approached objective journalism.
But there’s now an honesty to public relations that modern journalism lacks. Even the journalistic institutions that are the most nakedly partisan (the most obvious examples being FOX News and other prominent media brands in the Murdoch conglomerate) pitch themselves as essentially truthful. If a FOX journalist calls himself conservative, he says it’s because his conservative beliefs reflect the truth. The liberal journalist will say the same thing. 

The reputation of journalism as an objective pursuit remains with us, even as almost every instance of objectivity collapses into a partisan venture. This is why, yesterday, I wrote that the concept of objectivity in this context (among pretty much every epistemic context, but that’s for another time) can no longer work, and that we need a virtue of truthfulness instead. 

Corporate communications has an honesty that modern journalism, with its yellow streaks, lacks. A corporate communicator will always admit her agenda, her goals about what she wants her audience to believe. She will admit that there are other ways to think, but that her aim is to convince people of some particular belief for causes and reasons about which she’ll be completely transparent if you ask.

A corporate communicator admits her agenda. In this, she’s truthful.

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