FERBRACHE: To Find Truth, Objectivity Must Go?

Screenshot MSNBC, The Rachel Maddow Show

Mark Ferbrache Contributor
Font Size:

Two former media executives recently published the results of interviews with over 75 leaders of media organizations. Based on the responses, the authors conclude that adherence to objectivity in journalism is passé.

Former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. and former CBS News President Andrew Heyward conclude that journalists today “believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading “bothsidesism” in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects. And, in today’s diversifying newsrooms, they feel it negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.”

Downie further states that his “goals for [their] journalism were accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth.”

Uh-excuse me, but Downie’s goals seem to zero in on the very definition of “objectivity.” In fact, the word is conspicuously missing. Last I checked, “fairness” is a synonym for “objectivity.” What am I missing?

The quote, often attributed to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, reads: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” It seems applicable here. Okay, maybe not facts, but Downie’s survey reveals a consensus among journalists who feel entitled to speak “their own truths” in their news coverage, rather than be constrained by objectivity. As though truth is malleable and subject to interpretation.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece highlighting the shared ethics common to both FBI agents and reporters.

In this sense, reporters and FBI agents are cut from the same cloth. At heart we are investigators — more precisely, truth seekers. Whether it’s in a newspaper or a statement sworn before a magistrate, our personal and professional ethics compel us to be thorough, accurate and honest.  The public relies on us both to act with integrity.

Law enforcement officers swear to uphold and defend the Constitution and protect the communities they serve. Reporters and journalists, by tradition, strive to inform and educate the public about matters that impact their lives. Indeed, some believe it’s their civic duty to expose misconduct in government, corporations or other entities so those responsible are held to account. 

As the “Fourth Estate,” the news media act independently as a check on the three branches of government. Freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution and prominently featured in the First Amendment. In this role, journalists function as an invaluable tool to the republic by disseminating objective, unbiased news. We depended on the free press to inform us on important issues of the day — specifically, what our government is up to. They are the people’s watchdog.

To state the obvious, objectivity is as fundamental to our professions as the quest for truth. Given the ethical parallels between reporters and law enforcement officials, maybe we should apply these new truth-seeking principles to the criminal justice system? If allegiance to “objectivity” has somehow made divining the truth more elusive for the journalist, can the same be said for law enforcement officials in the pursuit of justice?

For instance, should an FBI agent draw on his personal sentiments when testifying before a Grand Jury or in a trial? Should he recount “his” truth from his own unique lived experience; withhold facts that, in his judgment, are inconvenient or contrary to his world view?

When drafting an affidavit for search or arrest warrant, should a police officer use only language and terms that are not offensive to him and swear to its accuracy?

Should a detective offer testimony about how she identifies with the transgender defendant charged with sexual abuse of a child?

If our justice system renders verdicts that are arbitrary, capricious and subject to the singular impulses of those in power, that’s no system, but chaos. Absent consistency and reliability, the credibility of our institutions suffers and the public loses trust.

Indeed, the public’s trust has been tested by several progressive prosecutors who have instituted reforms reflecting many of the same values as activist reporters. For example, elected prosecutors have refused to charge certain offenses or detain violent defendants in pursuit of a social justice agenda.

The embrace of “The Fourth Estate” activism at the expense of balance and neutrality, trust is precisely what has been lost. According to Gallup, trust in the media is at a record low, with 38% of Americans having no trust at all.

If “objectivity has to go” and the media’s new paradigm is to interpret events through a filter of one’s own “lived experience” and “express opinions” to advance a woke agenda, do journalists achieve a better version of the truth? Are their consumers well-served with trustworthy news and information needed to make informed decisions? When journalists and the media abandon independence and objectivity, they relinquish their role as America’s watchdog against government overreach and abuse.

A criminal investigator gages a witness as credible so long they are being truthful. But as soon as they are caught in a “contradiction,” (aka lie), all trust earned thus far is wiped out. “Are you lying now, or have you been lying all along?” Every past statement is called into question. There is no way to determine where the truth ends and the lies begin. Such is the fragility of trust; hard to earn, easily lost.

Twenty years ago, as an FBI agent, I agreed to meet with a local reporter, but only after numerous phone conversations to establish the ground rules for an interview – on the record. By then, we had established a certain level of trust. I had to trust I would not be misquoted or my statement taken out of context.  Similarly, the reporter wanted an accessible and reliable source in a government organization. But fundamentally, he wanted to get it right — right by me and right by his readers. His credibility was on the line, with me and the public.

If journalists are to regain trust and credibility with their readers, it will require a return to time-honored principles employed in pursuit of truth.  Journalists, like prosecutors, FBI agents and police officers, strive for fairness, balance, honesty and accountability, none of which can be achieved without a measure of objectivity. No different than those of us who serve in the pursuit of justice, the highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.

Mark D. Ferbrache served as an FBI special agent for 27 years specializing in white-collar criminal investigations. He later worked in the bureau’s National Security Division and CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and held diplomatic assignments in Prague, London and Bucharest, as well as field office assignments in Seattle, New York and the FBI Headquarters in Washington. He is currently employed as a contractor in the U.S. intelligence community.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.