Kara Swisher interviewed the historian Tom Ryback for today's episode of "On With Kara Swisher".

Ryback studied the media of pre-war Germany and shows the striking parallels to our present moment.

In particular, he notes the blitheringly nochalant coverage by the NYT, which failed to acknowledge or imagine the momentous dangers, despite the fact that Hitler (like Trump) explicitly spelled out his intentions for Germany, and the world.

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"[B]litheringly nonchalant" is the best description of the NYT I've encountered in years. Thank you.

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“Ryback’s gift for detail joins with a nice feeling for the black comedy of the period. He makes much sport of the attempts by foreign journalists resident in Germany, particularly the New York Times’ Frederick T. Birchall, to normalize the Nazi ascent—with Birchall continually assuring his readers that Hitler, an out-of-his-depth simpleton, was not the threat he seemed to be, and that the other conservatives were far more potent in their political maneuvering.”


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As a daily journalist for some 30 years, I always prided myself on being "objective." (Case in point: while I'm unalterably opposed to the death penalty, I had to cover several death penalty appeals as well as -- once -- witness an execution. I take pride in never having had my reporting attacked for being biased.)

But later in my career, I met a journalism professor who eschewed "objectivity" in favor of "neutrality" in reporting.

Whatever you want to call it however, there was a key word in Sulzberger's comments that is the most important word, and that is "context."

Without context, opinions become facts. For example, perhaps a candidate rails against the high crime rate and vows to do something about it. But if the reporter knows that crime statistics are in fact falling and below historical levels -- which happens to be the case in many places -- that needs to immediately follow the candidate's claim. That is adding "context," not opinion and gives the reader needed information to assess the candidate.

I'll never forget an editor who fussed at me for looking for an analyst on a story about American Airlines purchasing new jets. He said to me something like, "Look, John, you've been covering American Airlines and the industry for several years. YOU KNOW what buying billions of dollars worth of new jets signals. You write it."

A new world was opened to me and I like to think I was a more complete reporter after that.

PS: As an editor, I once caused quit a stir when I told a reporter, in the immediate aftermath, maybe the next day, of the April 19, 1993 tragedy in Waco, TX, to try to find out what was going on in the house as it burned down.

Naturally, we couldn't get to any of the survivors because they were in jail (or maybe the hospital). So I told him to talk to the lawyers and get them to tell them how their clients had described it.

To avoid a story full of "he saids" and "the attorney relayed" or other such cumbersome attribution and build a cohesive, continuous story, I had the reporter write one paragraph high in the story explaining the attribution and how we got the information. He wrote: "This is their story, gleaned from lawyers who spoke with six of them now jailed on charges that include conspiracy and murder."

Following that came a narration of the events as assembled from the various interviews. (Here a link to the story: https://greensboro.com/.../article_420fa1ce-5e3f-557c....)

This happened to be with The Associated Press, and the story moved on national lines pretty much as it. Editors from around the country called demanding attribution. I was thankful that higher up editors than me stood by the story.

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This is a wonderfully incisive article, Mark. Thank you for stating the case against so-called "objectivity," as practiced by the New York Times, so clearly. Especially when the stakes - democracy versus dictatorship - could not be higher. The stance of the paper, at this juncture in the nation's affairs, is mind-blowingly irresponsible.

But here's a problem that's baked into the system itself: namely, that our mainstream newspapers and media outlets depend on advertising for their survival. The simple fact of the matter is that they will continue to hide behind the cloak of "objectivity" as long as they have to keep driving up readership and viewership numbers in order to maximize advertising revenue. The billionaire owners (Twitter, the Washington Post), publishers, editors and executive producers may pretend otherwise, but the simple fact of the matter is that they are beholden to their advertisers in ways that are readily apparent and those that are not.

The one notable exception, of course, is the Guardian which is partly funded by a trust that was established "to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity." It should come as no surprise that the Guardian's journalism is as plainspoken and powerful as it is.

There is certainly no easy or short-term fix to this problem, since it such an intrinsic and foundational matter of the system. But it would be edifying to have your thoughts on the subject.

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Four decades ago, when I was a sprout at USC Annenberg, we were taught that while objectivity was a goal to reach for, it wasn't always possible, necessary, or even useful. Instead, our higher commitments as journalists were to be accurate -- get the facts right -- and as fair as we could possibly be in telling the stories of the people we spoke to.

If we did this well, objectivity would be served well enough: the moral truth of the story would speak for itself without us having to goose it one direction or another.

I still think it's a formula that works. It leaves space for journalists to stand for the common values of society -- we *should* champion basic democratic and Enlightenment values -- in a way that also protects and increases our credibility, without which we are nothing.

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“Our job as journalists is firmly rooted in the present: to arm society with the information and context it needs to thoughtfully grapple with issues of the day.”

Fair enough, but the question he’ll move heaven and earth to avoid answering is, “Do you genuinely think you’re doing that?”

More pointedly, “When Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy, she was viewed as 30 percent more trustworthy than Trump in polling. By Election Day they were neck and neck. Do you think you handled that correctly?”

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Being "being fair to the facts" is objectivity. What you're against, and rightly so, is neutrality not objectivity. Taking a stand that best comports with the facts is objectivity.

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This is just amazingly, & brutally honest assessment of the business and the objectivity. Glad there still are editors who care.

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A good start would be to translate their stories about Trump and the radical republicans into Russian before they are published!

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Theodora! Thank you, THANK YOU for your response, and for turning me on to FAIR! I appreciate that you took your time to react to my comment. You rock!

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IMO, where humans are concerned "objectivity" is impossible, and acting as though it's an attainable goal can warp the reporting, e.g., when reporters try to "balance" what they know is true by giving equal or more attention to an opposing view. I do wonder, though, to what extent the reporters on the ground are responsible and how much is due to the intervention of their editors and their editors' editors. These higher-ups may be pushing balance for its own sake (I'm being generous here) or they may be pushing their own interests or the interests of those higher up still (or what they perceive to be the interests). The higher-ups, after all, have the power to hire, fire, promote, and increase or cut department budgets. We may pretend that these considerations don't influence our decision-making, but they're usually running in the background -- and when you're in a head-to-head with a higher-up, they're often front and center.

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Aren’t we, the readers deserving of the facts and not opinions of the writer? No two people “see” the facts of the matter in the same way, but we are, perhaps, smart enough to draw our own conclusions after all of the facts have been drawn.

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Selective reporting on facts can and does bias coverage without overtly stating the opinion of journalists or editors who choose which topics get covered.

We have had a powerful example of that in our economic coverage of the economy after covid. There was far more coverage of inflation, some of it wildly exaggerated, than there was of our strong growth in GDP and in jobs. There was also obsessive coverage about the possibility of inflation, quoting economists like Larry Summers who (wrongly) predicted we needed a recession and high unemployment to bring inflation while ignoring economists like Paul Krugman and others who disagreed.


Now the media just can’t understand why the public believes the economy is struggling and blames Biden for not “messaging”. Too many journalists think if they report objective news that is helpful to Biden they are being biased. The Twitter post by a NY Times economic reporter reported here shows clearly:


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You are preaching to the converted, Mark. I'm a big believer in first-person journalism (have a textbook from Routledge with that title), and I've long appreciated Jay Rosen's approach to disclosing journalistic points of view. That kind of transparency is far more honest than false claims of objectivity (and the recent example you bring up here with Ben Smith at Semafor is predictably depressing).

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