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In Defense of Informed Subjectivity

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Somewhere, Molly Ivins is laughing at this season’s contradictory political coverage. News stories say one thing about Texas Gov. Rick Perry; blogs such as the conservative RedState often say the opposite. What’s a concerned citizen to do? Who and what should you believe when no one can agree on the facts?

I like to think of Ivins as a proto-blogger. Like today’s bloggers, she riffed off the news, adding extra takes and insights. But she did it with the reporting chops to nail down the facts. Ivins’ work was informed by fastidious research—her own and the work of her staffers (full disclosure, I hired her best researcher to work for me on several book projects.)

Ivins believed in what she called “informed subjectivity,” which was based on something called “reporting.” But she didn’t pander to a rigid journalistic notion of balance and objectivity. Ivins wouldn’t waste her time reporting lies—from the left or the right. Why give equal weight to the phonies and con artists?

Her reporting on Perry and Texas politics wasn’t disconnected from the facts; it was driven by the facts.

Today, “disconnected” is a big buzzword at places where the future of journalism gets parsed. Are readers disconnected from politics because they don’t know which version of the facts to believe? Are young people cynically disconnecting from the political process after seeing contradictory stories on partisan blogs and in biased mainstream media coverage?

The contradictions are showing themselves right now in the coverage of Perry’s presidential campaign. Thinly reported partisan blogs offer one version, thinly reported traditional media outlets offer another. The versions are often so disparate that they appear to be written about different people.

The Observer’s Forrest Wilder expertly pondered how he could see and hear one thing at a Houston religious rally convened by Perry in August while other reporters saw something else.

Scan the articles and commentary about Perry on Reason magazine’s “Hit and Run” blog. After reading the libertarian/conservative site, you might be convinced that Perry’s track record has been far less conservative than his rhetoric, which he’s softening by the day.

Check out RedState, where some bloggers say Perry is Conservative Lite and not as Tea Party-ish as he purports. They say Perry believes in raising taxes through the roof and supports Big Government intrusion into citizens’ private affairs—kind of like those Democratic Party demons.

Of course, the editorial divide isn’t always driven by old-fashioned partisan agendas, by liberal or conservative bias in the media. It’s driven by what readers want. The same people researching how “disconnected” readers are from the news are also studying how millions of Americans seek out news sites that reaffirm their existing worldviews.

They want their biases shored up. So say you have a feeling that the public art around Rockefeller Center is really a secret ode to communism—a mind-control plot to insert pinko ideology in public places. You can get your suspicion affirmed by listening to Glenn Beck.

In our age of information overload, with multiple websites and blogs claiming to offer “news,” rumors substitute for facts, and facts are subject to debate. We can’t have an informed citizenry—or a healthy democracy—if bloggers and mainstreamers don’t acknowledge or make a full-faith effort to report the facts. Left or right, their work should be grounded in the hard-to-achieve “informed subjectivity.”