The basic assumption of people on both sides of the debate about media bias is that objective, nonpartisan journalism is possible and desirable. Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter for over five years, laments the loss of this supposed ideal. Mike D’Virgilio examines whether this obsession with objectivity is authentic or self-serving.

Gerson, a self-described “compassionate conservative,” asks in the Washington Post (via if the demise of what is assumed as traditional journalism makes any difference:

For many conservatives, the "mainstream media" is an epithet. Didn’t the Internet expose the lies of Dan Rather? Many on the left also shed few tears, preferring to consume their partisanship raw in the new media.

[A] visit to the Newseum is a reminder that what is passing is not only a business but also a profession — the journalistic tradition of nonpartisan objectivity. Journalists, God knows, didn’t always live up to that tradition. But they generally accepted it, and felt shamed when their biases or inaccuracies were exposed. The profession had rules about facts and sources and editors who enforced standards. At its best, the profession of journalism has involved a spirit of public service and adventure — reporting from a bomber during a raid in World War II, or exposing the suffering of Sudan or Appalachia, or rushing to the site of 9/11 moments after the buildings fell.

By these standards, the changes we see in the media are also a decline. Most cable news networks have forsaken objectivity entirely and produce little actual news, since makeup for guests is cheaper than reporting. Most Internet sites display an endless hunger to comment and little appetite for verification. Free markets, it turns out, often make poor fact-checkers, instead feeding the fantasies of conspiracy theorists from "birthers" to 9/11 "truthers." Bloggers in repressive countries often show great courage, but few American bloggers have the resources or inclination to report from war zones, famines and genocides.

The democratization of the media — really its fragmentation — has encouraged ideological polarization.

Is this characterization the truth? Ideological polarization? That seemed to work pretty well in the early years of the Republic. Mr. Gerson reminds me of a dreamy-eyed idealist. The present media landscape is horrible, while the past was something approaching nirvana.

I came of political age when Ronald Reagan was elected, before the so-called “democratization of the media,” and what is known as the “mainstream media” was virulently anti-Reagan. In fact it was the left-wing tilt of the media that paved the way for Rush Limbaugh and all his talk radio acolytes.

No, there was never such a thing as objective journalism, nor can there be. But the Cassandras who lament the loss of this supposed ideal are convinced we are going down the media rat hole. They are right in that it takes resources, i.e. money, to report the news from far-flung places and locally as well, but that is the only part of their complaint that has credence.

Being a person of some historical curiosity, I am somewhat aware of what journalism was like around the founding of our fair country and for much of America’s history, and the word “objective” doesn’t come to mind. I don’t know if it is out there, but I would love to see a history of journalism in America. All of what I’ve read about journalism in American history comes as part of a larger historical narrative.

It would be interesting for someone to write a book that details what journalism was like prior to what is known as the progressive era of the muckrakers. Something tells me that the genesis of what is now known as objective journalism started there.

–Mike D’Virgilio