Independent Media and Objectivity: An Interview with Robert Jensen

When independent journalists step beyond the corporate media’s code of courtly niceties in dealing with government policy and officials, they are often saddled with the label of ‘advocacy journalism.’ Meanwhile, the incestuous relationships between mainstream journalists and policy makers escape popular scrutiny. Consider Tom Brokaw’s comments during President Ford’s memorial service earlier this year. In his eulogy, Brokaw made light of how the White House press corps under Ford enjoyed certain "advantages" that "contributed to our affection for him" such as going "to Vail at Christmas and Palm Springs at Easter time with our families." Recently I asked Robert Jensen, an atheist and professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, about the value of independent media, and the question of objectivity in mainstream and independent news.

Dr. Jensen teaches at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism and is the author of several books including The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, (City Lights Books, 2005), Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity, (City Lights Books, 2004) and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, (South End Press, 2007).

Jeff Nall: Let me start by asking about your view on the rise of Independent media and its importance?

Robert Jensen: First of all, it’s important to realize there have been independent media in the U.S. for decades, centuries probably. For instance, there was once a really thriving labor press, independent labor newspapers. I’ve heard quotes that there were, at one point, 800 labor papers in the U.S.. So before the digital revolution there was always an independent press. We saw it in the 60s coming out of the counter-culture, alternative magazines, newspapers, that sort of thing. So I think it’s important to realize this isn’t a new phenomenon. But technology and perhaps political developments have accelerated it. So now, eventually with radio and the low cost of doing radio relative to other mass media and, eventually, of course the internet, there were a lot more options for this. And at the same time that the technology made it easier and cheaper, there was a growing, I think, sophistication about the limits of corporate commercial media. So that comes together.

So what’s the importance of it? Well two things. One, obviously, it allows people to get news and analysis directly from independent journalists. That’s very important. You know, people talk about going around the filters of the mainstream media so there’s obviously the direct provision of information. But there’s another affective alternative or independent media that I think is sometimes overlooked; which is that when independent media takes up stories that the mainstream press would otherwise ignore, then it puts pressure on the mainstream media to cover (them). This is occasionally evident in a direct sense. You can see a story that was picked up by the mainstream media pretty much out of the alternative media. But in general it makes journalists more aware, and this is discussed often within the industry, it makes journalists more aware that news consumers have more choices and they’ve got to start thinking about what people want to read. Now that’s not only going to push news in a progressive way, it’s also going to push it in a reactionary way, because there’s a big chunk of the U.S. population that wants reactionary news; that is, wants news coverage to deepen their own ideological framework and prevent challenges to them. It’s a mixed bag in that sense.

Nall: Recently two widely circulated independent magazines went out of print, Impact Press and Clamor Magazine. Many independent publications come into being for a short time and then sort of dissipate because of financial ruin or some other cause. Do you feel that despite their eventual downfall those kinds of publications are essentially successful?

Jensen: First of all, yes. Sometimes when projects fail in the sense that they don’t continue indefinitely people get depressed and they should remember that there are often many, many ways in which those (projects) serve a purpose. One way is that they help bring people together.

For instance, we worked on an independent labor paper in Austin in the late ’90s, and some of the connections I made and people I met, things I learned while doing that are still useful to me, valuable to me in organizing. There are all sorts of benefits from any activity that brings progressive people together and we shouldn’t forget that. But of course during the time that they exist, they provide that information.

All that said, I think we should be thinking about why those publications so often fail. Some of it is, perhaps, in the cards. It’s hard to sustain financially, there’s not advertisement revenue, or maybe there’s not enough subscriptions, whatever. But I think a lot of the publications that start, start from the wrong position in that they don’t have a well thought out, I hate to use the term, ‘business plan,’ but that’s the term.

Nall: How do you view your work, being a journalist with a particular aim and set of values, and the challenge of being objective?

Jensen: Here I actually differ from a lot of people on the left and people I run into. First of all, I don’t label myself as a ‘journalist’ anymore. At one point I worked within commercial journalism, then I went back to school. And I do write a lot and a lot of what I write ends up in journalistic venues. But I do not consider myself a journalist. I consider myself a former journalist with a certain set of skills who now applies them in the context of political movements.

If this term weren’t sort of denigrated I would happily use it, I’m a polemicist. I write political polemics that are designed to persuade people. Now in doing that, I think I do it honestly. I think I’m fair about evidence and logic. In other words, I think I’m a good writer and a reasonable thinker. But I don’t pretend to be filling the role of journalists. I’m not a journalist in the industry sense, because I don’t think conventional corporate journalism is objective. In fact, I do a lecture where I say the conventions of mainstream, corporate, commercial journalism, that is the news gathering routines that rules about who is and isn’t a source, all of that, which are called ‘objectivity,’ actually produce a very non-objective news in philosophical terms. What I mean by that is journalists adopt a certain set of routines that actually limit their ability to understand the world because it channels them toward official institutions and official sources which tend to provide then a very distorted view of the world.

So what I would say is that the goal of journalism is to be independent of other centers of power and independent of movements. I am not. When I write, I write as a member of a movement. A journalist, I think, should write as an independent person. And I think that’s important. It allows journalists to investigate and interrogate and think in different ways. So, does everybody have a political opinion? Yes. But one of the jobs of a journalist, in the sort of idealized way I’m speaking of it, is in fact not to simply pursue one’s political agenda, but to act as an independent researcher who goes out into the world, tries to understand the world. Yes, one has a political perspective that frames the way one asks questions, leads you to some questions and not others. Clearly people’s politics has an affect on how they go forward, but that doesn’t mean that one’s journalism can be reduced to one’s politics.