Jay Rosen On The View From Nowhere

Jay interviews himself, clarifying the philosophic underpinnings of the term ‘the view from nowhere’ that is being widely used these days regarding journalistic objectivity, and largely because of Rosen’s consistent usage:

Q. Who gets credit for the phrase, “view from nowhere?”

A. The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote a very important book with that title.

Q. What does it say? 

A. It says that human beings are, in fact, capable of stepping back from their position to gain an enlarged understanding, which includes the more limited view they had before the step back. Think of the cinema: when the camera pulls back to reveal where a character had been standing and shows us a fuller tableau. To Nagel, objectivity is that kind of motion. We try to “transcend our particular viewpoint and develop an expanded consciousness that takes in the world more fully.”

But there are limits to this motion. We can’t transcend all our starting points. No matter how far it pulls back the camera is still occupying a position. We can’t actually take the “view from nowhere,” but this doesn’t mean that objectivity is a lie or an illusion. Our ability to step back and the fact that there are limits to it– both are real. And realism demands that we acknowledge both.

Q. So is objectivity a myth… or not?

A. One of the many interesting things Nagel says in that book is that “objectivity is both underrated and overrated, sometimes by the same persons.” It’s underrated by those who scoff at it as a myth. It is overrated by people who think it can replace the view from somewhere or transcend the human subject. It can’t.

Q. You are very critical of the View from Nowhere in journalism. It’s almost a derisive term for you.

A. That’s true. I let my disdain for it show.

Q. Why?

A. Because it has unearned authority in the American press. If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it. The View from Nowhere doesn’t know from this. It also encourages journalists to develop bad habits. Like: criticism from both sides is a sign that you’re doing something right, when you could be doing everything wrong.

Jay goes on to eviscerate bad policy decisions at MSNBC (Keith Olbermann), NPR (viewlessness rules), WashPo (declined to estimate rallies’ sizes on the Mall to avoid ‘leaning’), and so on.

A beautiful and grounded polemic against dogmatic stupidity.

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