Two imperatives in contemporary journalism are at war with one another. One imperative says: Be smart! Be analytic! Be like The Washington Monthly or The New Republic or The Weekly Standard! The other imperative says: Don’t say anything that will make your readers – or, more important, your sources – mad! Don’t lose significant leaks from government sources, which still matter a lot, to the competition! The first imperative boils down to being subjective; being so intelligently and fair-mindedly will benefit a reporter’s career over the long run.

The second imperative boils down to being rigorously neutral. This is no longer the path to glory in a journalistic career, but analysis-free reporting remains a useful skill – sometimes you just want to know, Did the bill pass? Did the Red Sox win? What is the disagreement between party A and party B all about? – and solid careers can be built on it.

The trouble arises when a reporter, torn between the imperative to be smart and the imperative to not rock the boat, tries to have it both ways. One common corruption arising from this dilemma is to be snide. Nobody can prove you think that the Clinton health-care bill is a nightmare of red tape, but you can still communicate the general idea. “There are ways of saying it, without actually saying it,” a seasoned New York Times reporter once told me. Another corruption is to sculpt your analysis to resemble prevailing biases so perfectly that no one is likely to complain. (When readers or sources bitch about “biased” reporting, what they almost always mean is reporting whose biases they disagree with.) Thus you can portray a Ralph Nader or a Jesse Helms as a hopeless boob simply because he isn’t working within the mainstream.

Ultimately, it’s best for reporting to strive to be neither “analytic” nor “neutral,” but simply to be fair-minded and truthful based on a detailed examination of the matter at hand. A good reporter who is well-steeped in his subject matter and who isn’t out to prove his cleverness, but rather is sweating out a detailed understanding of a topic worth exploring, will probably develop intelligent opinions that will inform and perhaps be expressed in his journalism. It is very difficult to be a blowhard on a subject one has studied extensively and from many angles. The extent to which the reporter spells out his assumptions and follows them to their logical conclusions may vary, but whether the result is a work of “opinion” journalism or “objective” journalism matters less than that the writer’s objective is to inform, not to impress.

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Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is labor policy editor at Politico and author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1983 to 1985.