Lippmann On the New Objective Journalism  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   May 1995

Lippmann On the New Objective Journalism   

In 1931 he thought a profession might be born, and then professional schools.

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


In 1931 Walter Lippmann commented on "the new objective journalism" and what it might mean for journalism schools.

The ability to present news objectively and interpret it realistically, he said, requires knowledge of the past, control of our own wishful thinking and awareness that our natural instincts often get in the way.

"I do not know much about the schools of journalism," he said, "and I cannot say, therefore, whether they are vocational courses designed to teach the unteachable art of the old romantic journalism or professional schools aiming somehow to prepare men for the new objective journalism.

"I suspect, therefore, that schools of journalism in the professional sense will not exist generally until journalism has been practiced for some time as a profession. It has never yet been a profession. It has been at times a dignified calling, at others a romantic adventure, and then again a servile trade.

"But a profession it could not begin to be until modern objective journalism was successfully created, and with it the need of men who consider themselves devoted, as all the professions ideally are, to the service of truth alone."

The "new objective journalism" is now 64 years older, but we are still not sure it is a profession. Professional standards are more fully developed and absorbed, though the most meaningful ones (such as the ethical imperative to search every nook and cranny and publish while people are still complaining about it) often seem outrageous to the citizenry.

What Lippmann had in mind I'm not sure. Journalism had ceased to be mainly the lackey of political causes and was shaking free of big advertisers' and local bosses' bossiness. And he must have been thinking about the Associated Press phenomenon. News had been nationalized and to some extent neutralized.

Lippmann also may have thought the social sciences would affect the press, making it more "scientific" and its methods more teachable in professional schools. As expected, the schools did teach objectivity and impart the accepted forms and faiths, along with analyzing and criticizing. But only a couple of the social sciences' tools (survey research, mainly) were adopted by the press.

Journalists did not become applied social scientists, as some educators had expected (see the special report on journalism education in this issue). Nor should they or will they.

Since Lippmann wrote, legal theory and scholarship, rather than the scholarship of the social sciences, has become the main theoretical grounding of professional practice.

This should not be surprising. Constitutionalism marches on. Through thousands of finely tuned decisions on libel, privacy and access to information, the courts have established our professional standards (though our moral mandates depend upon other sources).

Underlying this is the extension and continuing refinement of the meaning of the First Amendment since Lippmann wrote. All of our public life now flows from it, with all the consequent messiness, ugliness and danger. Even capitalism triumphant, assuming capitalism is still the economic system we have, has less force. l

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