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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
"Objectivity," my @$$~!!! 
23rd-Dec-2008 02:09 am
I am (once again) attempting to breathe new life into the off-the-cuff book/manga reviews I write on this LiveJournal. We shall see how long my revitalization lasts, but since I'm returning as a soon-to-be-credentialed media scholar (ha ha), I suppose it's time to append earlier reviewing guidelines with some additional critical remarks.

The concept of journalism as politically neutral, nonpartisan, professional, even "objective," did not emerge until the twentieth century. During the first two or three generations of the republic such notions for the press would have been nonsensical, even unthinkable. Journalism's purpose was to persuade as well as to inform and the press tended to be highly partisan.
          - Robert W. McChesney, The Problem of the Media

Okay, so here's the deal: While we can debate about its relative merits as an ideal, there is one thing about the history of the press that must first be made abundantly clear. "Objectivity" in journalism only arose when the U.S. media became corporate-owned and profit-driven. Ask this question to yourself: What is The New York Times selling? If you think they're selling news (and editorial views) to the public, you'd be flat-out wrong. In actuality, they are selling the eyeballs of their audience (a.k.a. you) to advertisers. Professionalism and objectivity are a screen that profit-seeking news organizations cultivate in order 1) to attract the widest possible audience and 2) to dodge any accusations of self-serving interest.

Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that "objectivity" is not an achievable ideal. Every editorial and journalistic decision is, at its heart, an opinion, what to include, what to "dis-include," what, for that matter, is deemed "newsworthy" in the first place. If you believe objectivity is achievable, you have been sorely and cruelly deceived.

So. Back to reviews. In light of the above, of course reviews are not objective. There is no such thing as an objective review because there is no such thing as an objective reviewer. Our perspectives are always colored by our interests, our areas of expertise, our life histories, etc. and no two people are alike. In fact, not even a plot summary is totally objective--the writer makes a choice about what to and not to include even there! When you read a review, always remember that any statement can be appended with "I think that..." And if the review is being published by editorial press, then there is another, invisible layer of opinions on top of the writer's own (in the form of guidelines for writers, powers of editorial selection, outright sentence-level editing, and more).

At the end of the day, the reviewer is not judged on her ability to be objective. Rather, her standing is premised entirely upon the perceived value of her own self--her experience, her credentials, and her particular tastes. This simple, functional fact causes ideological conflict when the public is confronted with a critic or columnist published by editorial press, such as (my personal favorite) Paul Krugman, because that person's very selection technically constitutes a verboten "opinion" on the part of the news media. After all, what is the underlying message when the NYT publishes Krugman twice a week? "This guy is worth listening to!" An opinion, naturally...suspect because the media has been trying to sell itself as "objective," and the public these days swallows the ideology of "objective" media hook, line, and sinker. This is why reviewers and other writers on the op-ed side of things are so frequently subject to ad hominem attacks. A nobody--some unwashed gal standing on the street corner yelling, "The end is nigh!", for example--says something you don't agree with, and you don't care. You just walk right on by without slowing down or (Hell No!) making eye-contact. But when Krugman writes "The end is nigh!", dammit, how dare his wrongheadedness be given legitimacy by The New York F*CKIN' Times?! He's not being objective if I think he's wrong!!! Next thing you know, his blog is overrun by trolls (which NYT editorial filters out of the comment roll). You only know you've arrived as a professional public critic/reviewer/columnist/intellectual, in short, when people spend inordinate amounts of their precious time trying to tear you down.

I happen to like writing reviews directly to my LiveJournal. In reality, they're nothing more than a book diary, and I make them public and pretty out of consideration to the people who apparently have enjoyed reading my reflections. Only you, dear reader, decide whether I'm just another lunatic shrieking away on the street corner or a voice worth paying attention to. But after all's said and done, I really don't care what any of you think, and the fact that I don't need to constitutes the pleasure of having my own little ad-free, non-publisher-supported space in which to play.
23rd-Dec-2008 07:41 am (UTC)
I don't comment a lot (not really active on LJ much anymore, until this week, anyway) but I do always love learning about new books from you!
23rd-Dec-2008 07:48 am (UTC)
I think there's a really good argument to be made that what you've just said is, from a publisher's perspective at least, the main purpose of book reviews. They tell potential customers what's out there, and in the case of NYT Book Review, they're like advertising telling potential buyers, "Dude, guess what? It's out now!" I'm not convinced that what the review itself actually says matters that much.
23rd-Dec-2008 09:13 am (UTC)
I really don't care what any of you think, and the fact that I don't need to constitutes the pleasure of having my own little ad-free, non-publisher-supported space in which to play.

It's fun isn't it? Knowing that nobody can put any pressure on you. Getting paid is great, but you never get back that freedom.
24th-Dec-2008 08:44 am (UTC)
Wow. Seeing these reviews reminded me of how... different your LJ has been lately. Hope you're doing well, or as well as you feel you can... =Þ
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