The Management Estate

Objectivity in American newsrooms is a pastiche of colonial subjectivities

Journalists, pollsters, designers, and others involved in managing flows of communication—the “technicians of midcult,” to borrow a term from Dwight Macdonald—are the workhorses whose creative labor yields products brought to the market by brands like Politico.

For such creative labor, one surplus of our production overseen by management is our imperial reality itself, including the power to settle the election of 2016. This is the lesson as imparted through Karl Rove’s apocryphal quote, “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”: There is no objectivity. There are no facts. There are only interpretations shaped into “facts” by brute managerial force. The density of power concentrated in the imperial presidency is understood even by Americans as a “bully pulpit” capable of effecting into reality even strings of symbols like “covfefe”; it is left to us technicians to interpret, record, and reproduce these realities.

Attempts to restore the pastoral power of the managers of the public sphere have taken the form of secular edicts on “fake news,” such as CNN’s “Facts First” campaign. Even before the release of the New York Times’s social media policy for its employees, and before the shutdown of DNAinfo and Gothamist by a billionaire opposed to unionization, the imposition of ideological hygiene among writers on behalf of management was revealed as a point of pride. An explicit example of news outlets purging employees who “‘loosely’ opin[e] on stuff ‘just for the sake of weighing in’” is how Politico, a proxy for Washington’s courtiers among the managers of the public sphere, justifies political purges of job applicants whose social media postings may suggest a perspective that strays from majoritarian (white, cisheterosexual, male, able-bodied, bourgeois, Christian, etc.) subjectivities.

But long before the managers of the public sphere were shaken into action, those of us at the periphery of majoritarian subjectivities had been coerced into relaying white-supremacist values as “objective,” values that have historically formed the ideological center of the “field of communications” in America. Working in this field as a first-generation-immigrant, queer, and disabled person of color, my duties as a midcult technician have been performed under the courtly authoritarianism of a bleached-white managerial gaze.

It was my direct experience beneath this gaze that the commitment to “facts” proved to be an epistemically violent example of white American subjectivity. In 2014, I was asked to transcribe an interview with a prominent sheriff official who openly compared his job to an exterminator’s. I was ordered to omit his offending answer in order to “maintain professional relationships.” This bit of reporting took place only a few months after protests exploded in Ferguson over anti-Black policing but almost a year after I began an internal push for covering police brutality more rigorously. That push was also met with a reprimand from my white, metropolitan management, who accused my work of lacking objectivity, but once police brutality became a more mainstream beat, they encouraged that sort of tough reporting.

My experience was an example of ideal journalism being managed out of existence in service of the company’s bottom line. Successful execution of the managerial “moral imperative” toward the bottom line is expressed as percentages of money saved or raised, or social capital accumulated. For managers of public discourse, whether in the private or nonprofit sphere, progress toward the bottom line produces an additional surplus: social standards, norms, and values that tenuously hold our world together in pursuit of the bottom line via clicks and views. As technicians of midcult, whether as journalists or spokespeople, we are instrumentalized for this purpose, and our managers enforce an “unbiased” presentation to ensure the cogs turn in service of this brand.

Politico hires its managers to ensure that the products of their technicians’ labor produce a surplus: “fact-based” reporting for an “objective” brand. These technicians (writers, designers, etc.) have to ensure that their outward appearances fall into an engineered “center” to appeal to the broadest (whitest, most masculine and ordinary) perspectives. The panoptic sweep of Politico’s social media policy is meant to ensure that its brand is respected in the public sphere.

Hence, as a young, nonwhite communications professional in America, it’s jarring to see the persistence of a belief that one problem with American media is the lack of diverse representation across newsrooms, management leadership, boardrooms, etc. Such a belief mistakes consequence for cause: the bleached-out managerial class is the cause, not a result, of a self-reinforcing problem Politico has admitted to, a problem endemic throughout the managerial class writ large, and which confirms what I and many others have experienced throughout our careers: Your experiences, knowledge, and background will be dismissed, denied, and negated if you stray from the American subjective viewpoint.

Consider the following passage from Politico:

In his most recent debate with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders befuddled some viewers with an arcane reference to a 1953 U.S.-backed coup in Iran, which Sanders called an example of America’s history of “overthrowing governments.”

How did Americans at Politico fix their standard of objectivity such that they would characterize an event that persists, for many Iranians, in living memory as “befuddling” and “arcane”? Calling a U.S.-backed coup d’état “arcane” reflects and reinforces the strategic ignorance of a general public that has benefitted from imperial plunder and meddling. The push toward some empty “objective” center as a necessary precondition for objectivity—even the value of “objectivity” itself—is a contemporary accident, not a product of some metaphysical Truth.

Examining Politico’s coverage of alleged Russian interference in last year’s election provides insight into how the class of public-sphere managers has struggled to engineer a “consensus” for understanding Trump’s win. For example, in Gabriel Debenedetti’s “They Always Wanted Trump”—written in the ideological hangover of the day following Clinton’s unexpected (to them) loss—Debenedetti cited emails leaked by WikiLeaks to report that Clinton and her machine were hugely responsible for the end result. In creating the conditions for Trump's victory by deliberately normalizing him as a legitimate candidate, Debenedetti reported, the campaign and her supporters set the stage for his eventual win.

But nearly a year later, Politico began to describe emails released by WikiLeaks in a different light: “a trove of stolen Clinton campaign documents that U.S. intelligence agencies have linked to Russia’s election-meddling efforts.” In a piece charging that Republicans were “conjur[ing] a Russian scandal they could get behind,” Ben Lefebvre writes that Republican lawmakers demanded the Treasury investigate allegations made by Hillary Clinton in leaked speech drafts that the Kremlin financed American antifracking activist groups. Lefebvre twice presents the Republicans’ WikiLeaks reference as evidence of their willingness to conspire with Russia in order to attack Democrats.

Politico’s editorial presentation of WikiLeaks evolved from a useful archive revealing the inner workings of the Clinton campaign to a source irredeemably tainted by a Russian menace. The memory of Colin Powell lying to the U.N., and duping Americans into jumping headlong into an illegal and heinous war, is fresh enough in my mind to refrain from granting any semblance of validity to the paranoia of a people as epistemically challenged as Americans, who nonetheless swear that Russians are hiding in their keyboards, but Politico’s evolving editorial line on the leaks is representative of the general view of Russian meddling popular with Democrats and their allies in journalism.

As Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, Americans will deny what they can’t comprehend (like Clinton’s loss) and, knowing only how to reach internally for explanation, will fall into a mutually reinforcing feedback loop. Politico’s claim that its hiring practices are attempts to manage a fact-based brand turn out to be an old procedure of manufacturing an unum out of a polyphonic pluribus, normalizing their kind of subjectivity in a white American tradition as old as the colonies themselves. A cavalcade of examples of blatant opinions effected as “fact” by sheer managerial force can be thrown into this melting pot: false equivalencies between neo-Nazis and antifa; responding to police shootings by scouring the criminal records of victims and their families to build a narrative that they were “no angels”; the American managerial class’s complicity in beating the drums for an illegal war in Iraq (and here you can substitute for any imperial adventure—“Remember the Maine!”).

Despite whatever odd hiring rituals they might perform to expiate the sin of bias, whatever ceremonies they perform for their texts to attain the divine status of “balanced reporting,” and whatever human sacrifices they commit to retain a homogeneous workforce by purging undesirables, the effects of all such pageantry by management to protect the brand as an arbiter of truth will be as unsuccessful as pollsters’ prediction that Clinton would win the election.

Over time, the power of this managerial class to shape reality will prove to be more and more limited, while a new managerial class—one more explicitly fascist in theory and practice—is working furiously to take its place.