Matthew Cardinale at an Atlanta city council committee meeting in January
Matthew Cardinale at an Atlanta city council committee meeting in January

A young, beefy Atlanta media figure stood in the well of his city’s council chambers on February 1, held a sheet of paper with lyrics on it up to his face, and sang a rap song.

The council was considering a measure to limit public comment at committee meetings, and Matthew Cardinale, founder and editor of the Web site Atlanta Progressive News, intended to make his feelings known.

Five minutes ain’t enough
To cover all our stuff.
Five minutes ain’t sufficient.
We shouldn’t need permission . . .

Cardinale’s 80-second performance made it to YouTube, but it did not go viral. He had better luck a few days later.

On February 10, Cardinale, 28, fired his top reporter by e-mail. When Andisheh Nouraee, blogging for the local alternative weekly Creative Loafing Atlanta (which shares a parent company with the Reader), asked what had happened to the reporter, Cardinale e-mailed him a reply that would soon startle journalists across the nation.

Cardinale began by grousing, “Atlanta Progressive News was not planning to make any public statements regarding Jonathan Springston’s departure from Atlanta Progressive News until having been contacted by [Nouraee] with the news agency’s threat of publishing a blog entry about it. It should be noted that Nouraee’s motives in writing this piece are questionable, seeing as how he has made negative statements about APN’s Editor in the past.”

But, since Nouraee had asked . . .

Cardinale praised Springston as a journalist, predicted he’d do well at a more mainstream sort of place such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or even Creative Loafing, and laid his departure from APN to philosophical differences. He explained: “At a very fundamental, core level, Springston did not share our vision for a news publication with a progressive perspective. He held on to the notion that there was an objective reality that could be reported objectively, despite the fact that that was not our editorial policy at Atlanta Progressive News. It just wasn’t the right fit.”

Once posted on Nouaree’s blog, this heresy did go viral. Cardinale’s language is a little muddled, positing a tension between a “progressive perspective” and belief in “objective reality” as if they were simply opposing choices. Nonetheless, his point is clear enough: Springston made the mistake of striving for objectivity when objectivity doesn’t exist.

Journalism, like the church and the law, is a faith-based profession. Whatever a priest might think from time to time about the existence of God, he must presume God exists because the work he does is predicated on it. Likewise with lawyers and justice. And likewise with journalists and objective reality.

Cardinale’s comments were soon being debated by members of a listserv I belong to that connects journalism graduates of the University of Missouri. Many grudgingly conceded that Cardinale had a point. For instance, freelance writer Anna Vitale remarked, “Sometimes I think American news sources would do more of a public service by taking a page out of the British playbook and, as this article says, not pretending to be objective. . . . Unfortunately, readers/viewers are all too often convinced that ‘their’ news source is objective. Might be nice if everyone just laid it out on the table.”

On the other hand, Robbie Ketcham, a young Mizzou graduate who’s now a Lutheran seminarian, wrote on the listserv that “if there’s no reality, then the whole practice of journalism might as well give up.

“Sure, the rejection of ontological reality might sound tempting at first. . . . We all like our egos boosted and to be told we know as much as anyone else, and so have as much claim on truth as anyone else. It sounds nice, that is, until you face the existential crisis that, in a world where everyone’s views are good and true, then nobody is truly good nor true.”

John Marsh, who runs a PR firm in Atlanta, admitted he’d lived there for 23 years and “never heard of APN until today.” That said, he had to agree with Cardinale. “His is a philosophical approach, to be sure,” Marsh wrote, “but then again, isn’t ‘objectivity’ in newsgathering and reporting a philosophical, learned approach? And haven’t reporters at outlets that subscribe to the philosophy of objectivity been fired for not being objective? I don’t think this episode in any way threatens journalism as we know it.”

Marsh was responding not merely to Nouaree’s blog but also to a much longer statement, “Notes on Objectivity and News,” that Cardinale had subsequently posted on the APN Web site to make his position clear. If objective reality shaped the news, he argued, all media would cover the same stories in the same way. But that clearly doesn’t happen. “Here’s an example: the Grady Hospital dialysis treatment scandal. As APN has reported, several patients were left without life-essential treatment options after Grady closed its dialysis clinic . . . You will find that APN gave much higher priority to the views of the patients and their advocates than we did to Grady officials, while the [Atlanta Journal-Constitution] did just the opposite. In part, our mission is shaped by the void left by other media outlets. Some publications did not even cover the Grady dialysis scandal. Well, if there’s an objective reality and the Grady situation is part of it, surely all news agencies would see it as newsworthy.”

But Cardinale is equating newsworthiness with importance, a connection that these days is flimsy at best. In his notes on objectivity, Cardinale compounds his error by declaring that APN observes two principles. The first is that objectivity in reporting does not exist. The second is that “progressive” news is news “that brings us closer to universal health care, living wages, affordable housing, peace, a healthy environment, and voting systems we can trust.”

But if there’s no objective reality there are no yardsticks, so I called to ask him how in the world he could presume to say “progressive news” brings us closer to anything.

“Well, we hope it does,” said Cardinale. “There’s all this information that isn’t making it through the corporate media filter. And we believe knowledge is power. And you can’t effectively advocate for these things in the democratic process if you don’t know basic facts.”

But if there’s no objective reality, there are no basic facts. I began to fear that Cardinale was less of a philosopher than we’d made him out to be, and that what he actually thinks is simply that there’s more reality than the MSM choose to acknowledge. That’s liberation theology but it’s not heresy.

“I have two master’s degrees,” said Cardinale, “and I sometimes forget everybody hasn’t studied these issues on a theoretical level. But I do believe there is no objective reality. What sociologists call a socially constructed intersubjective reality is what we have and it’s basically to say that within our communities we construct what reality is and how we see everything. We create a shared meaning, and I don’t think it’s a contradiction to say there are facts within a socially constructed intersubjective reality.”

I asked Cardinale to say more about his progressive agenda. Which is actually more progressive, I wondered: to advocate for the half a loaf that’s in reach or to insist on the whole loaf that isn’t? “There is a difference of opinion on that,” he allowed. But by taking “somewhat of an extreme position,” APN was making room for other progressive journalists to take more moderate positions and sound reasonable by comparison.

Cardinale told me he’d received a few dozen e-mails responding to his stand on objective reality, and he’d seen it discussed on around 100 blogs. “For as many people as thought it was right, there were some people who really weren’t ready for it,” Cardinale said. In fact, he was about to head over to the police to report a death threat.

This was the e-mail that began, “If I shoot you in the head with a .45 caliber pistol, you—with or without a witness to ‘create’ reality—will be dead, and I (with or without a witness) will be the shooter. That’s reality.” It went on to tell Cardinale that “it’s a young man’s naive, fake insight that there is no such thing as perfect objectivity. There isn’t such a thing, but it’s the effort to achieve it that is important” and concluded, “If you really think there’s no difference between Stalin’s Pravda and The New York Times (hideous as it often is), then you’re not just naive—you’re a danger to journalism.”

Were there others? I asked. Cardinale said, “I got one from a marine or someone in the U.S. military that said at the end, ‘Please die.'”

Springston, who’s 26, isn’t making much of this. He says he’s grateful to APN for the experience he got there. And as for not seeing eye to eye with his boss, he said he simply thought it was more important to keep his own opinions out of his stories and to take the time to hear from all sides than Cardinale did.

It wasn’t quite that, said Cardinale. “It was something as simple as his idea that the reporter has to be separate from the community. That you sit on the sideline with the notebook. This was not only about us saying we have a perspective but embracing that we are part of the community we serve.”

He abruptly asked, “Did you by any chance see the rap song I did? This is really special.”

Cardinale makes frequent appearances before the Atlanta city council during public comment time to champion his causes. Surely, he reasons, the media should stand up and speak out on behalf of free speech and open government. That’s what he did in his rap.

There should be a celebration
Of our participation.
Instead you want to keep the public out the conversation.

“It was fabulous,” Cardinale told me.

When the video went up on YouTube, Cardinale asked Springston what he thought. “Jonathan likes music. I thought maybe he’d like a good rap, you know,” Cardinale told me. But Springston considered such a performance inappropriate, and he hadn’t watched the video. (He tells me he still hasn’t.)

“You can imagine how that might have been a little hurtful,” said Cardinale.