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Two Objective Looks at Objectivity

By Steve Weinberg / October 22, 1998



JUST THE FACTS: HOW OBJECTIVITY CAME TO DEFINE AMERICAN JOURNALISM

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By David T. Z. Mindich

New York University Press

208 pp., $24.95

WHAT THE PEOPLE KNOW: FREEDOM AND THE PRESS

By Richard Reeves

Harvard University Press

128 pp., $19.95

Richard Reeves is a respected veteran journalist who wants fellow journalists to concentrate on ferreting out the truth without fear or favor. That sounds like a mundane topic for a book. After all, what else would journalists be expected to do?

But Reeves's What the People Know is anything but mundane because so many journalists either have no idea how to ferret out the truth, or seem to have forgotten that part of their job. Many have never honed interviewing skills, proudly refuse to learn shorthand to assist accurate notetaking, know little about locating or analyzing revelatory public records, are ignorant about computer- assisted reporting, accept their sources' self-interested versions of events without checking further - thus allowing rumors, trial balloons, and personal agendas to reach the public disguised as apparent fact.

Reeves illustrates how most journalists covering the early rumors of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sexual relationship showed their lack of concern for truth by printing rumors planted by sleazy sources instead of reaching the verification stage through old-fashioned reporting.

After pseudojournalist Matt Drudge placed the Clinton- Lewinsky rumors on his Internet site, lots of experienced journalists abdicated their responsibility to the truth. Reeves writes, "Hacks and hackers came together, dumping information as raw as sewage on the American people.... Assuming 1O percent of it was true, or 95 percent of it was true, the question of which 1O percent or which 95 percent was generally left to the imagination."

A former New York Times reporter who has written 10 other books, Reeves presented this indictment of his colleagues at a Harvard lecture. He then turned the lecture into this book. It reads more like a speech than a book, which is too bad, because much of Reeves's great style is lost in a speech format. But the content - part personal reminiscence, part media critique - makes this book worthwhile for anybody who cares about Reeves's illustrious career or the state of journalism.

David Mindich's Just the Facts is about journalism in the 19th century, not the end of the 20th century. Yet, coincidentally, it is a superb setup to Reeves's thoughts about the contemporary state of the craft. Mindich, a former Cable News Network editor turned professor at St. Michael's College, Colchester, Vt., explains - in approachable language too rarely used by academics - how a politically partisan press came to accept objectivity as its touchstone.

It was a slow evolution. But by the 1890s, objectivity had become the goal at newspapers and magazines. Most journalists considered themselves not only politically nonpartisan, but also detached from society in general, empirically minded in their everyday lives and willing slaves to the fashionable inverted-pyramid style of writing that emphasized who, what, when, and where instead of why and how.

Objectivity spawned its own set of problems, including giving audiences two or more sides of a story even when the journalist knew at least one side deserved to be ignored. Mindich shows how objective journalism could not overcome certain deep-seated prejudices such as racism. Toward the end of his book, he includes a brilliant chapter on newspaper coverage of lynchings of African-Americans. It took Ida Wells, one of very few African-American woman in journalism at the time, to expose the lies embedded in the supposedly objective coverage of these murders.

Mindich links history to contemporary practice by examining the current debate about objectivity through his 100-year-old lens. As once-objective daily newspapers face decreasing circulation, general-interest magazines struggle to survive, and network news divisions lay off hundreds at a time, so-called new media, many of them decidedly anti-objectivity, are growing exponentially.

"With so many storytellers - each of the thousands of home pages, for example, is a separate news source - and with so many departing from the information model of objective news, journalists are called on once again to define themselves," Mindich says. "It is no surprise that the nature of news and objectivity should reemerge as an issue so important to the profession."

Mindich never idealizes objectivity, and rightly so. Yet, despite the problems it spawned, objectivity also led many journalists to act cautiously for fear of presenting unbalanced material to the public. Caution by journalists before publishing - no matter what their delivery medium - would be a welcome development.

* Steve Weinberg, a biographer in Columbia, Mo., is writing a biography of muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell.