Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.
One of my less talented editors in my early days in the news business would gather the staff and say things like, “ Always be on the lookout for a good story.” I kid you not. Then he would look over at me and say, “and always play it down the middle.” He knew that I had trouble with that from the beginning.
How can you “play it down the middle” when the victim of a horrendous crime is a child? Or, for that matter, how do you keep yourself out of the story when you’re sent, as I was, to interview a kid dying of leukemia but hoping he would live until the baseball season? How can you write such a story with objectivity? If there are no tears on the page (we used paper then) you’ve done a lousy job.
Somewhere I read that Theodore Roosevelt, who called some of the best reporters of his day “muckrakers” but admired them for their trust busting work, told the press once that there was no way to “play it down the middle” of competing assertions that the natural color of grass is red, not green.
Today, Paul Krugman has told us, it’s the style of too much of the main stream press to give equal weight to nonsense as in, “on the one hand all the facts tell us Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, but here is another view” usually from a self-serving nut who is barely challenged but simply quoted. As if that fulfilled the reporter’s responsibility to tell the story, if not the truth.
A digression: Why is it news at all to give voice to verifiable nonsense? It may be useful if the reporter grills the subject and calls out his/her false statements. Isn’t the job of the reporter to tell the truth as best as he/she can learn it? You may not be able to call someone a liar, but you can expose the lies if you’ve done your homework before the interview.
Why, after all this time, are we Americans the only people on earth who are obliged to defend Darwin? Is it honest journalism to report seriously, as fact, that the earth is 6,000 years old and man walked with the dinosaurs?
At the Grand Canyon, where some rocks are two billion years old, one Park Service guide was obliged to represent the creationist view to provide both sides of the story. No wonder a large percentage of Americans, don’t know that the earth revolves around sun instead of the other way around.
I have been over this ground before, but I’m interested in making a further observation – that too many mainstream reporters, especially the careerists who earn too much money, don’t really care about the story they’re covering and the outcome. Outcomes matter, as in two elections in which the Democratic candidates – both good men – were trashed with the help of the press that stood by.
I wonder, for example, if Ceci Connolly, the Washington Post reporter who helped kill single payer health care by refusing to write about it early on, really cares about how this health care fracas turns out. Are reporters pulling for Obama’s success, or will they be glad to pounce on the President because it would be a good story if the reforms die? Will they care about the effect on people who, unlike themselves, will be without health insurance? And is this kind of objective, uncaring good for the country or journalism?
I was called to revisit this subject by a fine, lengthy piece by former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. Posted February 1 on Truthdig, it was entitled “The Creed of Objectivity Killed the News. And it quoted one of the best journalists I knew, the late Molly Ivins, a friend from my Texas days. While we search for the middle as if the truth lies there, Molly wrote,
“There is no such thing as objectivity, and the truth, that slippery little bugger, has the oddest habit of being way to hell off the one side or the other; it seldom nestles neatly halfway between two opposing points of view...It’s of no help to either readers or the truth to quote one side saying ‘cat,’ and the other side saying ‘dog,” while the truth is, there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes.”
Hedges calls this unthinking objectivity an “abject moral failing [that] has left the growing numbers of Americans shunted aside by our corporate state without a voice...The elitism, distrust and lack of credibility of the press...come directly from this steady and willful disintegration of the media’s moral core.”
I can’t disagree, but the mantra of objectivity is not solely to blame. The trouble and the amorality lies deeper. It may surprise you, but the best reporters for the best newspapers (and television) no longer carry the torch of objectivity. It’s not even held up in journalism schools as an ideal. As I’ve told journalism students, only a tape recorder can be objective, but a human reporter must listen to it and decide (subjectively) what is important and what is not.
What most reporters say they try for are accuracy, fairness and honesty. But that too can be a way to dodge finding out and reporting the truth. After Katrina, CNN’s Anderson Cooper became, and deserved to be a star, when he exposed the failings of the government in getting help to the people dying at the Superdome. He spoke the truth for those people and the rest of the country and there was no other side to the story.
Consider, in the extreme, the sham of the Fox network’s “fair and balanced.” It will ignore the truth, that elephant out in the bushes, to entertain the like-minded loonies who enjoy cat fights that get some precious space and air time. It’s not news or the truth, for weighed in the balance, the cat that can scream the loudest with the most outlandish, outweighs the elephant. Nevertheless, fairness and balance, as practiced by the most responsible main stream reporters, often become copouts for dodging the moral judgments about the stories they cover.
Robert Fisk, one of the best reporters in the Middle East, says that too often balance comes down to this: “Record the fury of a Palestinian whose land has been taken from him by Israeli settlers, but always refer to Israel’s “security needs” and its “war on terror.” If Americans are accused of torture, call it abuse...”
Once in 1991, I witnessed a heart-breaking scene at the Allenby Bridge, watching Palestinians crossing from Jordan to the West Bank, which technically does not belong to Israel. The Palestinians, especially the women were subjected to humiliating open air searches by armed Israeli soldiers.
My office told me to be fair in the story and note the threats to Israel’s security. I’ve been cautioned by an American editor not to describe the wall of separation between Israel and what’s left of the Palestinian territory as “apartheid.” But Israel’s more aggressive press calls it just that.
The best and most credible information a reporter can bring to a story is what he sees with his own eyes; too often that has to be balanced. But as Hedges said, “this becomes more of a way to obscure the truth.”
If reporters for the mainstream newspapers vigorously searched for the uncovered, controversial truth in a story, and exposed it with the same alacrity we probe and endlessly report on a congressman’s sexual transgressions, perhaps we could intelligently sort out from the barrage of news, the truth of what it means.
I suppose the bigots, nuts and know-nothings will always be with us, ignoring the facts and reason. But their voices and their enablers are amplified by modern journalism. Without some guidance from a reporter who knows his/her beat and points to the truth, we are left open to the ridiculous, lying rantings of right-wing talk shows. That, in turn, has prompted commercial television to bring us more liberal talk shows. But their elephants cannot compete with screaming cats, and Rachel Maddow’s solid reporting gets scant mainstream coverage compared to the stream of unconciousness raving of Glenn Beck.
Finally, the American people have never had more free communications sources for news. Yet they are among the most politically ignorant. According to a new Daily Kos poll of Republicans in the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, 68 percent think Obama should be impeached or are not sure. Fifty-three percent believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be president than Obama; another 33 percent were “not sure.”
The poll also found that nearly half of all Americans believe, after 26 years of polling, that God created human beings pretty much as they are 10,000 years ago. Author Frank Schaeffer, a former Republican who has been at war with the fundamentalist rightists of the Tea Party movement, whom he calls “village idiots,” notes as a preface to Hedges’ piece, “A village cannot revise village life to suit the village idiot.”
My question is why and how did they get that way?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Brenda Verbeck: On Life and Love and Stuff