1955: The Seven Deadly Virtues
[This article originally appeared in the July 1955 issue of Nieman Reports.]
…So revolutionary a change in the role of the American citizen was bound to have its effect on American newspapers. For many years we newspapermen had given the American reader the kind of newspaper he wanted—a newspaper for the spectator. That kind of paper is no longer good enough. Today we must produce a newspaper for the citizen. We must produce a newspaper which will help the reader work out the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?”
The American press has many fine qualities, and if any layman should take what I am saying out of context, I will give him those qualities between the eyes.
But as a newspaperman who believes that the men and women who gather and edit the news will have much to do with the survival of our society, I fear that the transition to the newspaper of the future is being made too slowly, much too slowly.
Every branch of newsgathering and dissemination is still the prisoner of our spectator past. Both the ink and the vacuum tube branches are the victims of taboos and fetishes which they themselves have created. And some of the very virtues of American journalism have, I am afraid, become deadly virtues—almost as deadly as sin itself.
Deadly Virtue No. 1—“Objectivity”
What is “objectivity”? It is a discipline which reporters, editors and publishers impose upon themselves to keep their own feelings from affecting the presentation of the news. Objectivity is therefore a fine ideal.
For more than 100 years American newspapers have been progressing toward this ideal. If you would examine the intensely partisan and sometimes venal newspapers of a century ago, you would see how far our newspapers have come. And if you went across the country and talked to newspapermen everywhere and analyzed their writings, you would find very few who were not striving to live up to the ideal of objectivity as they understand it.
Then what is my objection to “objectivity”?
I have no objection to the ideal itself but only to our rigid and almost doctrinaire interpretation of objectivity. It seems to me that this narrow concept of objectivity sometimes brings us pretty close to the borders of irresponsibility. Too often our objectivity is simply the objectivity of the half-truth.
Among the American newspapermen who have been debating this subject there seem to be two divisions. The first might be called the fundamentalists, or the apostles of the literal word; the second, the liberal interpreters.
The fundamentalists believe that bias is inseparable from human nature and that reporters are at least as human as the rest of men. So reporters, they say, should simply get the facts and present them with as much detachment as they can, but should not try to fill in the background, interpret or analyze, especially when they are handling an explosive subject. The reader can be left to figure out the meaning of the facts for himself, or the editorial writers can help him out in a day or two.
The liberal interpreters believe that this strict interpretation of objectivity leads to serious abuses. They argue that, especially in times like these, a newspaper is not doing its job if it merely gives a reader “one- or two-dimensional reporting;” it must add a third dimension—meaning. Consequently, newspapers should encourage reporters to dig down through the surface facts and fill in the background, interpret and analyze.
To the liberal interpreters it seems that the fundamentalists would permit the reporter to report the spiel of the gold brick salesman but not to point out that the clay is showing through a crack in the gilt.
Why, they ask, should newspapermen refrain from putting a twist on the ball and then permit someone else to pitch the reader a curve?
Eric Sevareid put it this way:
“Our rigid formulae of so-called objectivity, beginning with the wire agency bulletins and reports—the warp and woof of what the papers print and the broadcasters voice—our flat, one-dimensional handling of the news, have given the lie the same prominence and impact that truth is given; they have elevated the influence of fools to that of wise men; the ignorant to the level of the learned; the evil to the level of the good.”
These comments of Mr. Sevareid, like much of the recent debate on objectivity, were inspired in part by the tactics of Senator McCarthy. The debate, as you might expect, has been heated and confused.
But now that McCarthyism, as someone has said, has ceased to be an ism and become a wasm, we may be able to make more progress.
I am sure that if a scholarly study were made of the part played by American newspapers in the rise of Senator McCarthy, it would show that the Senator understood the deadly virtues of the American press much more clearly than we do ourselves. Such a study would show, I am sure, that Senator McCarthy was able to exploit our rigid “objectivity” … in such a way as to make the newspapers his accomplices.
That is why I say that objectivity interpreted too literally can approach the borders of irresponsibility.
But we may be able to comprehend this problem of journalism a little more clearly if we keep it away from McCarthyism. Let me take an example of misguided objectivity—an imperfect example but one which came within my recent experience.
Several months ago our county held a referendum to decide whether voting machines should be acquired and used in future elections. On the day before the referendum, and shortly before the deadline for our afternoon paper, two of the county commissioners released a statement that if the vote were in favor of voting machines the county tax rate would have to be raised. We printed the story in the afternoon paper under a headline about the possible increase in the tax rate.
In the referendum the next day, voting machines were rejected by a margin of about 100 votes. The people who had favored the machines said that our story had swung the election. I think they were right.
Now what was wrong with that? We had merely reported the statement of the commissioners and we had reported it “objectively.”
The trouble was that the commissioners had raised a new issue on the very eve of the election, and as you know, not even atom bombs will scare voters so thoroughly as an increase in the county tax rate.
So I think there were two things we might have done if we had wanted to be truly objective. The first would have been to get together as quickly as possible some information on the other side of the case; this could have been used in a balanced story under a balanced headline. If time did not permit this, we might have held the story for the morning paper and presented a balanced roundup of the arguments on both sides, including the tax rate issue together with what people on the other side would have said about it. Actually, we did print such a story in the morning paper, but the afternoon story did the damage.
Now this, as I said, is not a perfect example of misguided objectivity, but it does show you that not only Senator McCarthy but much less sinister people can use the press for their purposes if we apply our rules without a sense of responsibility.
And surely fundamentalists and liberals ought to be able to agree on this one point of principle: that any practice or any part of our code which permits newspapers to be “used” should be carefully reconsidered.
Now, let’s look at one more example of “objective reporting”—this time a story by a master reporter who has done more than any other newspaperman to free us from some of our archaic practices.
In the 1948 presidential campaign, Governor Dewey, the Republican candidate, made a speech in which he claimed that he was the author of the bipartisan foreign policy.
James B. Reston of The New York Times covered the speech and reported Mr. Dewey’s claim. But Reston went further. He dug into the memoirs of Cordell Hull and reported in a sidebar story what Mr. Hull had said about the origins of the bipartisan foreign policy. From Mr. Hull’s account it appeared that Mr. Dewey had been guilty of some highly slanted reporting. Mr. Reston’s story must have shocked some of the fundamentalists. In their book, he was probably guilty of “editorializing.” But when a reporter has solid evidence that a statement is misleading, should he merely report the statement or should he give the reader the benefit of his additional knowledge?
The times are serious enough and American newspapermen are mature enough for us to apply to ourselves a stricter discipline than that required for the old objectivity.
And as we make the transition, let us lay down certain safeguards. First, we must resolve that in bringing a third dimension to reporting, we shall subject everyone—Republican or Democrat, industrialist or labor leader, legislator, businessman or football coach—to the same treatment. Secondly, we must find, train and pay the kind of reporters who can do three-dimensional reporting. Thirdly, we must back them up, not with the routine editing of the copy desk, but with the best editing skill of which we are capable.…
Wallace Carroll is Executive Editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel.