1968: The Newsman—Society’s Lonesome End
[This article originally appeared in the March 1968 issue of Nieman Reports.]
I would like to address my remarks to the younger journalists—those who will soon be leaving school. You will be the ones who will bear the responsibility of this profession in years to come.
I would like to touch on some of the broader aspects of our profession—namely, what can you expect when you leave school to become an editor or reporter.
Several years ago the Army football coach devised a new offense where one end stayed at an extreme side of the field and sometimes didn’t even come to the huddle between plays. Sports writers dubbed him “the lonesome end.” He was part of the team but remote from it. He was part of the action but divorced from it.
The first lonesome end was Cadet Bill Carpenter. He played his position perfectly and followed through in real life because he was decorated with the nation’s second highest award for bravery. In Vietnam as a captain, he called down fire on his own position when it looked as though it would be overrun by the Vietcong.
The image of the lonesome end in football was criticized—particularly in the middle of the week when the sports writers don’t have anything else to write about. But Carpenter didn’t worry about his image at West Point or in Vietnam.
I would like to draw some parallels between the lonesome end and the journalist.
Today, it is the newsman, the reporter, the editor who stands alone, separated from society but a vital part of it—divorced from the action but a recorder of it.
If the reporter writes about drug addiction he is charged with making it attractive to non-users. If he doesn’t he is suppressing the news; if he writes about Negro nationalists he is accused of writing about a tiny minority; if he doesn’t he is told he is not reporting the true militancy of the Negro; if he writes of a military victory in Vietnam he is attacked by the doves; if he writes of the failure of the Vietnamese to clear their house of corruption he is attacked by the hawks; if he reports that the rapist was a six-feet four-inch Negro he is charged with stirring racial hatred; if he doesn’t he is accused of misrepresenting the crime; if he reports that the Mets are strictly a dismal bunch of stumblebums he is against the new team in town; if he doesn’t he is a publicity agent. And so it goes.
The newsman is the lonely end of society. From his position he looks at a strife-torn, controversial world which seems bent on its own destruction. He is in constant danger of losing his reportorial cool.…
We are beset today with the problem of rioting in our cities, multiple crises growing out of segregation and integration, or Black Nationalism, or the never-ending war in Vietnam, or the lightning war in the Middle East. But it is well for the journalist to remember that civilizations of the past faced similar problems which they felt were fully as important. It is also well to remember some of these ancient problems were never settled in any black and white way, but simply lapsed into a state of tolerability.
Many of our problems today will never be solved but simply will be accepted by generations in the future as undesirable but tolerable.
The difference between this age and others is that instant communications have spread the effect of problems over vast multitudes of people. And these people differ in color, history and civilizations. These differences in turn multiply the effect of common problems making their solution difficult and sometimes impossible.
It is the journalist—the newsman—who is the master of these new communications. It is his responsibility to see these scientific miracles serve mankind to bridge gaps, not create them. This is a tremendous responsibility.
The concept of objectivity in the news and the reporter being a noncombatant and an observer rather than a partisan is relatively new in journalism. It is this striving for objectivity that places the journalist apart from society today. It is this struggle for objectivity that keeps him awake at night as he wrestles with the facts. It is this concept of nonpartisanship that makes him fair game for the partisans.
There is a simple solution for some journalists. It is a guaranteed tranquilizer. If he wants to, he can become a partisan spokesman in one of the controversies of the day—for or against the war in Vietnam, for or against integration, for or against Israel or the Arabs. In one of these secure positions he will at least have some friends, and he can flail away at his enemies with gusto. He can fit the facts to his prejudices. He can be a professional liberal or a professional conservative.
But…to the true newsman partisanship is the original sin, the apple in the journalistic Eden.
It is easy to eat but hard to digest, because a journalist deals in facts in his work and they continually come back to haunt him because facts are often contradictory. And the journalist, knowing this, cannot seize the easy partisan solution without a crisis of conscience.
Therefore, a true newsman of today must be aloof to controversy, a part of society but not an acting participant in its disputes.
This lonely end position makes the journalist fair game for critics, but we should not worry about this. The louder the critic, the less founded his criticism is likely to be.…
Of course, the same feeling exists in the public about Vietnam. Despite the millions of words printed and spoken. There is a credibility problem not only on the part of the government. The newsman must establish his credibility. He must convince the public he is truly detached from the causes of the day. He must convince them by his skills as a reporter that he has no cause to serve except to get the truth. He must convince them by his honesty he is truly the public’s eyes and ears, their trusted representative at complex or distant events.
He must convince them he will not succumb to the red dogs of the lobbyists.
He must convince them that he is motivated alone by pride in his profession.
And he must convince the public he is willing to call down the fire of the partisans on his own head, as Captain Carpenter did, if it becomes necessary—and it will become necessary.
If he does these things he will be believed, not loved but respected, which is all he can ask. His constant difficult task will be to put the news in perspective.
In perspective—when he writes about the draft protests to point out that this phenomenon is not new. In fact, during the Civil War draft riots in New York City between four and five hundred rioters were killed. In addition, the rioters killed 98 federal registrars in the North. These figures make the rioting even in Detroit look small. In perspective—when writing about Vietnam to constantly put before the reader that no one, hawk or dove, has proposed a viable solution.
In perspective—to point out the black community is divided among the Black Nationalists who want to establish their own black society and those who want an integrated society with the whites. That the white society is also divided between those who favor integration as the solution and those who would keep an all-black society separate. Despite this, there is no common ground even for a sensible dialogue.
Perspective is the indispensable key in this age for the reporter….
I emphasize again the difference between this age and others is that instant communications have given the journalist an immense audience which in turn means his work can have a tremendous impact on our civilization.…
Wes Gallagher, General Manager of The Associated Press, delivered this speech at the national convention of Sigma Delta Chi in Minneapolis.