Features Archive - Respond to this Article

Jan/Feb 1999 - Volume 31 Issues 1 & 2

Special 30th Anniversary Section - JUST THE FACTS
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Jonathan Alter:

is a Newsweek columnist and an
NBC News contributing correspondent.

One of the most enduring visual images of the news business is the "zipper" - the electronic display belt (most famously in Times Square) that relays breaking news to passersby. "Pearl Harbor attacked," "FDR dead" "Space shuttle launched" - the zipper has always been concise, clear, and as "objective" as it is possible to be.

Until now. At the corner of 49th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, Fox News has a zipper that I like to watch when I have the chance. Many of the bulletins that move across the zipper include a cute little two- or three-word comment thrown in afterwards. The zipper has a little extra zip, usually from the conservative side where Fox and its owner Rupert Murdoch stand, and occasionally I get a chuckle out of it. Call it the respect of one wise guy for another. After all, for a decade I've been one of the authors of Newsweek's Conventional Wisdom Watch, which each week makes snippy little comments about figures in the news. Before that, I laced my Washington Monthly articles with plenty of "attitude."

But I'm starting to have some second thoughts about my role in the "Attitude Revolution." It's one thing for magazines to try to be clever. Columnists and talking heads (I'm guilty of being both) can offer their opinions. But zippers are supposed to stay zipped up. The news sections of newspapers, like television anchors, are supposed to deliver the news straight. Textured reporting is welcome, but snide assessments of motive belong in feature pieces and magazines. Phrases like "In an effort to divert attention " and "In an attempt to appear presidential " should not be in the news section.

How did we get here? How did the walls start breaking down? I've got a few pet theories:

The End of the Cold War: The seriousness of the bipolar struggle tended to inhibit attitudinizing in the news pages. Starting in World War II, the press tended to define news as what government officials said or did on a given day, because those words and actions were at least distantly tied to our survival. Today's media climate is a return to the prewar racy standard, which was called "ballyhoo" during the 1920s. With the end of the Cold War, the stakes are smaller, which means we're more free to indulge in silly partisanship and triviality.

At the same time, the duality of the global struggle - and the duality embedded in a legal system that came to dominate much of American life - made people think that offering two sides to a story somehow made it fair. The clash of competing forces defined news - and led the way to truth. Or so the theory goes. The inadequacy of that adversary structure has become clearer since the Cold War ended, even as it insinuates itself deeper in the media culture.

Technology: The Internet lends itself to attitude and opinion - to the idea that everyone has his or her view, and that they are of equal value. And the fragmentation of media because of cable technology means that there's a lot more time to fill. Straight, "objective" news can't fill it. Just reporting straight news doesn't get you ahead in the intensely competitive world of TV news. Sad to say, audiences prefer chewing over old, sexy news to hearing fresh news that doesn't make the blood race. Newspapers have a different problem. They no longer bring people the headlines, which readers have heard on TV or radio. So they include more packaging, analysis and attitude in order to stay alive. That's not all bad; good analysis is important in a confusing world. But spin is cheaper to produce.

Baby boomers: When they were young, baby boomers wrote for college and underground papers that were more like the foreign press - long on opinion and shorter on facts. Boomers were often intensely political when they were young, and many stayed political even when real ideological differences faded. Axe-grinding that began over weighty issues like Vietnam has now extended to trivia. Moreover, some of those who became journalists also grew up believing that "stenographic" reporting was a bit below their ambitions, especially if they wanted to go on TV to analyze the news (I plead guilty again). For the academically inclined (and a growing number of them ended up in journalism), the whole idea of "objectivity" was contrary to deconstructionism, the still current academic fashion in which texts all contain hidden messages of bias and privilege. The unspoken logic: If "objectivity" is impossible, why try?

The cult of attribution: The decline of "objectivity" is partly an understandable reaction to journalism that sometimes made a fetish of attribution. One reason I was never comfortable working on newspapers was that I disliked having to attribute perfectly obvious facts to someone else. At most papers, basic statements of fact ("The sky is blue") were required to have a ludicrous level of attribution ("according to the National Weather Service"). A looser standard of attribution has mostly been a positive development in American journalism. The New York Times, for instance, is a better written, more interesting newspaper than in the past in part because of new standards of what's permissible in the news sections.

The wrong lens: The problem is that the Times and other news organizations are losing sight of what news is. In September, for instance, President Clinton signed an executive order offering (not just proposing) important new protections to 120 million Americans in HMOs. The Times gave the story three paragraphs on page 21. What was once a clear definition of news - a decision that affects large numbers of people - is no longer big news because it's not "hot." It doesn't lend itself to conflict, spin, secrecy, scandal and personal attacks or quirks - the new standards of news.

The public is hypocritical about all of this. Viewers complain about the poor news diet, but routinely zap cable shows (the networks are a different story) every time they turn away from Monica Lewinsky. Even so, there is a growing unhappiness about the direction of news coverage. Readers and viewers want "objectivity" back. The first step toward doing that is to understand where "objective" journalism came from in the first place.

Just the Facts: How Objectivity Came to Define American Journalism, by David T. Z. Mindich,* is a good place to begin. Mindich opens with the common but important caveat that there is no such thing as "true objectivity" and that the word should always be used with quotation marks around it. He quotes Sydney Gruson of The New York Times: "Pure objectivity might not exist, but you have to strive for it anyway." Christiane Amanpour, a now-famous reporter for CNN and CBS, recently gave a speech updating the old standard. "Objectivity," said Amanpour, "means giving all sides a fair hearing, but not treating all sides equally So objectivity must go hand in hand with morality."

As Amanpour suggests, some of the changes in the old, unthinking standard of "objectivity" have resulted from hard thinking about the issue, not just a desire to get ratings and readers with a few clever remarks. There are not "two sides" to the atrocities she reports on. Sometimes there are six sides to a story - or only one. And the conventions of the news business have been easily manipulated by people in power to inhibit the reporting of the truth. The charges of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, for instance, were reported "objectively."

Mindich doesn't deal with McCarthyism or other 20th century cases; he's more interested in the 19th century origins of "objectivity," and those origins are illuminating. Because this is an academic (though clearly written) book, he breaks down "objectivity" into its journalism textbook components: detachment, nonpartisanship, inverted pyramid, facticity and balance. Each arose as a journalistic convention as a result of particular developments in American history.

Detachment and non-partisanship come from the Jacksonian and immediate pre-Civil War eras. James Gordon Bennett, the founder of the New York Herald, ran a splenetic and vicious penny paper, but he was the first major newspaper owner who was associated with no party. He went back and forth, endorsing the Democrat in one presidential election, the Whig in another. More important, in agitating against another newspaper editor who advocated duels and once beat up Bennett himself, he pioneered the idea of peaceful, if vitriolic, means of resolving disputes. This kind of nonviolent non-partisanship was tremendously popular. And by mid-century, detachment and independence were beginning to sell as party papers faltered.

Soon the old strictly chronological, narrative newspaper style, where the news was buried in the 25th paragraph, also began to fade. It was replaced by the inverted pyramid, the structural underpinning of a modern news story, in which the most important facts come first, in a "lead," with other facts presented in descending order of importance. According to Mindich, this approach grew out of coverage of the Lincoln assassination in 1865. Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, the greatest press censor in American history, also originated the inverted pyramid. While war correspondents still filed flowery narratives, Stanton, who had total control of all new information, telegraphed the first terse bulletins from the war department. Stanton was also the first to use the conventions of "objectivity" to bolster authority. By the 1880s, it was standard for newspapers. The telegraph, which placed a premium on speed and economy of style, became an important technological tool of "objectivity."

I've noticed that the inverted pyramid is distinctly out of fashion on the news programs watched by the most viewers - TV news magazines. The basic story structure on "Dateline" is right out of 19th century journalism: a strong narrative with the news - the payoff - buried far down in the story in order to maintain suspense and keep people watching after the commercial breaks.

The purchase of The New York Times by Adolph Ochs in 1896 is often seen as a landmark in the development of "objectivity." While William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer pioneered yellow journalism, the Times was developing a sense of "balance" that would heavily influence journalism in the 20th century. But Mindich examines the case of Ida B. Wells, a former slave turned crusading journalist who showed how flawed the Times' "balanced" coverage of lynchings turned out to be. It's Wells' critique of phony balance - two sides to every story - that has informed the better critiques of objectivity today.

So how to balance the need for "objectivity" with good writing, good analysis, and good humor? Not easily. We should want reporters to analyze, reach conclusions, and write with style. The only answer I can envision is to erect a stronger firewall between anchors and commentators, between news shows and entertainment shows and between the news sections of a newspaper and the rest of the paper. The risk is boredom, lost ratings, and lost circulation. The reward would be greater confidence in what people watch and read. The good news is that truly partisan, biased news organizations don't make big money in the media game. In the last quarter century, the big profits have generally gone to reliable papers and networks with a reputation for some objectivity in their news sections. The Wall Street Journal and ABC News are more profitable than The New York Post and Fox TV. Smart news executives know this, and are watching the balance carefully.


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