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Rebuttal To Hedge’s Claim That Objectivity Killed The News

By James Donahue

Chris Hedges, former Middle East Bureau Chief for the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize Winner and author, recently published an editorial piece that claimed the long-standing creed of objectivity and balance among writers and editors has led to the decline and contemporary fall of the newspaper industry.

Hedges wrote that this creed was “formulated at the beginning of the Ninteenth Century by newspaper owners to generate greater profits from advertisers. He said it consequently “disarms and cripples the press.”

He wrote: “The creed of objectivity becomes a convenient and profitable vehicle to avoid confronting unpleasant truths or angering a power structure on which news organizations depend for access and profits.

“This creed transforms reporters into neutral observers or voyeurs. It banishes empathy, passion and a quest for justice. Reporters are permitted to watch but not to feel or to speak in their own voices. They function as ‘professionals’ and see themselves as dispassionate and disinterested social scientists.

“This vaulted lack of bias, enforced by bloodless hierarchies of bureaucrats, is the disease of American journalism.”

Egad, where is this man . . . this exalted and crusted journalist who once held key positions with the nation’s finest newspaper, the New York Times . . . coming from? Has he been watching Fox News or tipping too many drinks with such corrupted publishers as Rupert Murdock?

Sadly the newspaper industry is falling victim to the high-speed electronic media, which gets news and reports of a maze of world happenings, both newsy and otherwise, into our homes and our brains so quickly that newspapers are regarded as dinosaurs. Their faithful readers are the elderly who don’t easily adapt to change.

As a retired newspaper reporter and editor, I can say that I saw this coming during the final years that I spent pounding the beat and feeding news stories to our readers. I was responding to a growing demand for shorter, more concise and informative news stories and tried to style my reports to meet this need. But I was in a strange conflict with editors that believed breezy, human-interest and human related stories would save the day instead. This led to news reports that centered on an individual’s struggle with an issue, but not getting around to telling the story until somewhere in the middle of a long story that few readers were willing to wade through.

But always, even while disagreeing with just how to tell the story, we all agreed that news stories had to remain objective reports of exactly what happened. The thread-worn promotion by Fox News: “We report, you decide,” was a motto we took seriously.

The trick in good reporting was to always remember that there are two sides to every issue. If one side is raised in an issue gaining public attention, we broke our necks sometimes attempting to get someone to give the story balance by telling the other side.

One prime example of this kind of reporting, drawn from my own experiences, occurred during a public meeting of a mental health board in Michigan. There were some hot issues, mostly involving an attempt by the mental health staffers to join a union, and the board meetings often erupted with emotional outburst from not only the members, but from the public. At this meeting, someone accused the agency director of having fake credentials obtained from a school in another state, and that he was unqualified to hold the job he held. They said he was hired to break the union and for no other reason.

This, of course, was a very hot story. But strangely, even though the man accused of these misdeeds sat present in the room, he failed to defend himself. He refused to answer the charge, but sat silently, which in a strange way, implied guilt. He quickly rushed out of the room at the end of the meeting, never allowing reporters a chance to ask him about the allegation.

I wrote my story, but even though my newspaper published every day at 11 a.m., we held the presses that day until I could get some kind of a statement from the director. Telephone calls to his office went unreturned. Finally, I stood outside his office door for over an hour, waiting for him to come out for his lunch. Sometime during the noon hour, that door opened, the director appeared, and I confronted him. “Are the charges true?” he was asked. His answer: “No comment.”

This was what appeared in our newspaper story that day.

But we did not stop there. Because the man refused to talk about it, my newspaper financed a trip from Michigan to Kentucky, where this fellow allegedly attended college and received his masters degree in psychology. I spent a week tracking his steps that led even farther south to a small school in Louisiana. In the end we learned that the man held no more than a BA degree in education. His training in psychology was in a psychology and education class in Louisiana.

Before I could write and publish my story, the man resigned is job and disappeared from the area. In the end, we rested assured that our news reporting had been fair and honest, and did not irresponsibly damage a man’s reputation.

This was the reason I loved good journalism, and deeply regret watching it fade away because of declining readership, declining advertising revenue and rising costs of paper, ink and hiring good writers. Newspapers cannot compete with the Internet, where news comes to us at the speed of light and doesn’t cost us beyond the money we spend for the electronic service.

While it is true that big paying advertisers sometimes attempted to influence the news by threatening to drop their accounts if we printed a story they did not like, this rarely happened, if if it did, it usually did not affect the overall income of the business or the quality of the newspaper. We did not strive for objectivity and balance to appease the advertisers. We did it because it was the right thing to do.

Hodges wrote that “reporters who witness the worst of human suffering and return to newsrooms angry see their compassion washed out or severely muted by the layers of editors who stand between the reporter and the reader.”

If this was his attitude while working in the field, Hodges was obviously biased. Thus he was the wrong person to be feeding news from the Middle East to the pages of the New York Times. And if the other reporters working with him in that field shared his feelings, we must question whether we have been told the true story of events in that region of the world.

Newspapers have traditionally taken stands on important issues of the day, but they have reserved this right for the editorial page. Some newspapers reserve the editorial opinion to that of the editors. But other papers I worked at invited reporters into editorial press meetings to discuss issues, choose the ones that needed to be addressed, and even vote on the position the newspaper needed to take.

This is because every issue has more than one side. And when you poll even the news reporters, they don’t always agree on which side is the right one.

This is why objectivity in the news is so important. And this is what is sorely missing in much of the contemporary news we are getting on much of our television, radio and Internet reporting. Without finding a way back into real objectivity in the distribution of important information, I fear that the people of America are being misled into a chasm of lies and deceit that is fast destroying the nation as we once knew it.