The death of objectivity is no recent crime. We are just late in reporting it. The atrocities committed by the national press in its coverage of the Chicago riots near last summers' Democratic Convention brought the matter to the attention of the public, but it was a dead issue, a revisiting of an old gravesite. Attempts to revive the ancient master were doomed to fail.
Those who might have wished to seek justice for the slaying learned that the courts are packed. When the national press is philosophically corrupt, where does one print the accusation? If the presiding judge, most of the mass media, believes subjectivity a virtue, and objectivity a nuisance, if not an evil, and if the jury (the public) apathetically agrees, then acquittal is all but certain.
Then the felon will go free, to flaunt his guilt, knowing full well his evil will go unchallenged. Thus said Newsweek last summer, in response to widespread criticism; "Newsmen should be willing to dismiss the illusion that there is such a thing a 'pure objectivity' in reporting."
As a comment on the state of the art, Newsweek's admonition would be a good one: to hold that today's reporting is objective would be to entertain an obvious delusion. But Newsweek's recommendation was not meant as social comment; it was a statement of purpose—and practice.
You may be interested in the verdict handed down by Newsweek's rivals, in view of this open confession. Time, best in a position to profit from Newsweek's errors, passed down a most revealing finding in its publisher's page of Sept. 20, 1968.
Objectivity?—Time asked quizzically, with an exaggerated frown. "We don't believe in it. We never have." Objectivity, it asserted, "is probably as undesirable as it is impossible."
"To pretend that journalism can be [objective], to create an artificial air of just-the-facts, can be more misleading than the most inflammatory polemic.
"What Time strives for is not objectivity but fairness. We know that the truth is based on an interplay between fact and opinion, and that the two are inextricable. We always try to see to it that our facts are selected through balanced judgement, that our judgements are supported by reliable facts…"
This, the first feature in a new series of articles on various aspects of new-reporting, will focus on objectivity.
Because it is perhaps the most explicit of the new (self-professed) non-objective school of journalism, we have chosen Time to serve as springboard for the series. In a courageous retreat from reality, Time has openly dropped adherence to fact in favor of propagating "truth", overridden objectivity in deference to "fairness."
Since we had never before regarded fact as antithetical to truth, and since we had always thought that journalistic fairness required objectivity, we were puzzled by Time's announcement. In order to better understand these seeming contradictions, we decided to form an expedition into the mystical verbal jungle that is Time.
After nearly a year in the field (June 21, 1968 until present) , we return, to report our amazing adventure. We discovered strange terrain and rare, oddly shaped animals called "dialectics." It was a dangerous mission; we nearly lost our guide to an unaccountable persuasive tribal ritual called "black capitalism" (REASON, March 69), finally convincing him to return with us to the coast. There were several injuries; a young researcher who tripped over a slender vine the natives refer to as "underprivileged," and our doctor, who foolishly wounded himself while carelessly playing with his rifle in a local custom called "gun control."
A word of warning to those adventurous readers who might wish to visit this distant jungle-nation; the conceptual landscape we encountered in the deep interior is incredibly rugged, studded with sharp contradictions, and inhabited by sporadic hoards of erudite savages who attempt to convert explorers to moral cannibalism. The paths the villagers have beaten into the jungle floor are steep and winding, and often meander aimlessly, in circles. It is easy to become lost, confused, demoralized, and even injured in this chaotic territory. Only those with strong, purposeful minds, set upon clear, consistent premises, will be safe.
If, after studying our guidebook, you decide to chance an introductory safari of your own (12 cents an issue; 20 weeks minimum), we must offer as our last grim reminder of the uncivilized, lawless nature of the country, this quote from the decree of its publisher-king, James R. Shepley; "of all the myths of journalism, objectivity is the greatest."
Remember: forewarned is forearmed.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Judge and the Jungle".