Two reporters started arguing in Boston in 1979. It’s not over yet

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The subject of their disagreement was journalistic “objectivity,” a notion that dates back at least to the 1920s, when some of the more noble newspapers and magazines tried to distinguish themselves from scandal sheets and publications run by partisans and sometimes politicians. warmongers. editors.

In a corner, Alan Berger. In 1979, he was a 41-year-old media columnist for Real Paper, an alternative weekly born out of a break with its predecessor, Boston Phoenix. Before starting to monitor the press, Berger had grown up in the Bronx, attended Harvard University, and lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in French, on the poet Charles Baudelaire.

His target in the objectivity debate – which has come to life in the political turmoil of recent years – was Tom Palmer. At the time, Palmer was a 31-year-old Associate National Editor of the Boston Globe, meaning he belonged to the establishment and therefore was an ideal target for Real Paper. Palmer had grown up in a newspaper family in Kansas City, but dreamed of being a farmer before fighting organic chemistry and ending up in his father’s trade.

The particular topic of Berger’s column, published April 21, 1979, with a front-page teaser from Real Paper, was how the media covered the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. The underlying topic was something larger – the debate within the news media industry as to when and if journalists should tell readers what they really think about issues and events on which they write. To make his point, Berger named Palmer by name, describing him as “thoughtful, honest, and entirely conventional.”

Berger wrote that he was particularly struck by something the Globe editor told him in defense of the newspaper’s cover on Three Mile Island: that it was his job “not to make the situation worse than it was not “.

In a recent interview, Berger recalled that his take on the issue was influenced by the deferential media coverage of the Vietnam War. “Excessive loyalty to his own traditional notions of balance and objectivity,” he wrote in his column, had in fact distorted reality – and Palmer’s sincere dedication to old values, Berger wrote, was exactly what was so dangerous about him.

“By the end of this millennium, the objectivity of some very honest people in the media will also make them look like irresponsible fanatics,” the columnist wrote of Palmer and others like him.

Details have changed over the decades since, but much of Berger’s column could have been written yesterday. (And alternative weeklies foreshadowed the style and tone of online journalism.) Donald Trump’s rise to power and the media’s growing awareness that a studied neutrality often hides a unique and dominant perspective has shaken many traditional assumptions. Of the industry.

A new and diverse generation of journalists sought to dismantle the old order, and much of the conflict in recent years has been unfolding at the Washington Post, whose then-editor Martin Baron had won over the Pulitzers and challenged presidents by making use of the traditional tools of news journalism. But Baron also insisted that his employees voice their opinions on Twitter on the topics they were covering.

His former protégé, national correspondent Wesley Lowery, argued in a widely circulated opinion piece in the New York Times that objectivity reflected the worldview of white journalists and editors, whose “selective truths were calibrated to avoid offending the sensitivity of white readers ”. Lowery, who ended up leaving The Post for CBS News, suggested that news agencies “drop the appearance of objectivity as an ambitious journalistic standard, and that reporters instead focus on fairness and truth, the better. as one can, based on the given context and available facts.

Tom Palmer, former editor and reporter for the Boston Globe, who said the arguments against journalistic objectivity “were completely wrong then and I think they are even more so today,” to Natick, Mass., October 9, 2021. In 1979, two reporters got into an argument – more than four decades later, they haven’t settled it. Kayana Szymczak / The New York Times

This same argument has also been adopted by some of America’s leading journalism schools.

“We focus on fairness, fact-checking and accuracy, and we don’t try to suggest to our students that their opinions should be withheld,” said Sarah Bartlett, dean of the City University of New York. Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “We favor transparency. “

Steve Coll, his Columbia Journalism School counterpart, who announced Thursday that he would step down in June after nine years as dean, said Columbia tries to teach fairness and intellectual honesty – adding that the he old way of thinking has turned into something new. “The church is gone and there is no more orthodoxy,” he said. “There is a lot of journalism, and it’s a little liberating.”

Much of the change has to do with the changing nature of the news industry and the decline of local newspapers, whose activities often depended on taking a stand within the institution. The internet also blurred the lines between news and opinion for readers, which were clear in a print newspaper.

The Globe’s liberal opinion page, in fact, hired Berger in 1982, a few years after scolding Palmer. The two men sometimes sat down to have lunch together in the cafeteria on the top floor of the Globe. The room had a view of the city center and, in the heyday of the newspapers, was the frequent site of Olympian debates about the role of the press, recalls another colleague, columnist Ellen Goodman.

Both men had the kind of long and varied careers that were common in major metro newspapers. Berger wrote foreign policy editorials and a foreign media column before retiring in 2011. Palmer switched between editing and reporting, covering the fall of the Berlin Wall (he brought back some of it for Goodman) and the infamous Boston Trafficking Project known as the Big Dig before a new editor, Baron, moved it to his last time, real estate. He left The Globe in 2008 and got into public relations.

Palmer never quite dropped the point. He has named himself a sort of awesome industry watchdog, ultimately known for his persistent emails to reporters and editors who he said allowed their liberal views to infiltrate their copy. He still sends a lot of emails, including to me. When he sent me Berger’s old chronicle, it stuck with me because it seemed quite contemporary to me.

Needless to say, Palmer isn’t convinced by the arguments against his cherished ideal. They were “completely wrong then,” he emailed me, “and I believe they are even more wrong today.”

“Journalists are just not smart and educated enough to change the world,” he continued. “They should damn well educate the public to the best of their ability and let the public decide. “

He also said, with regret, that he believed his team were losing. The notion of objectivity “was in decline before Trump, and that era took it completely off the table,” he wrote. “I doubt he’ll ever come back.”

Berger, in an interview, admitted that he had “to some extent” won the point. Palmer’s conventional stance in the Trump era “is starting to sound like a radical vision,” he said.

This decades-long argument does not fit perfectly with some of the most important questions of the day, those faced by journalists who won the Nobel Peace Prize last week, Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia. They have been persecuted, to the core, not because their governments dislike their style of journalism, but because their governments will not tolerate the notion of independent, truth-seeking journalism.

The original idea around the very misused notion of objectivity, when it was introduced in the 1920s, had to do with making journalism “scientific” – that is, with the idea that journalists could test hypotheses against reality and prove their claims. In the most generous interpretation, it was to establish a shared public space in which the facts could be arbitrated and to know that one could also be wrong.

Indeed, one of the easiest ways to know if you can trust a journalist, I have always found, is to check if the person is able to admit that they were wrong – which s. ‘applies to newspaper editors and moralizing columnists. People love to make fun of corrections, but it’s actually a sign of integrity.

Which brings me back to Berger’s 1979 column. Its headline, which would have worked well on Twitter if it had existed at the time, was “How The Press Blasted Three Mile Island”. His argument was that journalists – “privately anti-nuclear,” he wrote – were hiding from their readers their own opinion that nuclear power was too dangerous to use.

He quoted Palmer as saying that “it is not yet clear who is right” on the big policy issues around nuclear energy.

“If not now when?” asked Berger. “Should there be a body count in this war as well?” This line, so soon after Vietnam, stung.

Arguments over journalistic objectivity won’t be resolved anytime soon, and you can expect my last column in 2061 with Baron, 107, and Lowery, 71. But in the 1970s and 1980s, Berger’s camp won the battle against nuclear power. The US nuclear industry has never recovered from Three Mile Island, as political factors slowed and then largely halted construction of new reactors. It was a liberal triumph of the 1970s that is largely forgotten today.

And yet: Berger now believes he was wrong about this. The American left of that time did not understand the risks of carbon emissions.

“You have to re-evaluate all the values, because you have to see all the particular issues in light of the danger of drastic climate change,” he told me. Nuclear power, whatever its dangers, does not emit carbon.

And journalists, no matter what sect we belong to, must keep in mind our potential to be wrong.

© 2021 The New York Times Company


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