Saturday, October 06, 2007

Gay Talese, fellow panelist, on journalistic objectivity and skepticism

In preparation for the panel discussion Tuesday on New Media, New Politics? Jane Jacobs and an Activist Press, I decided to seek out relevant tidbits written by fellow panelist Gay Talese, author of The Kingdom and the Power (1969), a history of the New York Times.

Said to be an early practioner of "New Journalism" (a term he disdains), Talese in his career has relied on saturation reporting to set scenes and deploy dialogue. He naturally felt confined by a newspaper's conventions and, in his book on the Times, raised questions about the pursuit of objectivity. (I think fairness and integrity are better goals.)

He wrote:
The Times in principle tried to be objective in its news coverage, but in reality it could not always be. It was run by humans, flawed figures, men who saw things as they could see them, or sometimes wished to see them; interpreting principles to suit contemporary pressures, they wanted it both ways; it was the oldest story of all. Ideally, The Times desired no opinions within its news columns, restricting opinion to the editorial page. Realistically, this was not possible. The editors’ opinions and tastes were imposed every day within the news—either by the space they allowed for a certain story, or the position they assigned to it, or the headline they ordered for it, and also by the stories they did not print, or printed for only one edition, or edited heavily, or held out for a few days and then printed in the back of the thick Sunday edition between girdle advertisements and dozens of Bachrach photographs of pretty girls just engaged. The reporter’s ego was also a factor in the news coverage—he wrote what he wrote best, he wrote what he understood, reflecting the total experience of his lifetime, shades of his pride and prejudice; he wrote sometimes to please the editor, at other times to call attention to his own style, reducing stories that did not suit his style, and at still other times he wrote with the hope that he would get a by-line in the Times, a testimony to his being alive on that day, alive in The Times through that day and all the tomorrows of microfilm.
(First two emphases in original; other emphases added)

Indeed, the Times's front-page article in September 2006 on the rumored six to eight percent Atlantic Yards scaleback raised some of those issues.

On Robert Moses

Talese in the book suggested the Times offered special treatment for power broker/master builder Robert Moses, writing (in 1969):
The privileged treatment accorded Robert Moses by The New York Times until relatively recent years was remarkable, and it was achieved mainly through Moses’ audacity, his skill at using his personal connections, or the presumption of these connections with top people at The Times, including the Sulzbergers, to browbeat some Times reporters who were assigned to cover aspects of his vast and varied career. As New York’s most powerful public servant... Moses was undeniably a great and valuable source of news. It was also true that he had definite ideas of how news should be covered, and if he was displaced by a story in the newspaper he would unhesitatingly fire off a telegram to the Times denouncing the reporter as incompetent, or he would sometimes call a press conference or castigate the reporter publicly, or sometimes he would write a gentle letter of complaint to Arthur or Iphigene Sulzberger, a note that would be bucked down through channels to the third floor… While Moses never did succeed in getting a Times reporter dismissed or even chastised, he was never discouraged from trying... making many reporters—the less secure ones , to be sure, but The Times always had its quota of these—extraordinarily cautious… These reporters knew, or thought they knew, or preferred to believe, that Moses had to be more delicately handled than other important newspapers in New York… there seemed to be sufficient evidence within the Times building to support the theory that Robert Moses required special handling, and so he got it.
(Emphasis in original)

For example in 1959 when Moses became angered by a series of articles in The Times dealing with the city’s Title I slum-clearance program, which he headed, his letters of objection did not appear in the “Letters to the Editor” space, where they belonged; instead, they were published on various days within the news columns as news.

Leaving things out

In the 1960s, the newspaper changed, and so did the Times's posture toward its once-sacred cow. The challenges today are more subtle and the problems less blatant, but they still exist. Why, exactly, has the Times failed to report on numerous issues, such as a close look at the costs and benefits of Atlantic Yards, or shown the project's astounding scale?

We probably won't know. In 1990, Talese recounted in his 2006 memoir A Writer's Life, he returned to Selma, AL, home of fierce Civil Rights era divisions, and found himself writing for the Times about an interracial marriage involving a prominent city staffer. The local Selma Times-Journal had not publised a word about this momentous union.

Talese's take:
I considered driving over to the Times-Journal building and questioning the editorial bosses about why they had ignored this story, but I doubted that they would tell me much. Decision makers at news organizations are characteristically guarded when asked to explain why they have not published something, usually responding that it is nobody's concern but their own.

(Emphasis in original)
Old school

A 4/23/06 New York Observer profile headlined Honor Thy Talese explained his old-school ways:
“I’m not online. I don’t have a line. I don’t have e-mail. Where I work downstairs, there isn’t even a telephone,” he said, explaining that he could see no joy in the “ephemeral jolt that some people get with getting there first.”


And he has some criticism of the Times, as the Observer reported:
His major beef with today’s reporters is that they come from the same milieu and mind-set as the people they’re supposed to be covering with a critical eye.

“There is not that hard difference between those on the outside and those on the inside,” said Mr. Talese, who fancies himself a perennial outsider. “And there is a lack of skepticism and also a lack of toughness.”


In a 12/19/05 New Yorker profile of the Times publisher, headlined The Inheritance: Can Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., save the Times—and himself?, Ken Auletta reported on the challenges facing the Times publisher after the Judith Miller affair, and quoted a critical Talese:
Within days, fresh criticism of Miller and her reporting began to build at the Times, and within weeks her estrangement from Sulzberger and the newspaper was complete. And it was far from over for Sulzberger, whose business decisions and editorial judgment have sometimes been questioned by associates almost from the time that he took over from his father. Gay Talese, who, in the sixties, wrote the definitive history of the Times, “The Kingdom and the Power,” says, “You get a bad king every once in a while.”

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