Journalism, Objectivity and John McCain

For the past five years I have taught journalism, part-time, to college or graduate students. They are often puzzled by notions of journalistic objectivity, understandably, given the roar of opinion pouring forth on the Web and from talk shows and all manner of print media. I struggle sometimes to explain newsmagazines, long a hybrid of fact and opinion. I tell them that Newsweek (like Time) tries to be nonideological, but that our stories are usually analytical and inevitably somewhat subjective, no matter how fair-minded we try to be.

I was reminded of this sometimes difficult balancing act last Friday night when I saw the edited version of this week's Newsweek cover story on John McCain. I wrote the story, with reporting from a half-dozen colleagues. Generally, Newsweek stories are collective efforts, and I usually share a byline at the top of the story with one or two reporters and several more in the tag line at the end of the story. In these stories I often write that so-and-so "told Newsweek," meaning a Newsweek reporter, usually not me. But in my draft of the McCain story, where I had written that a "Newsweek reporter" spoke last week with McCain, Newsweek's editor, Jon Meacham, struck the "Newsweek reporter" and inserted the first-person pronoun "I," meaning me. Meacham had asked me to go to Los Angeles to interview McCain. At the top of the piece I had expressed some clearly personal opinions about McCain's character (mostly positive but some critical), and Meacham wanted to make clear to the reader that it was the writer of the story, and not some anonymous or collective voice, who was holding forth. (My name appears alone at the top of the story, though there are a number of reporters on the signer at the bottom, and later the piece returns to the more conventional form of saying that "Senator So-and-so told Newsweek," meaning one or another of the reporters whose names are listed in the signer.)

I was taken aback at first to see the first-person-singular pronoun; I almost never use it in Newsweek pieces. But I do have opinions about McCain, complicated ones. Like many reporters, I like him, find him good company and refreshingly blunt and disarming. (Having survived torture from the North Vietnamese, McCain is not exactly intimidated by reporters.) McCain has always been friendly to me, even publicly praising a book I wrote. But at the same time I sense some deeper anger behind McCain's sometimes frozen smile, and I wonder a little about his temperament. I leave it to the reader to decide whether the portrait of McCain in this week's Newsweek is balanced. But I won't pretend to my students that it is purely objective.