Journalism 101: Human Nature

A funny thing happened to me on the way to this column. I endorsed a presidential candidate. For those of you who have spent months looking at the television screen over a slice of pizza and saying, "I don't care if Kevin Costner is the Reform Party candidate, I'm voting for George W.," this may not seem remarkable. But in the journalistic profession it is not at all the done thing, even among opinion columnists. Careful readers may see this as vainglorious. If a list of a dozen columnists were to be drawn up and a four-part grid laid out next to it, not unlike one of those "what do your color choices say about you?" quizzes in lifestyle magazines, many could effortlessly drop the pundit into the appropriate box: liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat. Except for Dave Barry, who I suppose is the Jesse Ventura of columnists.

But reporters and editors and even opinion columnists are expected, according to the mostly unwritten rules, to be on the outside looking in, to reflect events without becoming part of them. This is a cornerstone of the profession, embodied by the venerable Walter Lippmann decades ago in a single word: objectivity. A lofty goal, a great notion. Yet at some level the notion is nonsense, and it has helped to poison the compact between the people and the press in present-day news reporting.

Take a report released by the Women's Leadership Fund about the press coverage of female gubernatorial candidates. It found that personal characteristics were more often reported, and stands on the issues less often reported, in stories about women running for office. The study concluded that the candidacies of women may be subtly undercut by that sort of coverage.

This is bad, and it should change. But it also reflects not simply the press but the world. After all those years of hearing "How do I look?" there are men who think the color of a woman's dress is a worthy factoid, and even some women who think so, too. The Leadership Fund's study doesn't show a conscious pattern of sexist bias on the part of a male-dominated press, although there's still some of that around. It reflects imperfect human behavior.

And that's what the people need to understand about the press: that reporters are human. The thing is, the press needs to admit it, too. The discussions of objectivity have often made news gathering sound like a cross between a standardized test and a fugue state, in which the reporter becomes a tabula rasa, reflecting truth like a mirror. This is impossible even under the best of circumstances. Reporters and editors bring to the table their backgrounds, their friendship circles, their covert prejudices. Along with deadline pressures, these things shape whom they choose to talk to, what they manage to see and how they put all this together in words and pictures. The effect is usually subtle. But the effect is always there.

Sometimes it is not subtle at all. I happened to be in our nation's capital when the story broke about the president and the then unnamed intern. Washington is a city in which reporters learn what Americans are thinking by talking to--and sometimes dating--political operatives and lobbyists; thus after three days I began repeating the prevailing opinion, that the days of the Clinton presidency were numbered. When I returned home I was deprogrammed and subsequently realized that the president was sullied but safe. Reporters, however, were in grave danger of appearing seamy and foolish.

Yet the Lewinsky debacle may have marked a turn for the better. In its wake the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press did a survey that showed, as usual, that people were disgusted with the media. But the center also did a survey that showed that journalists were more critical than ever of their own standards, and terribly concerned about the distrust of readers.

Readers are in a better position to deal with that distrust than at any moment in history. Don't trust press reporting of the debates? Watch them yourself. Believe one newspaper or news magazine is biased? Skim two, or three, or read the wire stories online. Not interested in Monica's diet or Newt's divorce? C-Span, friend, C-Span. Where once there were only three evening news programs, now there are dozens. Never before has it been possible to learn so much from so many different sources in so many different fashions.

But none of that should let reporters off the hook. The problem is that the press sometimes seems to suggest that reporting is objective science, that there is no scrim between the reader and the information. But there is always a scrim. The scrim is the reporter. And some reporters manage to shave it to a shadow, while others get in the reader's way, not usually because of overt bias but because of the limitation of their talents. We always carry with us what we've learned and those we like. But the best reporters, whether among the old guys in hats who once populated city rooms or the lacquered consonant-cracking princesses of local TV news, use that only as a starting point. Objectivity is a goal. Curiosity is the way to get there.

So what can readers conclude from the fact that six months ago, before I had returned to journalism, I gave a speech in support of Bill Bradley? Perhaps that I'll favor one man over another. Maybe just the opposite. In "Fat Man in a Middle Seat," his self-deprecating memoir of a reporter's life, Jack Germond writes of one campaign, "I wondered at times whether I was not bending over backward to be hard on Udall because I liked him so much. That happens sometimes with reporters." Certainly I'll feel readers looking over my shoulder whenever I write about the presidential race. But in the relationship between the people and the people of the press, that's always part of the deal. Together, somehow, we make sense of the world, in a fashion that, if we are being honest, is eminently satisfactory, and yet often satisfies no one.