When fact-finding was a practice

Objectivity is not neutrality, as historian Thomas L. Haskell puts it. In my years as a news reporter in the last quarter of the 20th century, journalistic objectivity was not stenography either. For us, it involved moving around, hanging out with one side and then the other, and scuffing your deepest values with these other perspectives.

Whether we called it objectivity, fairness or balance, it was never a scientific claim but an ingrained practice – a habit of behaving decently among people caught up in a crisis or controversy and listening, as best you can.

I have a good example of that in the files I’ve been poring over from my father’s filing cabinet. He was the Newsweek bureau chief in Atlanta in the 1960s and ‘70s, covering the civil rights movement across the South. He’s 90 now, and having lost his wife of 68 years, my mother, and downsized to an assisted living apartment, he’s passed on to me some familiar furniture and family records.

Newsweek adI found examples of “objectivity-in-practice” from these files, and used them in a talk I gave recently to a “Contemporary Issues” class at Southern Virginia University. First, I felt I needed to explain the great American consensus of the mid-20th century – that a separation of “Fact” from “Opinion” was valuable, and possible. (I was lecturing on the subject of the op-ed, the guest opinion column launched by New York Times editor John B. Oakes in 1970). An ad for Newsweek that ran in some magazines, and was a big poster in New York subways, touted that distinction with a drawing of my father, Joseph B. Cumming, to illustrate the “facts” side. The “opinions” side was represented by a bow-tied Raymond Moley, a conservative columnist whose name and face “you probably recognize,” the ad stated.

Today, I doubt if most people would recognize the names, or the value then given to separating Fact from Opinion.

And then there was this editorial column I found from Feb. 27, 1965, by Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Patterson described a speech my father had just given at the Georgia Press Institute in Athens. Cumming described why a reporter – even a white sixth-generation Georgian like him – became an outsider to his Southern brethren simply by doing the work of a good reporter. In 1964, he stood with the mayor and white residents of a Mississippi town as they grumbled about scruffy young outsiders who were piling off of a bus to begin their work for Freedom Summer.

Then he moved into the little house where these workers set up a Freedom School for black kids. Patterson wrote: “He observed, listened and came to understand that these students were as innocently unaware of the gap between themselves and the townspeople as the townspeople had been unaware of the opposite.”

I also found a letter in which my father wrote to a clergyman at the national Episcopal Church headquarters in New York referring to that same encounter in Mississippi. He said he felt sometimes that the only hopeful group was the youth. Most of them – not all, he added – have an attitude that can bring the race problem “within the American concept,” as he put it. “I do think there are some things I would tell them although I certainly learned much more than I could ever impart.”

Following the career pattern of my father, I left 26 years in news reporting for grad school and a university position teaching journalism. My earliest lessons in journalism were from my father – really, my only lessons until I began work in a newsroom right out of college. In these family files, I found a picture of myself at around age 16 with him on a story he was freelancing for another magazine, updating “Where the Boys Are” at Daytona Beach.

His lessons in journalism were also lessons in the broader life skills of fairness and the magic of storytelling. I like to tell my students that these basic journalistic practices are also an excellent addition to general college learning, critical thinking and good writing. The practices of journalism are the core “objectivity” of applied liberal arts.

This appeared as a column in the spring 2017 issue of  Clio Among the Media, the newsletter of the History Division of AEJMC.

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About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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