Log Cabin Chronicles

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Chris Braithwaite publishes the Barton Chronicle, arguably the finest community newspaper in Vermont.]

Objectivity and independence

Barton, Vermont

I spent most of 1999 in the small countries that used to make up Yugoslavia -- Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and mostly Serbia. I was a Knight International Press fellow, talking to small independent newspapers about why they couldn't make any money.

It was interesting -- every publisher I talked to told me that none of those other papers were really independent; that the only absolutely independent paper around was the one he or she published.

That's a particularly Balkan version of a universal problem.

Before you start arguing about media independence, you have to define your terms. Certainly the outfit that beats the drums loudest for a free and independent press -- in this country and all around the world -- is Gannet. And certainly if I had to name the single organization in this country that best typifies the threat to independent newspapers, I would name Gannet.

It reminds me of the bad old days before the nickel deposit law. You couldn't pick up an empty Coke can along the road without reading the little corporate prayer, "Please don't litter." It's a time-honored business technique.

Advocate the right thing while you do the wrong thing, and count on the confusion to get you through.

What's all this got to do with objectivity? Everything, in my experience.

If you want to be independent you have to be self-supporting. Unless you can convince readers to pay a couple of bucks a copy, that means you have to sell advertising. You need to sell quite a bit of that, but quantity isn't the only issue.

If you sell it all to the biggest businessman in town, you're not independent. You have to sell it to lots of businessmen -- enough so that no one of them can pull the plug on your computers when you print the piece that cheeses him off.

If you are independent, and last long enough, you will print that piece. I've published one small newspaper in one small place for twenty-six years, and can report that, sooner or later, you make everybody mad at you.

The important questions are how long they stay mad, and whether you can survive until they get over it.

They get over it because they need to reach your readers -- if you have enough readers to make any real difference.

And here, at last, is the point.

Objectivity is the thing that will bring you the readers who will make you indispensable to your advertisers, and keep your advertisers no matter how mad they get.

So objectivity is not some abstract good to which honorable journalists aspire. Virtue may be its own reward, but journalists are not particularly known for their virtue . Objectivity is important because it's what readers demand.

Maybe that sounds old-fashioned and a bit wistful. But I can report that, in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, it worked twenty-six years ago and it still seems to be working today.

Advocacy is poison to a free press. Not because there is any shortage of good causes, or that they don't deserve their advocates. It's just not what newspapers are for.

People don't tend to pay good money to be told what to think. People will pay money to obtain the raw material they need to figure out what they think. That sort of figuring is not only vital to a democracy, but also a pleasurable thing to do.

Good novelists and good script writers know that. They tell the story and let the audience have the fun of making the connections, moving from specific incidents to what is universal in human experience and, if there is a moral to be found, finding it for themselves.

I think good journalists do the same. Our disadvantage is we don't get to make things up. Our advantage is the element of drama that truth lends to any story.

For all its virtue, objectivity is a myth. I'd rather talk about fairness.

My own definition of the difference would be something like this: Objectivity means pretending you don't care about the outcome of the story you're telling. I hope that none of us is objective in that sense.

Fairness means no matter how much we care, we understand our job. We are not here to convince, but to lay the groundwork for convictions that we don't get to control. And the things that call for the most care, the most effort, the most attention to the simple truth, are the things we like the least.

I can suggest a couple of simple tests of fairness.

Think of the public figure who most fills you with fear and loathing. Call her up and set up an interview. Then write a piece that will inspire her to call and tell you her position has never been put quite so clearly before. If you can do that, you can do the job.

And if you do that, the readers who share your fear and loathing will know something useful that they didn't know before. They'll know what they're up against.

Here's another test.

Put yourself between two bitterly opposed groups of people and write a story. If both sides like it, that's ok. If neither side likes it, that's better. But if one side likes it and the other hates it, you've got something fundamentally wrong.

Serious disputes have real content, real complexity, endless ambiguity. And our job is not to boil all that mess down to a couple of sharp graphs with an obvious conclusion. That would be a disservice to a world where we all long for a simplicity and moral clarity that doesn't exist.

What we all need to do is learn to live with the weird complexity of it all. And good journalism can help.

Our moral salvation thus lies with our readers.

Readers who know and demand good, fair reporting. Readers who can spot in the first graph the difference between a good story well told and a piece that is really designed to improve their minds or - worse yet - their attitude.

In a business that is still, and I hope forever, the last bastion of the ill-trained, the disenchanted, the alienated and the cynical, it is that reader we have to thank for the happy conjunction of a great job, a minimal living and, whether we like it or not, an occasional contribution to the world we live in.

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Copyright © 2001 Chris Braithwait/Barton Chronicle/03.01