In a manner of speaking, I grew up as a reporter. That is how I spent, or misspent, my youth.
I grew up hearing that reporters should be objective, but that objectivity was impossible. The wink and the nod, of course, was that you couldn't help but be see a story through your own world view, which would inevitably taint how you presented the story. Of course, part of being an objective reporter, is never admitting to anybody, least of all yourself, that you are making subjective decisions about what to put in your story, how to weigh the value of certain facts and issues, and what turn of the phrase should be used to convey those facts.
This most subjective of exercises is referred to in the profession as the "editorial process."
Here's a little story to illustrate that point. Back in 1993 I was working for a California State Assemblyman named Tom Connolly. Now Mr. Connolly had once led a pretty wild life. Some of the facts of this life I knew and reported when he first ran for state Assembly in 1989. He had done cocaine excessively. What I didn't know, and never reported myself, was that his excess included spending so much money on white powder that he couldn't afford to pay his taxes. In no time, he ran up an $80,000 tab with the IRS (he also wasn't paying his child support, and this was also a new fact to me, but that isn't relevant to this vignette).
Tom decided to come clean with the voting public and admit all of his past misdeeds before the facts came out in a way that looked like he was trying to hide from his past.
One afternoon, Tom, myself and Union-Tribune political reporter Gerry Braun, sat down over chips and salsa and Tom talked. He revealed all. He held nothing back. He answered every question.
When the story came out the following Sunday, you would have thought Gerry Braun had uncovered all of this dirt on his own. The enterprising reporter.
I'm not saying he overtly claimed credit, but there wasn't a hint in the story that Tom came through of his own volition. The story was "objective," just not honest.
The story also contained this little gem about Tom's back taxes: "It is a debt he won't pay off in this century."
Was that sentence objective? Well, if objectivity is judged by being factually accurate, it was accurate. At the rate Tom was paying off his debt, he was scheduled to even the books with the IRS in 2001 or 2002. But as any writer knows, certain words and phrases have connotation as well as denotation. The connotation of "in this century" is something far greater than eight or nine years. The reader's mind can't help but leap 100 years ahead.
Tom complained to Gerry Braun about this creative turn of phrase, and Gerry just laughed it off. He wasn't bothered in the least that while factually accurate, he wasn't being totally fair. I was appalled. Still am.
That said, I'm sure there are several sources out there, including former sources who read this blog, who could accuse me of the same sort of reportorial slight of hand.
When you're in the business, you become inured to such subtle sins against objectivity. After all, objectivity, as we are taught, isn't really possible.
I've been thinking more and more about objectivity recently, but not in the context of journalism.
Objectivity has become a big part of my life. In my hobby, baseball, I've been studying the theories of Bill James, which is primarily about looking at the game without emotional attachments, just hard numbers. When you look at the Game as a matter of statistics — and baseball reveals itself more through statistics than any other sport — you begin to shun myth, conventional wisdom and partisan prejudices. The game becomes about performance, not appearances.