Objectivity: not dead yet

In an exclusive column for J-Source, Anthony DePalma weighs in on the age-old subjectivity/objectivity debate in reporting. A New York Times reporter and correspondent for over 20 years, DePalma’s latest book is called The Man Who Invented Fidel (Public Affairs Books). In it, he examines the work of Times correspondent Herbert Matthews, who, most famously, interviewed a young jungle revolutionary named Fidel Castro in February 1957. DePalma claims it is always possible for journalists to be objective — the real question is whether journalists and news organizations want to produce objective reporting. He ponders “how history would have been different” if Matthews had chosen to be more objective when writing his passionate story about Castro at “the dawn of the Cuban revolution.”

By Anthony DePalma

For most of the past year I have been trapped in one of those endless mirror image inside mirror image scenarios where much of what I did reflected back what I was doing and so on into infinity. Stuck firmly in the centre of all those receding reflections has been the old notion of objectivity, which I believe is still very much alive.

My latest book, The Man Who Invented Fidel, is, at its heart, an exploration of objectivity. It tells the story of the highly controversial New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews, who famously interviewed a fresh-faced Fidel Castro in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains at the dawn of the Cuban revolution in February 1957. Matthews’s portrait of Castro painted the young rebel as a hero and certain victor over the ruling tyrant, Fulgencio Batista.

The backstory of the book was that it had stemmed from my writing Fidel’s advance obituary for the Times a few years earlier. Part of my quest was to separate out the myth from the reality of Matthews’s encounter with Castro, which is commemorated in Cuba each year and honoured with a marble monument on the site where it took place. In completing my journalistic autopsy of the interview, I was forced to examine under a microscope Matthews’s actions and motivations, trying to find traces of bias that would have shaped his account.

Of course, as a Times correspondent myself, I was under another microscope when the book was published in April 2006. Critics searched for evidence of bias in my own accounting of Matthews’s actions. The most reactionary critics never even bothered to read the book, declaring that as a Times correspondent looking at another Times correspondent, I could not possibly be objective.

In November 2006, my old friend Paul Knox, now chair of Ryerson’s School of Journalism, invited me to give an address at the university about the book. It was a lively session, but I was surprised that in the hour of questions and answers that followed, no one in attendance had asked about objectivity, either Matthews’s or mine, themes that often came up in similar talks in the United States. I mentioned it at dinner that night, and Paul told me that for most Canadian journalists and students of journalism, it is a dead issue because objectivity has been rejected, a discredited and unachievable goal.
I didn’t know quite what to make of that. The goal of objective reporting certainly remains real to those of us at the Times, at least in the news columns of the newspaper. The debate is not whether objectivity is achievable. It certainly is, not just in journalism but in many other fields. We expect judges to put aside their personal preferences and to decide, according to written law or the Constitution, the cases in front of them. Likewise, we expect doctors, lawyers and even professors to put aside their personal likes and dislikes and approach their responsibilities with a high degree of professional balance.

In time, I came to think that the problem comes with the word objectivity, which carries so much baggage. It is only human for a correspondent who is covering a war, or insurrection, or even a local town council, to have personal feelings. But it is absolutely legitimate to expect that reporter to put aside those emotions and write dispassionately when it comes time to put the news article together.

There is a debate about objectivity or dispassionate reporting going on in my precinct now, but it does not revolve around the question of whether it is possible to be objective in news reporting. Rather, it is a debate over when we want to be objective. The Times no longer can consider itself the paper of record, not when the record is compiled and made available almost instantaneously on television, over the radio and in countless Internet sites, including the paper’s own. The broadsheet newspaper that is physically available every morning is a spirited defense against the passage of time, with full knowledge that most readers have seen, heard or read much of it before. There’s a need to provide more than news in such a competitive arena. What newspapers and magazines can uniquely provide is perspective and, so says New York University journalism professor Mitchell Stephens in a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, wisdom. Such deep thinking on events might not be totally objective, but it has to be exhaustively informed.

There is a lot of room for Stephens’s “wisdom journalism” in today’s print and broadcast media. But at the same time, when so much of what used to be perceived of as news is soft and deliberately edgy, and when exclusive baby photographs can become a prominent feature of the network newscasts, there is still plenty of room — and even a need — for objective reporting and dispassionate writing. Of all the reviews written about The Man Who Invented Fidel, one of those I liked best actually was published in the Times Sunday book review. (Of course, you say!) It was written by Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, and pointed out how badly the Times had handled the entire Matthews affair. Alter criticized some aspects of the book but he also recognized the dispassionate, or objective, way that I had handled the sensitive subject of Matthews’s, and the Times’s, objectivity. Reading the review, I realized that I had achieved my own goal.
I agreed with Alter’s position that Matthews viewed the Cold War through the eyes of an Upper West Side New York Liberal, but that he was no faker. He did not deliberately misrepresent Castro or any aspect of the socialist revolution he launched after chasing out Batista. Rather, Matthews’s greatest misdeed was to believe that the truth as he saw it was the only version of the truth that could exist. Long after there was ample evidence proving Castro’s adherence to a Communist path, Matthews insisted that his revolution was not communistic “in any sense of the word.” While it was widely assumed that he had taken sides, what I found in reading his notes and analyzing his writing, was that he had turned a blind eye to countervailing proofs because he was too caught up in the story he himself had helped launch. In other words, he led with his passion, and that was his downfall.

Still, even now, exactly 50 years after the interview took place, the passion and power of Matthews’s writing come through. It began: “Fidel Castro, the rebel leader of Cuba’s youth, is alive and fighting hard and successfully in the rugged, almost impenetrable fastnesses of the Sierra Maestra, at the southern tip of the island. Fulgencio Batista has the cream of his Army around the area, but the Army men are fighting a thus far losing battle to destroy the most dangerous enemy General Batista has yet faced…”
Prophetic or biased? Looking ahead or taking sides? Of course, Castro triumphed, and less than two years later was the supreme ruler of Cuba. But at the time of the interview with Matthews he had only a small group of rebel soldiers and no major military victories. Matthews was clearly seduced by the Castro mystique during the three-hour interview, and the results were a powerful account of a historic meeting. Had he been dispassionate in his account, and wrote instead that “Fidel Castro, a convicted conspirator and leader of a failed uprising in which many of his followers died, is holed up on the edge of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains, surrounded by forces of one of the largest and best prepared Armies in Latin America, and barely hanging on,” how would history have been different?

Anthony DePalma has been a reporter and correspondent for The New York Times for 20 years. His latest book, The Man Who Invented Fidel, was published by Public Affairs in 2006 and will be available in paperback this April.