Just The Facts, Sir
LATE LAST APRIL, during a week when thousands of students marched and chanted, imploring the Harvard Corporation to end its investments in companies that do business with South Africa, The Crimson faced a familiar ethical dilemma. As the chants grew louder, as University officials appeared ever more supercilious by their silence, as tempers neared a flashpoint, executives of the paper fought against pressures from both sides. Leaders of the demonstration recalling the paper's frequent editorial endorsement of their position, demanded more: cover us more favorably, they said, put us in an even better light, work more closely with us so we can see what you are doing, or prove yourselves hypocrites. At the same time, members of the administration railed against coverage of the demonstrations, making their case to reporters privately while refusing to address the demonstrators. Stuck in the middle, we changed nothing, and displeased everyone. That was, and is, our job.
The role of a newspaper is not an easy one; it is even more difficult in such a complex community as a college campus. The usual concerns about objectivity and accuracy are compounded by the very nearness of the subject: deans and professors and administrators form part of a larger community from which the reporter cannot escape, even for a moment's journalistic sou-searching. The student reporter, try as he might to keep a cool head, often cannot: for by definition, "big news," the stories that affect the most students, will touch him or her directly. Objectivity looms as the first casualty.
This the argument that for years the Harvard administration has turned against The Crimson and, to a lesser degree in recent years, the weekly Independent. These are just students, the deans smile, shaking their heads--their views are not to be trusted, for they cannot be as cool-headed as we. Often the most pleasant moments at faculty meetings come when the crowd joins together in good-natured laughter at the latest thrust, by some dean or another, at the folly of the "student media." Condescenison is always in style at Faculty meetings.
It goes without saying, of course, that those same deans and professors and administrators who so pride themselves on this objectivity still manage to develop a bias of their own on occasion. Yet, the argument goes, these are opinions based on a survey, "the full picture" taken from a room in University Hall, and so much clearer than the view here on Plympton St. Students, the deans will say, cannot form proper opinions because they do not have all the facts; yet they will not release the facts to newspaers because they fear the opinions that might develop. The dispassionate observer might conclude that neither the newspaper nor the dean has the full picutre--or all the facts--and that only by combining these two views can something within spitting distance of the truth emerge.
SUCH AN ARGUMENT is a popular one, especially during times of what the syndicated columnists like to call "campus unrest." Antiadministration spokesmen will argue that only by attacking the powers-that-be with the power of the press, such as it is, can student activism gain more than a minor victory. Abandon objectivity, they counsel--isn't it really just a phantom, a golden idol that newsmen worship as an excuse for justifying the status quo? Doesn't every word imply a judgment at least implicitly? When the "objective" newsman, for instance, decides to call a military junta a "government," instead of the more value-laden "regime," hasn't he silently confirmed the status quo and denied the good guys their say? Isn't objectivity just hypocrisy, and the refusal to take sides against what is wrong an even greater crime?
Seductive words. And yet they do not hang together, at least not completely. The smart newsman, as well as the intelligent reader, realizes that complete objectivity is indeed a fantasy, never to be attained. Anything a reporter writes is, in the true sens of the word, a "story," one person's account of a particular event, hardly to be trusted as Divine revelation. But at the same time, the reporter should recognize that objectivity, like perfection, is a fantasy worth pursuing, a goal that is not only noble, but practical. The more nearly objective, or more nearly perfect, his or her reporting is, the more it will be relied upon--by readers who are spending their money in search of, if not truth, at least trustworthy information. The alternative--slanting the news to benefit one group, no matter how morally righteous--may be personally satisfying at times, but likely to be self-defeating in the long run.
At this point certain deans who, taking time out from their undoubtedly busy schedules to thumb through this edition, are beginning to snicker at the above argument. A plea for dispassionate judgment in the page of The Crimson, they are saying to themselves right about now, is surely one of the higher forms of hypocrisy. The Crimson has been for too long outspoken, too--in their minds, too soiled--to make such a compelling argument with a clear conscience. And they turn the page.
In one sense they are right. For years The Crimson has been outspoken on issue its staff has perceived as important, and its opinions have, it is true, rearly concurred with those of the sultans of University and Massachusetts Halls. At times these opinions have found their way into news coverage, just as they must unavoidably find their way into any newpaper's front page. The art of newspapering is just that--an art, nor a science--and cannot be exercised with the precision of a dean--human precision, varying according to individuals. Sometimes we make a mistake--just as sometimes two incompatible souls find themselves sharing a freshman room, or a student is called on the carpet because his transcript has been misread. And, sometimes we lose our tempers, give way to emotion, and sound almost as vindicative and petty as the average speaker at a Faculty debate. If anyone believes that we might, by arguing for an objective apporach to the news--an approach that is neither pro- nor anit-administration--cease to become human, then in those eyes we are surely guilty of hypocrisy, now and forever.
WE SEE OUR ROLE a bit differently. Reporting news--to the extent that anyone can do so with a reasonable degree of accuracy, within a community that is as interwoven and as emotionally charged as Harvard--is our first priority. But it is not our only one. Important issues demand comment, and it is not in a newsman's nature to remain silent; it is therefore this newspaper's obligation, as any other's, to analyze and criticize the news that we report. We do not expect to be treated as the font of all wisdom, just as we do not treat anyone we cover as particularly omniscient. We certainly do not expect to serve as the mouthpiece of any individual group, other than ourselves; we are students with varying perspectives, not professional ideologues. And what we print is hardly the vice of all the students--it is only the opinions of a few. Such drawbacks are built into the concept of a selective organization.
Still, the function of a newspaper is to inform, not to proselytize; by remaining skeptical of all sides, and restricting editorial comments as much as possible to their proper place, we can perform that duty. At times this angers people--that is unavoidable, when a paper is dealing only with simplified accounts of fast-moving events. Yet as long as we give every side space to comment, as long as as many views as possible make it into print, then this newspaper, like any other, is doing its job. Bruised egos can heal later.
The Harvard administration does not appear to agree with this philosophy, but thankfully there are few ways they can change it. As a financially independent newspaper, The Crimson can control its own editorial policies, often to the dismay of the "authorities." Lacking direct control, they can only try to retaliate, in good capitalist fashion, through the market. Nine years ago, when Crimson editorials protested the University administration's brutal handling of a student strike, the "authorities" encouraged the formation of a new, "conservative" alternative, The Independent. Yet over the years The Independent, too, became sometimes critical of the administration, and now the Faculty's bitter laughter is not piqued by Crimson jokes only. Those students are at it again, they say, blindly criticizing us in print. Or, as we reply, just doing our job.