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Mr. Mailer and the myth of objectivity

By Lawrence Allison

NORMAN MAILER's recent contributions to the literature of the war in Vietnam and political conventions have stirred new interest in an old area of controversy in journalism.

"Chicago should have been the coup de grace to the myth of objectivity," a staff reporter observed in the CRIMSON (Oct. 28, 1968). For newsmen who were angered by police attacks on young people (and reporters) the most traumatic thing they learned "was simply that they had these feelings, even in the line of duty," the writer said. Mailer's style of personal reporting "is at least the direction that journalism should move in now."

But the concept of objectivity in reporting of the news may be less myth than misunderstanding, and the criticisms by the CRIMSON's writer and others most likely don't presage any great upheaval in the traditions of journalism.

First, assuming that the Chicago experience was all that much a revelation to reporters presumes a naivete among reporters that would be difficult to imagine, even by the most critical of us. Surely it has occurred to every reporter at one time or another that he has feelings about his material, even if the feeling be nothing more than boredom.

As for any coup de grace, the difficulty in criticizing the press for objectivity--or for sterility or untruthfulness under its guise--is that the term objectivity is greatly abused. One textbook definition of responsible journalism (" print the news courageously and impartially") doesn't even use the word, perhaps to avoid misconception.

In those instances when a newspaper story is so thoroughly sanitized that it fails to relate what really seemed to happen, the problem is not objectivity but ineptitude. What certainly is not called for is subjectivity, for that would be neither journalism nor literature, and very likely would end up maudlin drivel.

Mailer in his account of the Miami and Chicago conventions makes use of a certain objectivity for literary purposes--he refers to himself in the third person. But this is more than a mere literary device--it is a matter of form, and necessary if he is to maintain an aesthetic distance from his material, and be able to describe his involvement and his feelings with the freedom that impersonality allows. This--when the substance is of permanent or universal interest--is, of course, what makes literature.

But that is what Mailer is--a litterateur, in the positive sense of the word. And he remains so even when he writes on subjects of topical interest. Mailer isn't revolutionizing journalism, any more than Harper's--the vehicle for his material--would relish being thought of as a revolutionary version of Time or Newsweek.

When a newspaperman strives for "objectivity"--an impossible goal if this means total detachment from his subject matter--what he truly seeks is fairness. Mailer's approach, with a couple of exceptions, in no way is intended to describe impartially the plight of human beings on the wrong (police) side of the barriers. Newspaper reporters do seek this sort of impartiality, or lack of bias--or, if you like, omniscience.

Assuming, though, for the sake of discussion that a newspaper could afford to hire a newsroomful of Norman Mailers, then could provide space for an 84,240-word report on the two conventions written to fit the monthly deadline of a magazine, there remains at least one more problem. What if a reporter launches himself into a "subjective" account that doesn't seem "true" to whoever is entrusted to pass judgment upon truth and rightness? And if the reporter has aligned himself with the "wrong" side, who is to decide that this is so? The logic in attempting to provide unequivocal truth and rightness, then, is subject to infinite regression.

THESE ARE all problems of presenting news or commentary from a correct viewpoint; it also might be worth considering a possible result--loss of the broad circulation base. The newspaper thus would end up with a more select readership--namely, those who agreed with its viewpoint--and therefore by ordinary definition no longer would be a newspaper.

In his latest Harper's piece, Mailer offers some constructive criticism to journalism by citing a newspaper account of a confrontation at the GOP National Convention between some Reagan Girls dressed in red, white and blue tights and a group of black demonstrators from the Poor People's March. "Were the Reagan Girls livid or triumphant?" he asks. "Were the Negro demonstrators dignified or raucous or self-satisfied?" Mailer's questions seem to the point. There is, as he says, "no history without nuance."

At the same time, it is only fair to note that one newspaper reporter--perhaps unfairly, and not dispassionately--described Mailer during his arrest as "smiling wanly." It was a choice of words--a subjective comment, a personal judgment--that in the opinion of Mailer not only was wrong, but infuriating.

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