Journalistic Neutrality Often Has a Dark Side

The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality. --Dante

The interview had ended. The woman taking part in a conference geared for the religious in Anaheim on homosexuality began to walk away, satisfied that she had made her point to me about the evils of the gay life style.

Then she stopped and turned, hit by a sudden question. "By the way," she asked me, "where do you stand on all this? Are you a Christian?"

Like any reporter, I have faced the first question in its various forms so many times that my response is virtually rote. Reporters, I tried to explain, generally avoid taking sides on stories for fear of compromising the fairness of their reporting. She nodded her head, apparently in understanding.

But I wasn't quite satisfied with the answer myself. Having wrestled with that question time and again over the last year in writing about murderers, rapists, drug pushers and child molesters--the "scum," as they're referred to in the Santa Ana courts that I have covered, the response seemed flat.

It's a reporter's dilemma: What price do we as chroniclers pay for pursuing the elusive ideal of "objectivity"? And does there ever come a time when the reporter must put down his or her note pad and take sides?

Linda Greenhouse thought there was, and that got her into trouble.

Greenhouse, the U.S. Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, felt strongly enough about the abortion issue to take part in a rally of several hundred thousand people in Washington last spring to urge the high court to uphold the right for women to have an abortion.

What Greenhouse saw as anonymous activism was deemed inappropriate by her editors. Admonishing her, they told her that her role in the rally jeopardized the appearance of fairness in her reporting. So committed to the principle is New York Times Executive Editor Max Frankel that he has said he won't even give his opinions at cocktail parties.

Kent MacDougall didn't see his role as a reporter as a restriction on free thought, but he was less forthright than Greenhouse in attempting to express his views. In an article that appeared late last year in a small socialist magazine, the former Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times reporter bragged that he had been a "closet socialist" in his days as a daily newspaper reporter, using his stories to "popularize radical ideas" and further the left-wing agenda.

His claim was quickly and convincingly rebutted by his former editors, but the point was made: to cause-driven muckrakers who would unabashedly display their biases, the power of the Fourth Estate demands that its practitioners not only exercise their news judgment, but also take sides and use their pens to promote the just fight.

I can't say that I've ever felt the rush to abandon all principles of objectivity--or at least fairness--that are instilled in reporters from the outset. Not that I haven't come close.

Interviewing a young skinhead who spoke of his racial hatreds, a convicted child molester who proclaimed his innocence in the face of all evidence, and a convicted rapist who maintained that the women "had it coming," I felt outrage, as I believe anyone would.

I questioned discrepancies in their stories, challenged them to justify their views, and sought in my stories to paint their assertions against the backdrop of the record of their crimes.

But whatever contempt I felt, I held my tongue, trying to hide my feelings in my face-to-face meetings and in my stories. My job was to present a fair and accurate account; judgment would fall to others.

But there's a danger here. Because we are necessarily distanced from the subjects we write about, we as reporters can too easily become immune to human realities and emotions. Find the story, get the good quotes, write the punchy lead, get it in tomorrow's paper and forget about it until the next story comes along. The sources become mere characters in our news play.

Will there come a point when I could interview the grieving victim; coldly report the rape, or write about a crucial, emotionally wrenching issue--and feel absolutely nothing? Had I the chance, could I have calmly interviewed Adolf Hitler and written a balanced account of his Final Solution, hiding any moral outrage behind a mask of objectivity? Would I trade in my membership in the human race for a press pass and a front-page story?

That's what an Alabama television reporter in effect did a few years ago when he kept the cameras rolling for 37 seconds as a despondent unemployed roofer doused himself in gasoline, lit himself afire and suffered second- and third-degree burns.

He forgot that sometimes the story comes second. And the note pad goes down.

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