Book Review: Just the Facts: How 'Objectivity' Came to Define American Journalism

David T.Z. Mindich.
New York, NY: New York University Press,
1998, 201 pp., $24.95. Hardcover Only.

In beginning his historical study of journalistic objectivity, author David Mindich discusses whether the term should be put inside quotation marks or not - in other words, is objectivity an achievable ideal or an unattainable myth? After reading this informative 19th century history of "journalism's most celebrated goal and least understood practice," one at least comes away with a better understanding of how objectivity has evolved in American journalism. Whether it is possible today is left for another book.

From the start, the author admits that the "slippery nature" of objectivity makes it difficult to adequately define, which makes writing its history even more difficult. Using his background as both a historian and journalist, Mr. Mindich, a former CNN assignment editor, offers a comprehensive historical treatise on objectivity by researching the origins and founders of its principle elements, namely detachment, nonpartisanship, the inverted pyramid, facticity and balance. The book's main focus ranges from the end of the partisan press in the 1830s to the emergence of objectivity as a goal for magazines and newspapers of the 1890s.

Instead of rehashing other journalism histories about more famous editors, Mr. Mindich focuses on some overlooked tales, such as New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett's three severe beatings by his rival, James Watson Webb of the Morning Courier and New York Enquirer. That same innovative style carries into "three shades" of nonpartisanship by analyzing the political journalism of Bennett (centrist nonpartisan), William Lloyd Garrison (antipartisan) and Frederick Douglass (activist nonpartisan), as well as the influences of the social sciences and medicine on journalistic objectivity.

The author convincingly argues that the inventor of the inverted pyramid structure was not the Civil War battlefield correspondent writing for telegraph transmission. Instead, it was President Lincoln's public relations official who censored the reporter's copy, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who was trying to keep a "tight rein on discourse" in his official news dispatches, such as in his reporting of Lincoln's assassination. In discussing balance, Mr. Mindich, a New York University doctoral graduate, describes the anti-lynching advocacy journalism of Ida B. Wells as a precursor to today's public journalism, pioneered by NYU Professor Jay Rosen.

Mr. Mindich's book would serve as excellent supplemental reading for graduate level journalism ethics and history courses, however, one finishes the book wanting more about the current objectivity controversy. But that was not his objective here. Perhaps, the author should have concluded with the 19th Century press, rather than attempt a limited comparative discussion of today's objectivity debate featuring CBS News anchor Dan Rather and others in the introduction and conclusion. A possible future study could include more insightful journalism scholars and practitioners in examining the rise and fall of objectivity in the 20th Century American media. That would be a worthwhile project for Mr. Mindich's continued historical contributions on objectivity.

JACK BRESLIN

Silha Fellow

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on November 13, 2009 11:31 AM.

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