During decades spent racing to cover struggle and strife around the world, Mort Rosenblum, a longtime AP correspondent, and Gary Knight, a photojournalist and one of the founders of the VII Photo Agency, had a dream: to publish the kind journalism that transcends the institutional and commercial restrictions that plague the business—the false balance of “objectivity,” the filters of editing-by-committee, the space constraints, the relentless focus on the who and the what of a story. They wanted to publish journalism that gets at the whys and the “what can be done,” that is authoritative and reaches conclusions and says what is true and what is false based on firsthand experience. The first issue of Dispatches, a new quarterly journal and the embodiment of that dream, is out this week. Its theme is “In America,” and includes contributions from Paul Theroux, Samantha Power, and John Kifner, among others. You can order it online at their Web site, rethink-dispatches.com. CJR’s Brent Cunningham spoke to Rosenblum on Wednesday.
Brent Cunningham: How did a guy who spent most of his professional life at the AP come to edit a journal of long-form work? Is it a labor of pent-up frustration?
Mort Rosenblum: I was a wire animal for forty years, and it’s an extremely noble profession. I think wire services are poorly understood. Their role is absolutely crucial. The problem is they’re restricted by form, by time, by the number of hands that get on a piece of copy from the time it leaves the reporter until it gets on the wire—sometimes the copy is improved, sometimes it isn’t. There are filters. There are gates through which it has to pass. It’s very exciting to be a wire reporter, but at this point in my life, having worked for decades overseas, I wanted to sit back and look for the best possible people I could find to tell the story, who knew the story up close, who knew the story is not numbers and phrases, that its about the people involved, the culture involved, and context. So the idea of Dispatches is to find sometimes reporters, sometimes writers, sometimes other sorts of people who understand the story in its visceral, up-close sense, and who are gifted enough to tell it in a way gives the backdrop to people. Having spent a life focusing on the who and the what, now it’s time to look at the why and the what can be done.
BC: It’s one thing to be free of the strictures of objectivity in a quarterly of essays, and another thing for daily journalism. Is there an answer to daily journalism’s objectivity problem, a middle ground between the most restrictive aspects of this ideal and a total surrender to rant and opinion?
MR: I want to be very clear at the outset: we’re not setting Dispatches up as an antidote to what’s wrong with what’s now called the mainstream media. Our role is to be a backdrop. The problem of objectivity—you know the old phrase “get both sides,” well I’ve been covering stories for a very long time I’ve never seen just two sides. I’ve seen fifty sides, I’ve seen 191 sides, I’ve seen a single side. Sometimes things are less complicated than they seem. Early in the Bosnian war, editors kept focusing on ancient complexities, trying to balance “both sides.” But as Blaine Harden, who was working for The Washington Post then, once said, ‘Look, this is about as complex as armed robbery.’ I believe human beings are incapable of being totally objective, but you can be fair and authoritative and professional. In a way it’s how the judiciary works. A good judge may disagree with the findings, but he or she looks at the situation and makes a determination on what’s observable. Journalism has to go farther. A judge is restricted to what’s before the bench. Journalists have to go out and find the facts for themselves.