Whose View

June Cross on the pitfalls of balance, fairness, and objectivity


In 1972, Dorothy Gilliam, a trailblazing Black reporter at the Washington Post, wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review asking: “What Do Black Journalists Want?” It was a few years after the Kerner Commission had released its landmark 1968 report—which, among other things, identified the failure of white-run outlets to cover race in America and called on newsrooms to diversify. Reporters recruited from the Black press to the mainstream suddenly found ourselves in unfriendly situations; our work was often second-guessed by a white editor, as Gilliam writes, and read by a white man at the copy desk. The experience was similar to that later described by Paul McLeary in his CJR piece on Iraqi stringers—accused of being spies by our own people, then asked to think “like an American guy” when pitching stories. We were strangers in our own land.

Many of us had gotten into the journalism business because, like Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching crusader, we wanted to make the world a better place. When we arrived at major newsrooms, though, we were told that doing our job right meant upholding a standard of “objectivity,” an ideal that emerged in the 1920s. Gaye Tuchman, a sociologist and the author of Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality, has defined objectivity as a system of verification, of presenting conflicting possibilities, supporting evidence, and quotes, offered in a certain sequence. Writing in the seventies, Tuchman called objectivity a “strategic ritual” designed to shield newspapermen from libel lawsuits and editors’ criticisms. In 1986, Thomas Nagel, the American philosopher, identified the objective perspective as “the view from nowhere,” and Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, later applied that phrase to the press.

But who decides what the public views, which facts need to be verified and which should be accepted? Who chooses the voices that will be quoted? Working for PBS NewsHour in the early eighties, I remember walking into an editor’s office one day to complain about the dearth of Black and Latino guests on our program. He fixed his gaze on me and explained that the NewsHour’s job was to enlighten the public about policy conversations that took place behind closed doors, where important decisions were made. Since minorities weren’t in those rooms, I recall him saying, they couldn’t appear on our air. I argued that there were other important conversations going on outside Washington, DC. But I did not persuade him.

A few years later, I left the NewsHour for a young upstart magazine show at CBS, West 57th. Out of about a dozen segment producers, two of us were African-American, as were two associate producers; all were women. After hours, we would huddle in one office or another. At the time, the days of the Black Power revolution had passed, and then, as now, skin color formed an invisible barrier between us and our white sisters on staff. Still, we could see the problems Terri Laxton Brooks writes about in her CJR piece on equal rights for women in the newsroom. I remember my rage at discovering that one of my male colleagues, someone with less than half my experience, made a salary 60 percent more than mine. When I complained, I was told that I had to wait until my next contract negotiation.

I was at CBS when the Central Park Five case broke. New York’s newsrooms, led by the Post and the Daily News—and abetted by a full-page ad taken out by Donald Trump—promoted the idea that five teenage boys, deemed a “wolf pack,” had been “wilding” and chosen as their “prey” a Wall Street banker, who had been beaten and raped. These boys were convicted in the press long before the case was heard in a court of law. At one point, I walked into my executive producer’s office and asked what had happened to the idea of innocent until proven guilty. “Shouldn’t we at least raise the question in our reporting?” I wanted to know. The producer suggested that I go out and prove them innocent.

There is not, as Thomas Nagel writes, a “view from nowhere.”

None of the evidence that eventually became public was available then; the actual rapist was years away from coming forward. Still, I have always blamed myself for not trying harder to report against that tide, knowing full well that police could sway facts to make an innocent person appear guilty. African-Americans have always understood this problem—and the tendency of the mainstream press to accept false narratives disseminated by police. There is not, as Nagel suggests, “a view from nowhere”; Alexandria Neason writes, in her profile of Lewis Raven Wallace, who started a thought-provoking podcast called The View from Somewhere: “For reporters from underrepresented communities—reporters of color, queer and transgender reporters, disabled reporters, poor reporters—taking a neutral stance on their own humanity isn’t an option.” When Wesley Lowery appeared on Wallace’s podcast, speaking about the shooting of Michael Brown, he said: “As someone who has been pulled over only because I am Black before, I can entertain and envision a world in which perhaps this was racial profiling. If you’re someone who has never in your life ever had to think about it before, what is your framing and your perspective?”

By the early nineties, I went back to PBS to work for Frontline. I was the sole Black producer on the staff, and one of two women in an editorial position. I felt relief, however, upon hearing the executive editor say that objectivity was an impossible standard. Everyone had a point of view, the editor told us, and the best we could do was maintain balance over time. Still, as Victor Navasky’s CJR essay on coverage of the New York Senate race between Al D’Amato and Robert Abrams makes clear, even the idea of balance can distort reality.

Which gets to the dilemma now facing journalism: reality has become a debatable proposition. The methodological foundation underpinning our industry’s concepts of “balance,” “fairness,” and “objectivity” have, over the years, shown their cracks. We have nonstop news cycles that defy efforts at verification; a collapsing news business model; and an online ecosystem that has, along with a democratization of information, brought a form of anarchy that threatens American democracy.

We now have Black men running major dailies and Black women running network news divisions; a Black man, Lester Holt, holds the anchor seat at the NBC Nightly News, one of the country’s most-watched nightly news programs. And yet, despite these symbols, minority-controlled media remains the most vital source of information for nonwhite communities. The conclusions of the Kerner Commission remain relevant today. How will the United States live up to its ideals, and what role will we, as journalists, play? 

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June Cross is the director of the documentary program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has spent her career highlighting stories of the dispossessed and the intersection of race, politics, and public health. Previously, she was a television producer for PBS’s Frontline and the CBS Evening News. She has twice won the Alfred I. duPont–Columbia Journalism Award and a national Emmy; she is also a recipient of the 2020 Peabody Award.

TOP IMAGE: Barbara Walters in New York, 2001; Bruce Davidson/Magnum