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MURPHY: Journalism requires pursuit of objectivity

Photo by Jason Braverman

Photo by Jason Braverman

All right, let's be honest. Back in the '80s, how many of you turned the channel from "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson to tune in Ted Koppel on "Nightline?" It was a tough time slot for a serious-minded news program, but Koppel and "Nightline" offered an alternative attractive enough to remain on the air for 25 years. ("Nightline" still is on the air; Koppel left the show in 2005.)

The journalist who spent more than 50 years with ABC News was in Lawrenceville a week ago, the featured speaker at the Gwinnett Medical Center Foundation's Cornerstone Society black-tie event.

In his remarks, Koppel praised the attendees for the work they'd done, regaled the crowd with some humor and shared interesting tales from his years as an ABC correspondent and anchor of "Nightline."

His main topic was less lighthearted: The increasing divisiveness of the American citizenry and the role journalism plays in that divide.

Koppel echoed some of this in thoughts delivered to the Gwinnett audience in a recent column in The Washington Post: "Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be."

As a 30-plus-year newspaper employee, I share Koppel's concern.

In journalism school and throughout my career, I was taught and later preached the importance of objective reporting. At the Daily Post, the mantra is we have no agenda in a news story other than to inform. Our job is to present the facts and the reader's job is to form an opinion. (Of course, the editorial page labeled "Perspective" -- see top of this page -- is another matter.)

But if it's harder to find a source of untarnished facts, readers, viewers or browsers can't find the clean slate that lets them make up their own minds.

The next shoe that drops for me is the fear that amid all this partisan cacophony, the audience for objective journalism is disappearing. I understand the comfort some find in having the news delivered to them the way they want to hear it. Historically, many newspapers were born to espouse a political philosophy. But America, I believe, had gotten past that. Journalists were more interested in presenting just the facts and allowing independent thinkers to digest them as they choose.

The financial success of partisan "news shows" has spawned an industry. And as the rhetoric becomes even more outrageous, the audience seems to grow proportionally. Yikes.

I'm not certain where an objective community newspaper such as the Daily Post ends up in all this, but I plan to keep objective journalism as the goal -- it's all I know.

The big takeaway from Koppel's remarks surprisingly falls into the mathematics category. In discussing government spending and deficits, Koppel described a trillion dollars in this way: Let's say a really bad business opened at the time of Christ's birth. This business was so bad it lost $1 million a day. At that rate of loss, the business would need another thousand years from today to reach a loss of $1 trillion.

Now that's putting things in Perspective.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/jkmurphy.