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Studs on Subjectivity 

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Dear Mike:

What I like about your column is that it touches on matters others abjure. It causes us to think things we hadn't thought of before. The case of Judy Peres, the Trib's medical writer, comes to mind [Hot Type, May 3].

When she signed that petition of the Not in My Name group, concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she is said to have violated the sacred creed: the journalist's "objectivity." Man, this debate has been going on since Herodotus covered the Persian Wars.

I was saddened by the fact that she had to recant. I realize that the Tribune has come under attack from voices in the Jewish community as having an "anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian bias." (There are other voices in the community that may disagree; mine, for one.) I have found the Trib's coverage of this crisis eminently more evenhanded and fair than that of any other large establishment newspaper in the country.

But the issue raised by the Peres case is far deeper and older than this contemporary tragedy. It is the right of a journalist to express a personal opinion, publicly if need be, on an issue outside his/her curriculum.

Had Judy Peres, as a medical writer, come out in favor of national health insurance or managed care or HMOs, it would have been another matter. But to deny her the right to express an opinion on an issue that has nothing to do with her specifically assigned job is to deny her the right that any doctor, lawyer, spot welder, or waitress has. The heading of your column is unfortunate: "Reporters' Creed: Keep It to Yourself." It is absolutely Ashcroftian.

Let my dear friend the late James Cameron, Britain's most admired roving correspondent during the last half of the 20th century, take over. (Ask any serious young Brit reporter who inspired him/her to follow this trade; I've a hunch the reply would be "Jimmy Cameron, of course.")

When in the 1950s he joined Bertrand Russell in founding the CND (Committee for Nuclear Disarmament), most of his more cautious colleagues were astounded. Oh, Jimmy, you have destroyed your objectivity. You must be neutral as a journalist. No, Cameron replied, I still have rights as a flesh-and-blood human; a neutral is, in this instance, a euphemism for a neuter.

It is in his remarkable memoir, Point of Departure (a work I pray every young reporter should read), that he says it all. Consider this following passage:

"I cannot remember how often I have been challenged, and especially in America, for disregarding the fundamental tenet of honest journalism, which is objectivity. This argument has risen over the years, but of course it reached a fortissimo--long years after this--when I had been to Hanoi and returned obsessed with the notion that I had no professional justification left if I did not at least try to make the point that North Viet Nam, despite all official Washington arguments to the contrary, was inhabited by human beings....I still do not see how a reporter attempting to define a situation involving some sort of ethical conflict can do it with sufficient demonstrable neutrality to fulfill some arbitrary concept of "objectivity." It never occurred to me, in such a situation, to be other than subjective, and as obviously so as I could manage to be. I may not have always been satisfactorily balanced; I tended to argue that objectivity was of less importance than the truth, and that the reporter whose technique was informed by no opinion lacked a very serious dimension."

Oh, Jimmy Cameron, where are you now that we need you more than ever?

This is what the Judy Peres case is all about.

I am tempted at this moment, in my presumptuousness, arrogance, and rudeness (all three of which attributes, I confess, I possess) to become Judy Peres's counsel, unwelcome though it be to her in her time of trauma, and to announce to the court of public opinion: I recant her recantation. (Personal note to Judy: I admire you.)

Studs Terkel

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