Newspapers appeal to human nature

Newspapers appeal to human nature by H. Brandt Ayers Boot up and ask Jeeves to search this question: Will there be newspapers in the new millennium and, if so, will we like and believe them because they're more objective or subjective?

My answer to the first question is: Yes, unless Congress repeals human nature. To the second, my answer is, love 'em or hate 'em, a healthy confident leadership newspaper has to be both objective and subjective.

No newspapers? Think about it. How, among the millions of websites and hundreds of TV channels, would a community learn of the death of a beloved citizen, that your son scored the winning touchdown for the high school team or your lovely daughter is getting married?

We are all social beings. We need to have contact with other members of the tribe, to share news and grief and joy with them. Newspapers have to be subjective at times or risk becoming bloodless, nerveless journalistic androids, incapable of human emotion.

How and when do reporters and editors resolve that contradiction? Here are two examples from a 38-year career that illustrate when journalists ought to follow their best instincts, being subjective or objective as the case required:

In the bad old days, when George Wallace was stirring racial resentment with a big stick, the National States Rights Party held rallies on the Calhoun County Courthouse steps. A group of young white thugs who attended those rallies fired a deer-hunting rifle into a carload of black men returning home from work ��killing a non-controversial working man named Willie Brewster.

A local internist, the late Dr. T.C. Donald, called me at the paper and said with controlled indignation, "We've got to do something about this." That night, we organized a telephone pyramid in which over 300 leading citizens underwrote a $20,000 reward. More importantly, they signed their names to a full-page ad in the Sunday paper that read, "We are determined that those who advocate and commit secret acts of violence will not control this community."

Starting that Monday morning, The Star ran front-page graphics suggesting how to give information to the police or the paper anonymously, by using a code of random numbers and letters, and qualify for the reward.

Eventually, a man with an evocative name Damon Strange, was arrested, tried and convicted of murder by an all-white jury. He later died in a gunfight at a local dive while his case was on appeal.

Getting a jury that would convict a white man of murdering a black man was pure luck, because the venire from which it was drawn had been tainted. The jury commission, place guards of the justice system, had three members. One owned a racist hate-sheet. A second was the one-legged blind man who ran the courthouse concession stand. They had built a jury venire with some convicted felons, but none of the citizens who signed the reward ad.

Those two "crusades" resulted in the arrest and convention of a murderer and reform of the jury system. Were they dictionary models of subjectivity � placing emphasis on one's own beliefs? Absolutely! But what is the objective view of a murder and perversion of our system of justice?

We couldn't be subjective, however, when reminded � with a shock � that Anniston Army Depot contained 7 percent of the nation's supply of nerve gas and other chemical weapons that the Army proposed to incinerate.

That was a story in which conscience wasn't a reliable guide. We had no expert scientific knowledge. We did know that we didn't trust the Army. The paper years ago revealed that the local Army Chemical training command, Ft. McClellan, had secretly conducted open-air testing of a "benign" agent, which caused respiratory problems unique to our area.

Our search for a credible source on which to base an opinion about incineration took years of mind-numbing evenings with the Army's top experts whom the editorial board peppered with tough questions. Reporters steeped themselves in technical details and one editor actually put his hand on the belly of the beast � visiting the pilot incineration facility on Johnson Island atoll in the Pacific Ocean. He also checked out the operating furnace at Toele, Ut.

Finally, a panel of independent authorities commissioned by the National Academy of Science � the leaders of their field, with no binding prejudices � concluded that burning the unstable weapons was the only proven, safe and timely method of disposal.

After an evening spent questioning the chairman of that panel, we were ready to take a stand. We agreed with the experts.

So, journalists worth their salt have got to follow their consciences when confronted with evil, tragedy or clear violations of basic American rights and values, but their heads must rule when the story is too technical and complex.

Until Congress appeals human nature, we � journalists and readers alike � will be vital caring members of a community that needs reliable information, but also needs someone to share our grief and joy.

Joy and grief are meaningless without someone to share those feelings. Will there be newspapers in the new millennium? Yes, as long as there are communities.

(H. Brandt Ayers is editor and publisher of The Anniston (AL) Star. He is a prize-winning essayist and columnist, and he is a commentator on National Public Radio.)

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