The last few weeks have seen yet another flare up in the ever-raging debate on journalistic objectivity, this time in the form of two seemingly unrelated arguments taking place on both sides of the political spectrum. From the right, we’ve heard familiar accusations of liberal media bias, amplified in recent days by a spate of progressive-leaning outlets looking to discredit Ben Carson’s half-truths and outright lies. On the left, we’ve got Joe Biden’s claim that Maureen Dowd’s memorable summer column—in which she provides a sourceless account of a terminal Beau Biden pleading with his father to run—was a “Hollywood-esque” dramatization. The ensuing controversy culminated with the Times Public Editor urging the paper to make a correction.
On some level, lashing out at a polarized and careless media landscape is merely part of campaign season, an easy target made even more vulnerable in our hyper-connected, traffic-conscious digital age. But underlying these internet shouting matches, we can see a media-weary public grappling with two competing traditions of journalism: the impartial assemblage of facts against the narrative interpretation of experience.
Much has been written in recent years on the issue of objectivity in the fourth estate—most notably, this lengthy conversation between Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller, in which the two Mayweather-sized egos engage in some high-minded slap-fighting. Greenwald believes that reporters, incapable of ever abandoning their inherent bias, should not hide their opinions under the pretense objectivity. Keller thinks that the quest for impartiality remains integral to any serious journalism.
But like so many other future-facing discussions, the Keller v. Greenwald contest fails for its assumption that this dilemma is a symptom of our digitally disrupted moment, and not, as is the case, a challenge faced by journalists of all eras.
On the subject of reporters and creative freedom, we can look for answers in the reporting of two of our most influential creative minds: Gabriel García Márquez and Ernest Hemingway. While formative years spent in a newsroom profoundly impacted both writers, each would develop contrasting philosophies on the responsibility of a reporter to objective truth-telling. It’s worth looking back at each doctrine as a reminder of the pre-Internet roots of our current conundrum. And also, because it’s just kind of nice to take a break from the endless stream of hot takes and instead consider the wisdom of two men who devoted their lives to the machinery of language.
For Ernest Hemingway, the goal of newspaper writing was deceptively simple: report the facts. As a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star and later a stringer for the Toronto Daily Star, the young Hemingway was said to have a “commitment to an almost Zen level of reportorial accuracy.” He regarded personal columnists as “jackals” and would’ve likely sided with Bill Keller’s position that journalists have an “occupational discipline [of] suspending their opinions and letting the evidence speak for themselves.”
Writing a story for the Toronto Star Weekly on the hit-men community of Chicago, the Patron Saint of Directness offers this lede: “Gunmen from the United States are being imported to do killings in Ireland. That is an established fact from Associated Press dispatches.” Passive voice aside, Papa knew when to keep it cool and colorless.
Hemingway would eventually move to Paris to take on a correspondent role for the Toronto Star (a moment of silence for the days when daily papers had Paris correspondents) and was soon covering the Greco-Turkish war. Of these accounts, Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers writes, “he objectively reported only the immediate events in order to achieve a concentration and intensity of focus—a spotlight rather than a stage.”
If Hemingway’s reportage draws comparison to the precise targeting of a spotlight, the journalism of Gabriel García Márquez can be likened to immersive theatre, where drama spreads as the line between subject and author blurs. At the age of 27, having already amassed a good deal of experience as a columnist and film reviewer, Gabriel García Márquez—Gabo, affectionately—took a job as a reporter for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. Within a year, he was assigned a story about Luis Alejandro Velasco, a member of the Colombian Navy who’d become a national hero after surviving a shipwreck that claimed the lives of seven other crewmen.
In a stroke of luck that most young journalists would trade a vital organ for, García Márquez soon uncovered a massive military scandal: The wreck had not been caused by a storm, as the government reported, but by the weight of television sets, washing machines, and refrigerators aboard the ship, all of them illegally-imported from the United States. After nearly three weeks of interviews with Velasco, García Márquez penned a first-person account of the journey from the perspective of the crewman. The series ran in El Espectador for fourteen consecutive days, nearly doubling the paper’s circulation and forcing García Márquez’s transfer to Paris for fear that the Colombian government would seek retribution.
The articles, since collected and published as The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, offer a dramatic reconstruction of the ordeal, with many glimmers of the style that would catapult Gabo to literary sainthood:
That the reporting contained stylistic elements we associate with fiction was no accident. After the series, García Márquez spoke of his artful treatment of sources, writing, “It is possible to interview someone in the same way that you write a novel or poetry.” Years later, in a 1981 Paris Review interview, when asked whether a novel can do things that journalism can’t, he responded, “Nothing. I don’t think there is any difference. The sources are the same, the material is the same, the resources and the language are the same.”
These statements, as well García Márquez’s decision to report the shipwreck story through the eyes’ of Velasco, is surely at odds with the Hemingway/Keller school of thought. Yet Greenwald—who laments the fact that the “suffocating constraint on how reporters are permitted to express themselves produces a self-neutering form of journalism that becomes as ineffectual as it is boring”—would likely have no qualms with the series’ creative and compelling storytelling device.
It’s fun to imagine how García Márquez and Hemingway would square their distinct philosophies with today’s media landscape, and weirdly intriguing to picture them quarreling over these beliefs in a public setting à la Greenwald and Keller. Barring some sort of literary time machine scenario, all we can do is speculate.
They did nearly cross paths on one occasion in 1957—a rainy spring day in Paris, García Márquez recalls spotting the “too visible” expat from across an avenue of secondhand bookstalls. “For a fraction of a second,” he writes, “I found myself divided between my two competing roles. I didn’t know whether to ask him for an interview or cross the avenue to express my unqualified admiration for him.”
The young Colombian writer, still a decade off from writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, did neither, instead electing to yell from the opposite sidewalk: “Maaaeeestro!” According to Marquez, Hemingway turned then, raising his hand as he shouted in reply, “Adiooos, amigo!”
Feature image via Wikimedia