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Just the Facts

How "Objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism

David Mindich

Publication Year: 1998

If American journalism were a religion, as it has been called, then its supreme deity would be "objectivity." The high priests of the profession worship the concept, while the iconoclasts of advocacy journalism, new journalism, and cyberjournalism consider objectivity a golden calf. Meanwhile, a groundswell of tabloids and talk shows and the increasing infringement of market concerns make a renewed discussion of the validity, possibility, and aim of objectivity a crucial pursuit.

Despite its position as the orbital sun of journalistic ethics, objectivity--until now--has had no historian. David T. Z. Mindich reaches back to the nineteenth century to recover the lost history and meaning of this central tenet of American journalism. His book draws on high profile cases, showing the degree to which journalism and its evolving commitment to objectivity altered-and in some cases limited--the public's understanding of events and issues. Mindich devotes each chapter to a particular component of this ethic-detachment, nonpartisanship, the inverted pyramid style, facticity, and balance. Through this combination of history and cultural criticism, Mindich provides a profound meditation on the structure, promise, and limits of objectivity in the age of cybermedia.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

Two professors at New York University inspired and transformed this project. One day, in the late 1980s, Mitchell Stephens challenged his journalism history class to find the first examples of the “inverted pyramid” news form, a form that contains the most important facts in the first paragraphs. I was in that class, and the project led to a quest for the ...

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Introduction: Objectivity

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pp. 1-14

If American journalism were a religion, as it has been called from time to time, its supreme deity would be “objectivity.” The high priests of journalism worship “objectivity”; one leading editor called it the “highest original moral concept ever developed in America and given to the world.”1 The iconoclasts—purveying advocacy journalism, “new” ...

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1. Detachment: The Caning of James Gordon Bennett, the Penny Press, and Objectivity’s Primordial Soup

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pp. 15-39

On a sunny spring day in 1836, James Gordon Bennett left his newspaper office to begin his morning perambulations around Wall Street, seeking information for the financial column of his new one-cent paper, the New York Herald. That morning, as he roamed the narrow, tortuous streets of the financial district, Bennett might very well have been counting ...

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2. Nonpartisanship: Three Shades of Political Journalism

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pp. 40-63

In 1836 James Gordon Bennett supported Martin Van Buren, a Democrat, for president. In 1840 he endorsed Van Buren’s opponent, William Henry Harrison. Bennett then supported a Democrat, James K. Polk, in 1844, a Whig, Zachary Taylor, in 1848, a Democrat, Franklin Pierce, in 1852, and a Republican, John C. Fremont, in 1856. Three things distinguish ...

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3. The Inverted Pyramid: Edwin M. Stanton and Information Control

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pp. 64-94

Until the end of the nineteenth century the telling of news nearly always took the form used in classical storytelling: first, an announcement of the utility or importance of the story, as in the start of the Iliad, “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which puts pains thousandfold upon the Achaians”1 or the penny papers’ “By ...

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4. Facticity: Science, Culture, Cholera, and the Rise of Journalism’s “Naive Empiricism,” 1832–66

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pp. 95-112

Between 1832 and 1866 the cultural landscape of the United States had transformed itself. Medicine, art, literature, the social sciences, and journalism rejected a religious paradigm in favor of a scientific one. “The world has grown tired of preachers and sermons,” wrote one late nineteenth-century observer, “to-day it asks for facts.” The scientist and ...

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5. Balance: A “Slanderous and Nasty-Minded Mulattress,” Ida B. Wells, Confronts “Objectivity” in the 1890s

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pp. 113-137

Each chapter of this study covered an aspect of “objectivity”: detachment, nonpartisanship, the inverted pyramid writing style, and a reverence for facts and empiricism all evolved over the course of the nineteenth century. By the 1890s, the period of this final chapter, all the elements covered so far came together; journalists and journalism were what ...

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Conclusion: Thoughts on a Post-“Objective” Profession

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pp. 138-144

Dan Rather’s claim that his CBS Evening News program was “real” implied that his show was “objective” and others were not. This study has discussed similar protestations. Bennett and Webb battled over whose brand of journalism would prevail; both men claimed the “truth” and each smeared his opponent. Later, as we have seen in the final chapter, ...


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pp. 145-176

Bibliographic Essay

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pp. 177-180

Works Cited

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pp. 181-194


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pp. 195-200

About the Author

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p. 201-201

E-ISBN-13: 9780814763094
E-ISBN-10: 081476309X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814756133
Print-ISBN-10: 0814756131

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 1998