Saturday, April 02, 2005

Story Told By NYT's Joseph Lelyveld In His Book Raises Questions About Journalists and Neutrality

In his recently-published memoir, "Omaha Blues, A Memory Loop,"Joseph Lelyveld, the retired executive editor of the New York Times, tells a poignant story about events following the bludgeoning of his father, the late Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, by white racists in Mississippi.

On assignment as a reporter in that state following this horrible incident, the younger Lelyveld attended a church service for three slain civil rights workers.

He writes, "The network reporters, the wire service reporters, the Time magazine correspondent and other newspaper reporters were all holding hands and singing. Having the idea that reporters weren't supposed to show their feelings or take sides, I was one of the abstainers. It was an uncomfortable moment."

I'll bet. Here we have the son of a noted civil rights campaigner and religious man, and a writer for a newspaper that campaigned vigorously and effectively in those years for civil rights throughout the Deep South, and he adopts an ersatz neutrality that belies his own deepest feelings.

Is this admirable? Is this loyalty to the highest standards of the journalistic profession? Pardon me, but I don't think so.

Journalists too must be human beings. We cannot pretend to have no feelings, and we cannot try to assume an attitude of neutrality between right and wrong. This episode is similar to the political reporter, and I knew a few, who not only would not reveal their political affiliation, but in some cases abstained completely from even voting in U.S. elections.

Since few outsiders will believe in the sincerity of a reporter being neutral in the circumstances of the episode reported in his memoir by Lelyveld (reviewed in the New York Times Friday, April 1, and reviewed at greater length in the paper's Book Review on Sunday, April 3), I don't think his abstention from joining in the singing at the service would enhance either his own reputation or the reputation of the newspaper business.

Should we have expected William Shirer and William R. Morrow to be neutral toward Hitler in World War II, or Morrow to be neutral toward Sen. Joseph McCarthy when he did his great investigative program about him? I think the answer is no.

What is essential is that reporters be fair, even if they cannot be neutral. In his own memoir, Joseph Lelyveld acknowledges that he now feels he was too distant from his father, although the lengthier review Sunday gives some powerful reasons for that..

During his father's funeral, Lelyveld writes, "Suddenly I imagined a little boy with curly blond hair, a projection from pictures taken when I was three or four, running up a slight slope, through high grass on a summary day. The little boy was calling, 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy...' I've no idea whether there was a trace of memory in that scene imagined by the 59-year-old executive I'd somehow become. But I knew at once, as the service ran on and the little boy kept calling, that it was a feeling I'd suppressed practically all my life."

Why? Couldn't Lelyveld have been an honest newsman and loving to his father at the same time? I believe he could have, and I'm firmly convinced as journalists we cannot be saints, nor does the reading public expect that we would be..


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