In more than 40 years as Sunday editor of the New York Times, beginning in 1923, Lester Markel created the Week in Review section, influenced the paper’s coverage of countless issues and shaped one of the great hubs of American discourse, the Sunday issue of the Times.
The Saturday Review – March 11, 1961
“Interpretation of Interpretation”
By Lester Markel
There is a great to-do these days in newspaper and TV circles about “interpretation” — a word that denotes (at least for me) an endeavor to define the significance of the news, to supply its background, to give meaning to the bare facts of events.
Arguments and counterarguments have been flung about. Some editors see in the process Great Promise; others, with a rating high in decibels if not in logic, discern in it Great Peril.
All this may strike the lay reader as a purely parochial dispute. Yet to my mind it is a paramount: issue, one of grave import to every citizen, even to the functioning of democracy itself.
The problem of American public opinion is of paramount importance. If American public opinion is well informed, our course is likely to be a sound one. If it is uninformed or badly informed, our course may well be disastrous. And we must keep in mind always that the world looks to us for leadership.
Whether we have an informed opinion depends in large degree on the job done by the mass media in making understandable the great issues of the day, in clarifying the ever-increasing complexities of global events. Other agencies obviously play major roles in the opinion operation. The President, for example, through his messages, speeches and press conferences, can influence opinion. But the day-by-day, the grass-roots job, is one that must be done by the mass media, especially the newspaper.
What, then, what is the Great Debate about?
Before setting out the argument, it might be useful further to define that moot word “interpretation.” There are, as I see it, three approaches in dealing with news; first, the basic facts; second, the interpretation of these facts; third, the comment on them. Thus:
What Mr. Khrushchev says about Mr. Kennedy is spot news.
Why Mr. Khrushchev says these things is interpretation.
Whether Mr. Khrushchev should have said these things and what we should do about him is opinion.
It is crucial that the difference between interpretation and opinion be fully recognized. Interpretation is an objective appraisal, based on background, knowledge of a situation, and analysis of the primary and related facts. Editorial opinion, on the other hand, is a subjective judgment; it is a definite taking of sides; it is likely to be exhortation; it is always an attempt to be a Solomon—even if it turns out to be a Sheba—pronouncement.
This difference is vital and it cannot have too much emphasis; opinion must be held, almost religiously, to the editorial page; interpretation is an essential part of the news.
Those who oppose interpretation in the sense in which I have defined it do so on three main counts:
First, they contend that the job of the newspaper is to confine itself to “factual reporting”; that some “background” is admissible but that it shall be only a statement of “what has gone before” and not at all an effort to supply meaning and to consider what is likely to come next. Thus a difference is made between what these critics call “reporting in depth” and “interpretation,” and the latter is passionately denounced.
Second, they assert that “interpretation” leads inevitably to editorializing. This is condemned as a reversion to old-time journalism, the journalism of the saffron days of the Pulitzers and the Hearsts when there was “personal bias in the reporting of the news.”
Third, they hold that the job is too tough and too dangerous. “You get into trouble, for there are many meanings.” And “to know the truth when there are many opinions is an attribute of the gods, not ordinarily given to man.” And there is peril that “interpretation may lose the confidence of the reader.”
Those, like myself, who have been crusading for more interpretation offer three arguments in rebuttal to the three counts set out above.
The first count—that interpretation is a sinful assault on “factual reporting”—I consider a huge illusion. These critics seem to beheve that the presentation of the “facts” is a simple and obvious process. I hold that it is not; I ask: what facts?
The reporter, the most objective of reporters, collects fifty facts. Out of the fifty he selects twelve to include in his story (there is such a thing as space limitation). Thus he discards thirty-eight. This is Judgment Number One.
Then the reporter or his editor decides which of the facts shall be the first paragraph of the story, thus emphasizing one fact above the other eleven. This is Judgment Number Two.
Then the editor decides whether the story shall be placed on page one or page twelve; on page one it will command many times the attention it would on page twelve. This is Judgment Number Three.
This so-called factual presentation is thus subjected to three judgments, all of them most humanly and most ungodly made. So I inquire: What has happened to this much-acclaimed “objectivity” which the critics blazon before us interpreters?
The second count in the indictment—that you cannot interpret without falling into the morass of editorializing—I consider another illusion. Because, as I have indicated above, interpretation is an objective judgment, whereas opinion is a subjective one; and so-called factual reporting requires as much selection as does “interpretation,” both involving judgments and editorial processes for which no simple rules and regulations can be set.
I believe in objectivity as far as it is humanly possible. Even if we can never attain it wholly, we should cherish it as an ideal. But I contend that objectivity is not the fundamental issue in this debate.
The definition of “reporting in depth” as the presentation of the spot facts plus a recounting of some of the antecedent facts, I do not accept. This may be reporting in width—that is, two-dimensional rather than one-dimensional presentation—but the third and all-important dimension is missing; genuine interpretation.
The third count in the indictment—that interpretation is tough and dangerous—I also reject, even though part of my case is necessarily personal.
As for the toughness of the job, it is being done every day by the best and the most admired reporters. (I am not speaking here of columnists. These are an entirely different breed of bird and their proper nest is on the editorial page where they can find the limbs on which they love to go out.) I concede that too many reporters, under the guise of interpretation, have been dishing up opinion instead of background and have thereby provided horrible examples with which the “factual” boys have been able to lambaste the cause of interpretation. But these transgressions do not negate the true facts.
In further refutation I point immodestly to the “News of the Week in Review” section of the New York Times, where for some twenty-five vears we have been doing a job of explanation without opinion, of interpretation without slant. I do not think we have any special tricks or fancy formulas. We apply our best editorial sense, trying to make the appraisal as stone-cold (but graphic) as any warm-blooded animal can achieve. Therefore I am convinced from personal experience that the job can be done effectively.
As for possible dangers, sure they exist—just as they exist in “factual reporting.” But are we to surrender to them? Are we to leave interpretation and illumination to harried news weeklies or hurried television? To the “Britannicas” or to the Winchells?
No, the job of explanation is primarily ours. And the reader should insist that we fulfill that assignment, that we do our best to inform all the people some of the time and at least some of the people all of the time, so that no one will be able to fool all of the people all of the time.