New York Civic: You Are What You Know By Henry J. Stern

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Stern_HenryJ Quest for Objectivity in Articles on Politics: Writer Seeks to Be Fair but Does Have Values.

A writer or columnist, to be taken seriously, must be perceived as being without bias. This is very difficult to do, because everyone has some preconceived attitudes and opinions on both issues and people. Moreover, most writers have prior or current relationships with many of the people they write about. There is usually a conflict, acknowledged or not, between having dinner or drinks with someone in the evening, and writing purely objectively about him or her the next day.

That is the way the world works, and anyone who denies it is either deluded or hypocritical. Of course, there are degrees of bias, it is not an absolute as to whether one favors one point of view over another, and how much of this favoritism is due to objective and empirical evidence, and how much is based on attitude, inclination, and identification with one or more of the parties involved with an issue.

We are not talking about writers who are simply bribed to take one position or another, to report news or to ignore it. That was a widespread, but by no means universal, practice in City Hall thirty or forty years ago, when reporters received cash from public relations men to supplement the salaries they were paid by the newspapers. If enough people paid, their influence would cancel out each other. The practice was widely known in political circles, but by no means limited to journalists. The men who received these stipends did not consider themselves any differently than waiters who received tips.

Today no honorable writer accepts money to influence his or her views. But attitudes are influenced by other factors: personal experience, relationships, moral values (whether adhered to or not), religious belief, education or lack thereof. We are all composites, particularly people expressing their ideas. It is quite difficult to be scrupulously fair; it is much easier for people to go off on one side or another, and that is why so much writing may be opinionated or repetitive. The easiest thing to say is what one has said recently.

It is also sometimes less satisfying to readers to come across an article with no defined conclusion. People may believe, consciously or not, that they took the trouble to spend their time, their vision and their intellect on a particular subject, and the writer does not even know how to come up with an answer. Some people write in that they appreciate the fairness of an article, and that is gratifying, but I wonder how many may be disappointed if there is no summons to action, or conclusive judgment, in what they have read. 

The only way to resolve this writer's dilemma is to say as much of what you think as you can, and, to coin a phrase, let the devil take the hindmost. You are fortunate enough that people will take the time to read your honest opinions. To impose anything less on one’s readers is a disservice to everyone. 

We live in a democracy, unlike many other countries. There is no state censorship, there is no dominant criminal underworld. People can more or less say what they think. It is remarkable to me how relatively few take advantage of the opportunities to express themselves that technology and democracy offer. Looking at it the other way, however, millions of people today express their opinions electronically (at least on Facebook); it is just quite difficult to find them.


At this point, as the New Year begins, we offer a meandering essay about how things in America turned out as they have. You are all invited to read it, or as much of it as interests you, and let me know your views on these matters, and whether you want them published, with attribution, initials or anonymously. There is nothing I see as trailblazing in any of this; its value, if any, lies in the train of thought and the recollection of past events that most of us have forgotten, or never knew.

Two hundred years ago, most of the Founding Fathers owned slaves and managed them as chattels. The slaveholding practices of George Washington are described in detail in a new biography by Ron Chernow. Before that, slavery was a possible outcome of warfare between tribes in both Europe and America. When one group defeated another, the losing males were executed or enslaved and the females added to the gene pool of the winners. There is a Darwinian aspect to these behaviors, which was one of the reasons it took Charles Darwin almost twenty years to publish his work on the origin of species, and he basically did so when he did because somebody else was about to go to print with the same discovery. God forbid that happening to a scientist.

Returning to the theme of objectivity, we believe it is a highly desirable standard. The first requirement is that what you write be true, or as close to true as you can make it. That does not, however, satisfy some critics who write to ask me: "You have written about X being a crook, fraud or liar. What about Y? He is another crook."

That is a difficult question, because a single person does not have the time, energy and resources to write about the large number of people in public life who are deficient in intelligence or character, or who are wholly owned by a master (or mistress, in the dominant sense of the word) who dictates their actions. Furthermore, writers who go around denouncing everybody lose credibility after a while, even if what they write is essentially true. Except for the political extremes, people are not generally interested in reading that everyone who represents them is no good.

Besides, voters who have a low opinion of Congress or the state legislatures as institutions, as opinion polls repeatedly show, generally have a higher opinion of their own representative. This is true in part because of familiarity. He or she has been bombarding constituents with printed matter and mailings paid for by the State, except for a small window preceding elections.

Most voters do not read all of these brochures, or linger on the numerous glossy photos of the incumbent that usually accompany the text, but they do recall that someone of that name has taken the trouble to write to them to let them know what is going on. When the person in office is challenged by somebody no one has ever heard of, there is a strong tendency to support the incumbent unless there is a widely known compelling reason to make a change.

The importance of incumbency is enhanced by gerrymandering, an historic political process, which goes back almost two hundred years in this country. District lines are drawn to favor the people who draw the lines, their political party or their faction. They are also drawn to frustrate the enemies, rivals, challengers or aspirants who are not involved in drawing the lines which divide states, cities or counties into political districts. 

The few offices immune from gerrymandering includes United States Senate seats, where districts are defined by state boundaries which are presumably immutable. Mayors and city-wide officials also are usually safe from adulteration of their districts, but wherever there are lines to be drawn, politicians and others will seek the maximum partisan benefit from the process. Since this is a zero-sum game, the undeserved advantage will come at the expense of non-favored groups or candidates.

Reformers for generations have advocated districting by impartial groups, hoping to lessen the influence of partisans. Enemies of reform say that everything in politics is fixed, one way or another, and that establishing such a panel would simply shift the manipulation from elected to appointed officials, who are not accountable to the voters, and who are likely to have their personal and ideological preferences, which may not be in the public interest.

The basic requirement for redistricting is that the districts to be delineated should be approximately equal in population. Although that principle is widely accepted today, even by people who try to avoid it, that was not always the case. For example, when I was a teenager, the state of Georgia had a county unit system, whereby different counties had different voting strength in Democratic primaries, which in those days were tantamount to election. No longer.

Under the county unit system, every county in Georgia had between two and six votes. Two for the smallest and six for the largest, Fulton County, which included Atlanta. Now the number of voters in Atlanta was far more than three times the total vote in the small rural counties of mid-Georgia, so the influence of a voter in Atlanta (who was more likely to be black or liberal white) was far less than that of his or her country cousin. The stereotypes of flatbeds, rifles and hunting gear were reflected in the disparity of influence of voters in different counties.

It was many years of litigation before the United States Supreme Court reached its one-man, one-vote decision in Baker v. Carr (1962). When I was in law school, the ruling case was Colegrove v. Green (1946), in which Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote that the court should not enter the "political thicket" of considering cases involving redistricting. 

Justice Frankfurter was considered a radical when he was appointed to the court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. He was a professor at Harvard Law School who had graduated from the City College of New York in 1902. He recommended numerous young people for jobs in Washington who aided in implementing Roosevelt's New Deal.

Frankfurter turned out to be not that liberal, in part because his views mellowed (or hardened) with age, and in part because standards for liberalism changed over the years. The practice of slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, which over-ruled Justice Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case (1857), and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) over-ruled Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a case which sanctioned racial segregation in public schools. 

It is not widely known that the lone dissenter in the Plessy case was Justice John Marshall Harlan, appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877. Harlan, a former slave owner, excoriated the notion held by groups like the Ku Klux Klan that in the United States there is a "superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens." Writing far more like a 21st Century man, than a Victorian, Harlan's dissent continued, "There is no caste here. Our Constitution is colorblind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.

"In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.

"In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case."

Aptly, Harlan's grandson and namesake, Justice John Marshall Harlan, appointed by President Eisenhower in 1953, was part of the unanimous decision of the high court in the Brown case.

The tide generally supporting equality of individuals, first abolishing the ownership and availability for purchase or sale of human beings by other people, then ending the states' authority to compel pupils to attend public schools according to their race, then providing that votes of all citizens shall be counted equally, may or may not be in danger with the Supreme Court as it is currently constituted. Time will tell.

There is a difference between writing about principles and writing about people. We are all imperfect, but if anyone knows of a perfect living person, we would appreciate hearing about him or her, and we will publish your nominee. In some cases, our imperfections disqualify us from the public offices that we attain from time through the electoral process. The law rightly sets high standards for removal or impeachment of public officials, though competence is generally not among them.

What does one say about a public official who, because of emotional disorder or lack of intellect, is unable to function in a reasonably professional matter? We are not writing about people with whom we may disagree on issues, favoring greater or lower public spending, supporting or opposing capital punishment, or any of the policy questions which have consumed the time of lawmakers.

There is no single standard of competence. In law, people may be found competent or incompetent to be accountable for criminal their behavior. With public officials, we are writing about crime in an attenuated sense. "Failure to provide good service", a standard of criminal behavior which has been challenged in the Supreme Court, sounds more like an accusation against a waiter than a governor or senate majority leader. And if the people have elected a person regardless of events in his past, what effect does that have on the charges that have been made against him.

Congressman Charles Rangel of upper Manhattan starts his 21st term today. Many people, including this writer, regard him as a friend because of their interactions with him over the years. The voters in his congressional district decided, by a near 80-20 margin, that they wanted him to continue to represent them. That is called democracy, rule by the people. Yes, he was censured, and he probably did much of what he was accused of. But that does not mean the voters lost their right to elect him, or his right to serve if elected. That is democracy.

Today New York State has a new governor. So far, he has said all the right things. No one could come to office better prepared.

How will he do when conflict arises between his goals and the powerful interests which currently dominate State politics? We shall see.

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.  


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eHeziNew York Civic: You Are What You Know By Henry J. Stern

Comments 1

  1. For me a writer should have a sense of discipline and ethical value to be able to write a good story. A writer should write something that only the truth will come out of the story nothing more and nothing less. They should not be bribe or persuade to write against what they know is right.

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