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Objectivity and Osama bin Lumber
An essay by NPR's Scott Simon

audio Listen to Simon's essay.

NPR's Scott Simon
Scott Simon

Nov. 10, 2001 -- Like a great many newsrooms -- like, in fact -- a great many American living rooms at the moment, we tend to keep the television in our conference area, humming during the day, watching for news to boil up.

On Wednesday afternoon, we saw a burning lumber truck. A man in Dallas had apparently stolen a lumber truck from outside a truck stop and was careening over the city's highways with the police in hot, if not close, pursuit. After all, the truck was burning. Metal wheels on the truck bed had scraped against the pavement and ignited sparks that set some of the lumber on fire.

1.9 million people reportedly watched the chase on CNN. They usually have half that number. Fox News reported similar ratings, though those might have been just the same 1.9 million people, tuning back and forth between commercials.

"The coverage was fair, but not objective. And that's not bad. Absolute objectivity in covering the story is not always informed or responsible. Objectivity would have merely pointed out the path of the truck, not the fact that the wild burning lumber truck can kill people."

Scott Simon

It didn't take us long to begin to grouse. In a world engulfed by so many great and urgent concerns, why was CNN devoting so much time to a truck chase? Then we had to concede, “Well, we're watching.” And we weren't hoping they'd cut away from the truck to cover another John Ashcroft news conference.

Because this is National Public Radio, we invented more edifying explanations for our fascination. We told ourselves the timber burning on the back of that truck might be from an old-growth forest. Maybe there were a couple of spotted owls aboard that truck endangered by the flames.

We indulged ourselves in second-guessing the police. Why didn't he shoot out the tires? It turns out that they'd tried, but federal safety standards have made contemporary tires, unlike the ones in old Steve McQueen movies, so resilient they cannot be blown out by bullets.

We wondered if CNN would mint one of their instant titles to run beneath the burning truck, “Osama bin Lumber.” Then there was a frightening, real-life moment when the truck barely missed a school bus on the road. It was a sudden jolting reminder that the truck chase had not been conjured just for our entertainment. This was in fact a news story, and a sad one.

The coverage was fair, but not objective. And that's not bad. Absolute objectivity in covering the story is not always informed or responsible. Objectivity would have merely pointed out the path of the truck, not the fact that the wild burning lumber truck can kill people.

It would have been ludicrous for news organizations to frame the story as if someone who steals a truck and drives it at breakneck speed is only engaging in another form of self-expression. By the way, after 90 minutes, 41-year-old Burnice Wilson of Dallas finally just tired of the chase, stopped the truck and was arrested. He is homeless and said to suffer from depression. He is in custody, and no one was injured.

Scott Simon is host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.