November 30, 2005

Backspace: Sam Roberts '68

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Backspace appears biweekly in commemoration of The Sun’s 125th Anniversary. Honoring not only the history of The Cornell Daily Sun but also the role it played in major campus events throughout the years, each column features a different writer chronicling a different era of Cornell’s lively past. Sam Roberts ’68 was managing editor of The Sun. He is currently urban affairs correspondent for The New York Times and host of The Times’s public affairs program on NY1 News. He is author of The Brother, a critically acclaimed account of the Rosenberg case, and Who We Are Now, an analysis of recent census data.

– MK

I guess the trench coat gave me away.

During the turbulent late 1960s, most of us on the news side of The Sun went to great lengths to demonstrate our objectivity by distinguishing ourselves from the establishment-bashing editorial board. Seeking to ingratiate ourselves with a broader readership, we donated a new bear costume to refurbish the scuzzy Cornell mascot.

I vividly remember the day it was delivered to the Sun office. I couldn’t resist trying it on and then, under cover of anonymity, being driven to campus and giving bear hugs to officials at Day Hall.

Why was I surprised that I was recognized? Reluctant to bare all, I had insisted on wearing my signature Columbo-style trench coat – talk about scuzzy – over the bruin disguise. I didn’t realize then that the coat was actually my own costume.

I remember trying to interview a student once at an anti-war protest. She resented being interrupted.

“I’m not here to watch this,” she said dismissively. “I’m here to live it.”

Like Peter Sellers in Being There, I liked to watch.

That’s probably why I gravitated to journalism in the first place. I applied to Cornell because I was captivated by the Sun exploits of my sister’s high school classmates, Bob Kessler ’65 and Richard Denenberg ’64. In my case, journalism elevated a gawky outsider into an arrogant observer. Not only didn’t I have to agree or disagree with what I was observing, I wasn’t supposed to. I was absolved from having to have an opinion altogether. (During those anti-war days, I considered my trench coat a read badge of coverage.)

In that tumultuous time – tumultuous in the world, on campus and, unfortunately, too, in Sun elections – the goal of a number of my determined colleagues on the news side was to maintain the journalistic integrity of the newspaper in the face of a legendary temptation to cross the line.

The very first story I heard at Cornell – probably apocryphal – was about the hijacking of a bulldozer. When the campus police caught up with the culprits, one jumped from the vehicle and announced angelically that he was just covering the story for The Sun.

In 1965, after The New York Times reported that Cornell officials viewed with “utmost concern” the use of marijuana by “even a few students,” The Sun mellowly editorialized, tongue in cheek, I suspect, “We can only hope that calm heads prevail.”

But as opposition to the war abroad and at home became more vehement, many of the editorials became more virulent.

After I was elected managing editor, my friend David Radin ’68, the editor in chief, and I made a pact. I can now admit that it was a little lopsided: I would keep my hands off editorial policy – over which, in fact, I had no authority – if he butted out of the news side.

We disagreed about almost everything, but we got along great.

A lot of what we grappled with then still poses challenges to journalism – whether at The Sun or at The New York Times – as we ponder how to deliver information fully, fairly, compellingly and profitably.

I learned more at The Sun – about my future profession, about people, about myself – than I could have at any journalism school. But it took me longer to understand that the editorial writers and columnists also had a claim to integrity, that journalism isn’t just stenography and that objectivity is still a very vital goal, but should never necessarily suggest moral equivalency.

Some things don’t change, though. I still have a trench coat.

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