Saturday, October 11, 2008

on balance

My friend Max forwarded a link to a recent speech by John Walcott, Washington bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, upon his acceptance of the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence from Bob Giles of the Nieman Foundation.

Walcott, then Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief, was the leader of a team of reporters who were among the few to actively question the run-up to the Iraq war. He was honored for his role in questioning the administration and investigating a story that went counter to almost everything in the mainstream media at the time. (Knight Ridder was bought by McClatchy Newspapers in 2006)

You can read the whole speech here. Here's what he had to say about "balance" as a substitute for true objectivity:

That brings me to my last point: Relying on The Times, or McClatchy or any other news source, for all the truth is dumb, but it's infinitely preferable to the pernicious philosophical notions that there is no such thing as truth, that truth is relative, or that, as some journalists seem to believe, it can be found midway between the two opposing poles of any argument.

My father, who's with us today, made his living designing navigational instruments for aircraft, missiles and submarines, and although my mathematical and engineering skills are, shall we say, less evident than his, I learned two important lessons from his work.

The first is that if you want to know where you are, it's helpful to know where you started. The second is a concept that's called "ground truth," which in a nutshell means checking your calculations against information collected on the ground. In other words, reporting.

I know that I'm wading into deep and muddy water here, but I'm doing so in deference, or rather, in reverence, to the fact that I.F. Stone was a scholar as well as a journalist. He taught himself ancient Greek to write about the trial of Socrates, and I still struggle with modern French, but I'll wade in nevertheless.

Does the truth lie halfway between say, slavery and abolition, or between segregation and civil rights, or between communism and democracy? If you quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Winston Churchill, in other words, must you then give equal time and credence to Hitler and Joseph Goebbels? If you write an article that's critical of John McCain, are you then obligated to devote an identical number of words to criticism of Barack Obama, and vice versa?

The idea that truth is merely a social construct, that it's subjective, in other words, first appeared in academia as a corruption of post-modernism, but it’s taken root in our culture without our really realizing it or understanding its implications.

It began with liberal academics arguing, for example, that some Southwestern Indians' belief that humans are descended from a subterranean world of supernatural spirits is, as one archaeologist put it, "just as valid as archaeology." As NYU philosophy professor Paul Boghossian puts it in a wonderful little book, "Fear of Knowledge": " ... the idea that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them, has taken very deep root."

Although this kind of thinking, relativism and constructivism, started on the left, many conservatives now feel empowered by it, too, and some of them have embraced it with a vengeance on issues ranging from global warming and evolution to the war in Iraq.

"Journalists live in the reality-based world," a White House official told Ron Suskind, writing for The New York Times Magazine back in the headier days of 2004. "The world doesn't really work that way any more. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

I respectfully disagree.

The Church was wrong, and Copernicus and Galileo were right.

There is not one truth for Fox News and another for The Nation. Fair is not always balanced, and balanced is not always fair.

No matter how devoutly they may have believed their own propaganda, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were wrong about Enron, and a whole lot of very smart, very rich people were very wrong about mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps.

President Bush was wrong to think that it would be a simple matter to make Iraq the mother of all Mideast democracy.

Or, as the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said when he was asked what he thought historians might say about the First World War: "They will not say that Belgium invaded Germany."

I'm not talking here about matters of taste or of partisan politics or, heaven help us, of faith: Whether Monet or Manet was a better painter or whether Jesus was the Messiah, a prophet or a fraud. Those are personal matters, beliefs, opinions and preferences of which we all must learn to be more tolerant.

Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton, puts it this way in a marvelous little book called, "On Truth" (which is the sequel to "On Bullshit"): "It seems ever more clear to me that higher levels of civilization must depend even more heavily on a conscientious respect for the importance of honesty and clarity in reporting the facts, and on a stubborn concern for accuracy in determining what the facts are."

That is what I.F. Stone always sought to do, and I think it's what journalists should always strive to do. If, in the short run, doing so seems costly, I think we've all seen, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now on Wall Street and on Main Street, that the costs of not doing so are far greater.

Photo credit: Michael Temchine / Nieman Foundation

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