Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Culture: The Fake is Never Accurate

Note: Been pretty busy so not much time for blogging, but here's this week's column:

The feeling in the newsroom must have been exhilarating: in the face of blistering attacks questioning the heroism of John Kerry in Viet Nam made by supporters of President Bush, CBS News would offer damning evidence that would indict the president as a hypocrite. CBS’s report would reveal that George Bush avoided being drafted to fight in Viet Nam by landing a coveted National Guard spot through family influence, and then subsequently failed to live up to the terms of his enlistment.

The problem with this story is that the memos that CBS relied upon for its story are forgeries—and bad ones at that. Yet when confronted with evidence that it was duped, instead of admitting its error, CBS attacked its critics.

Jonathan Klein, a former executive at CBS News, assailed the Internet bloggers who brought attention to inconsistencies in the typesetting of the memos by claiming that, “You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances [at CBS news] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.”

CBS News anchor Dan Rather was equally contemptuous, dismissing what he called a “counterattack” from “partisan political operatives.” Then, the New York Times encapsulated CBS’s position in a headline that will go down in linguistic infamy: the documents in question were “fake, but accurate.”

Inaccuracy in journalism is not a new story. Even experienced reporters can make mistakes; they can get names wrong, misquote subjects and commit a host of other errors.

Yet none of these errors are necessarily damming. Instead, what counts is one’s loyalty to the truth. Mistakes are embarrassing, but owning up to them does not hurt one’s credibility—it enhances it. Reporting facts out of context, or fishing for facts that support a desired conclusion in defiance of reality is not so easily forgiven.

A journalist’s mission is to present concrete, objective facts based on their experience in judging what is important to their audience. A journalist presents facts that anyone would see if they could stand in the journalist’s shoes themselves. If the facts being reported are controversial, journalists are expected to report as much.

Yet it is not the job of the journalist to support particular beliefs. Journalists serve as the eyes and ears of their audience, but not their mind. It is left to the reader to draw whatever conclusions are appropriate from the news—not to the reporter.

It is interesting then to note how many journalists believe that their ability to report facts objectively is impossible—an ideal that can be approached, but never reached. Every communications professor I have studied under at George Mason has argued that facts are not observable aspects of the world, but instead are consensually agreed upon statements about it. By this view, the mere perception of facts distorts them. Truth is not determined by hardnosed perception, but by committee. Instead of objectivity, we are left with pseudo-objectivity.

This explains why so many journalists can claim with a straight face that they are not biased even when it is so plain that they are. Most journalists do not actively think and select, they simply reflect the conventions that have long ago imprinted themselves upon their minds. These conventions are dominated by a left-of-center world view.

A typical example: Reuters’ tortured attempts to avoid identifying the acts of militant Islamists as terrorist acts on the grounds that, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The left holds that all cultures are equal: think of John Kerry arguing that the North Vietnamese communists were no different from the Americans in his 1972 Senate testimony. So an act of murder might not actually be an act of murder; after all, who are we to judge?

And if we did judge, we would not be objective. A journalist’s mind is a literal blank and he gives all claims credence, even those that are painfully false—and obviously dangerous to their audience.

Yet no one, not even a journalist or a communications professor can honestly defend dishonesty. The fake is never accurate. Objectivity demands an active mind that can identify facts, sort out extraneous noise, and present the truth in a useful way.

Yet if the last two weeks are any judge, CBS has failed in its responsibility to live up to this purpose.

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