Truth, Justice, and the American Way

I am not a journalist. I have occasionally written things that have appeared in newspapers or magazines, but when that happens, I view it as a happy accident, a felicitous case of a periodical needing my own particular skills and/or perspective. Lord knows it's not a case of needing my journalistic skills, because I don't really see myself as having any. I have never worked on a newspaper (despite the fact that my boss pressed me into service as our school newspaper's co-advisor several years back), nor have I taken so much as a single journalism class.

But you don't have to be a journalist to know what journalism is, just as you don't have to be an educator to know what education is. I would certainly turn to an educator if I were attempting to figure out how to create a curriculum or design a course, but even people whose only experience with school is attending one have a pretty good idea of what a school's purpose is.

You can imagine, then, the gobsmacked look that passed across my face--and since I didn't see it myself, I have to imagine it as well--when I came across this astonishing piece by the Public Editor of the New York Times:

"Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?"

I'm looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge "facts" that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.

Aside from the question of whether the act of trying to find out the truth is definable as vigilantism, given that the press's right to seek the truth is enshrined in American law, I can answer this question in only one way, and that way is with a resounding "DUH."

That a newspaper should even pose this question is astonishing and almost contradictory, as it would be for me to begin the first day of class by assigning my students an essay on "Should I Teach You Stuff?" After all, if the answer is "No," then there is no purpose to my coming to work the next morning. If the Times is not engaged in pursuing the truth, why even bother firing up the printing press for tomorrow's edition; we can all just sit back and read press releases from Rick Santorum's campaign manager.

It's one thing to say that a reporter should try to remain objective, but passing along falsehoods without examination or question is not objectivity; it's collusion.

Uncovering the truth, regardless of what partisans may claim it to be, is the fundamental purpose of a free press--what Nathan Arizona would call its "goddam raison d'etre." The press is free not because our founders considered newspapers a good way for journalists to make a living, but because they considered newspapers a necessity for democracy. Voters need to know the truth in order to cast their ballots effectively; if the press doesn't help them find out what's really happening, they cannot direct the government to protect their rights effectively. I'm sure that some sources will be upset by reporters who challenge their claims or seek corroboration or dig up evidence to show that their claims are false, but that is journalism.

A press that prizes the appearance of objectivity over the actual pursuit of the truth is a press that has voluntarily given up its freedom--and given up on our democracy in the process.

Or as a character on The Wire once put it, "A lie ain't a side of a story. It's just a lie."

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on January 12, 2012 4:06 PM.

2011: The Year in Birds was the previous entry in this blog.

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