National Commentary

Truth Telling In Journalism

“Whether or not it was honest, or dishonest, that is up to the voters.” A CNN correspondent made that comment yesterday to conclude a segment on the Mitt Romney TV commercial that took a statement by President Obama in a speech completely out of context to distort and pervert its meaning.

The correspondent, himself, showed the clip used by Romney and then showed the wider context. In fact, what Obama actually said was the exact opposite of what the edited Romney version implied. Instead of saying that campaigning on the economy would lose the election, Obama actually attributed that view to his opponent, and did not espouse that view himself.

The Romney ad was like taking a quote of someone saying “I did not rob that bank,” and editing out the word “not.” It was just that egregious.

Yet, far be it for the CNN correspondent to draw such a conclusion. That’s not in his job description, so he believes. Rather, he feels, being an eyewitness to an obvious crime requires saying that whether or not it was a crime depends on who you talk to.

Such cowardice is a grievous disservice to the American public, and to the proper role of journalism in our democracy. It is only one example of an endemic failure of nerve of honest and perceptive people in the U.S. that is allowing those with deceitful intentions to run amok.

The greatest example, of course, is the unwillingness of journalists to inform the public that it is a one-sided Republican intransigence that has been responsible for the gridlock in Washington, and not the proverbial “stubbornness on both sides.” This is something that any impartial observer paying attention to the political situation would be in a position to see. But it is not seen as the job of the journalist these days to report the truth.

Honest journalism demands a stronger role, more like a judge who listens to the evidence and renders a judgment. His decision is not merely his personal opinion, it is an informed judgment based on the evidence, and it plays a crucial role in the functioning of a civil society.

Judges are selected on the basis of their qualifications and character. Would it be that journalists also rose to such criteria, as well! These days, journalists are chosen for their on-camera appearance or ability to memorize and deliver their sound bites.

Then there are the bloggers, those who renounce the notion they should have any qualifications, whatsoever, to inform what they write.

It is supposed to be all about truth-telling, and that requires a trained and tested ability to divine the truth.

But journalists nowadays fear that if they don’t detach themselves from the truth and only parrot the arguments from both sides, they risk losing access to the spokesmen from one or another faction.

One wonders if Sen. Joe McCarthy would ever had been stopped had Edward R. Murrow and his colleagues at CBC News in the 1950s not been willing to put telling the truth ahead of cowering to McCarthy’s intimidation.

The journalistic method begins with honing the skills of asking and determining the “who, what, where, when and why” of any subject (sometimes also “how”).
But the most important question among those is “why,” and that’s the one that journalists mostly fail to ask, to ask until they’re satisfied with the answer.
The “why” question includes the “why not” question.

For example, a valid vantage point for a career as an investigator, a journalist, a humanitarian or all three together (they work best that way) is to ask the question, “Why can’t the human race find the ways and means to feed, clothe, house and educate everyone on this planet at a decent level?”

It can be posited that the objective means to accomplish this exist. There is enough manpower, know-how and natural resources, or prospects for obtaining them, to do it.

So, why not? Of course it is a na├»ve question, but that’s its beauty. It’s a starting point for sorting out mankind’s problems with a capacity for fresh and honest discernment that is too often lacking.