When journalists euthanize the truth
For weeks pundits have stressed over political happenings from Washington D.C. that are out-of-reach for most of us muggles: how do we make sense of uncensored tweets from the powerful? The unvarnished shills from a staffer begging us to buy jewels tied to the White House? The brazen reframing of lies as facts?
Most of us are so far removed from White House shenanigans that we rely on news reports, late night talk shows and social media to glean our meanings of the political world.
Most of us knows political reality solely through mass media.
And that’s the problem: the truth has been euthanized.
When George Orwell was looking for a publisher for his book “1984” at the end of World War II, a select group of American statesmen was—at the same time–considering the role of the press in a democracy.
Like Orwell, the group—led by Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago–gravely pondered the role of media in a totalitarian society versus a democratic society.
Reeling from propaganda that unfurled during Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and against the backdrop of such phrases that adorned death camps–such as “Work Makes You Free” (Arbeit Macht Frei)—Orwell coined the slogans, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength” in his prescient best-seller.
Such Orwellian jingles were meant to remind us bluntly that a sleight-of-hand could hide the peas beneath the rhetorician’s shell-game because, afterall, war is NOT peace.
And neither are lies “alternative facts.”
So—like Orwell–the group called the Hutchins Commission struggled to identify the ways special interests could blind us from the written and spoken shell-game of false logic.
The Commission concluded in “A Free and Responsible Press” (1946), that the news media need to do more than report facts truthfully: “It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.”
What that means to me—as a consumer of news with no skin in the game—is that we depend on reporters to dig deeply into the substance of “facts” and “information” and explain to us the truth.
But this is where the press fall short.
The so-called “facts” of the day are subject to an antiquated journalistic norm we learned back in Journalism 101: always report both sides of the argument. It’s called the balance imperative.
Problem is twofold: first, there are always more than two sides to every story, and second, reporting “balance” assumes the truth lies somewhere in the middle of two vantage points.
But the discourse of truth is more than finding the middle-ground of two opposing versions of the story.
Truth is not defined as the mid-point or the balance of two disparate views.
And journalists are not mediators whose role is to find a win-win solution where disagreements arise.
News media do publics a disservice by assuming that presenting “both sides” brings us closer to the truth.
Reporters have confused the reality of truth with the methods of seeking truth.
Some truths are buttressed by incontrovertible evidence with no falsifiable data to prove otherwise: for example, human-made activities drive climate change and childhood vaccines have no association with autism.
Yet reporters continue to embrace the balance imperative where they present “two sides” –even if both positions fail to arise from equivalent empirical methods that ensure veracity.
The Hutchins Commission made a good point more than 70 years ago: when journalists obsess on the methods for reporting through the balance imperative, they euthanize the facts. ###
21 February 2017
Photo from a German concentration camp, posted with permission from Wikimedia Commons, “the free media repository”