Chasing "The" Truth

December 12, 2009

Truth is an elusive prey. Is there one "truth" in any situation, or does more than one version of "truth" exist in human relations? These are the eternal questions of the philosopher, but so, too, the journalist, for we've been taught that the pursuit of truth is the trade's highest calling.

Jesus before PilotWhen a jesting Pilate asked of Jesus in the Gospel of John, "What is truth?" it was in response to his claim that He'd come to earth to represent "the truth." The phrase earlier in John's Gospel - "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" - has long been used by those who have a version of truth to sell (even journalists). However, that verse begins with an "and" and follows "If you continue in My word, {then} you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." So, to Jesus, "truth" was tied to His word and not some abstract reality. "Truth" could be known and understood only insofar as it was anchored in what He said.

So this "truth" business is dicey and culturally important, for whoever decides "the truth" can use it for their own gain. This is what Jay Rosen references in his essay Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press. The "sphere of consensus," to which he refers, is "the truth," according to the professional press. How did we get this way? Who gave a group of unelected elitists the authority to determine truth for the culture as a whole?

In my early newsroom days, the leaders were all old newspaper guys (yes, guys), and I've always felt fortunate to have had that kind of foundation in my training as a journalist. I'm sorry, but you just can't learn in school the way you learn on the street.

One lesson I was taught early was "there are always two sides to every story," and we pursued this as a fundamental belief in the practice of journalism. That has evolved to a quest to determine which "side" is "the" truth or closest to it, for in the practice of contemporary professional journalism, according to Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, the "first obligation is to the truth."

Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context. Journalism does not pursue truth in an absolute or philosophical sense, but it can—and must—pursue it in a practical sense. This "journalistic truth" is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built—context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The truth, over time, emerges from this forum. As citizens encounter an ever greater flow of data, they have more need—not less—for identifiable sources dedicated to verifying that information and putting it in context.

"The truth, over time, emerges..."

Implied in this statement is a belief that "a" truth exists, despite the fact that there are "two sides" to every story. This is a fundamental tenet of Modernism, the hierarchical need for an ordered reality that can, and must, be managed. It is also one of the basic elements of the rise of Postmodernism, for the deconstructionist, by daily practice, destroys the concept of a single truth and takes us back to the "two sides to every story" fundamental.

At Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, for example, there are American tours and Japanese tours, and they tell different stories. Why? Because there are two sides to the story of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. U.S. and Japanese history books differ on the event, but as the old adage states: "In war, the winner gets to write the history," so we assume our view is "the truth." To the deconstructionist, however, this is absurd, because there are two sides to "the story" in all wars. You can choose which one best suits or is needed to support your view, but you cannot deny that another exists.

In the Middle East, Israel's presence is unquestioned by the West, even though modern day Zion has existed only since 1948. To the Arabs in the region (most of the population), Israel's presence is "el-nakba," the cataclysm. Modern communications and a culture disincentivised to forget allow Arabs to advance their point-of-view, rather than simply accept defeat and the West's interpretation of history. This is the ultimate "two sides to every story" story, and it's unlikely to ever change. And it points to the difficulty, in today's flattened media world, for any government, including the U.S., to impose its will on another. Absent control of "the truth," colonialist attempts to rule the world seem more and more distant and unreachable.

Jay RosenThis idea of multiple truths within the whole is a refreshing — and potentially world-changing — concept for journalism, and one that is increasingly the reality of the aggregate output of both professional and amateur journalism. It is not the "lame" practice of "he said, she said" journalism to which Jay Rosen referenced in his brilliant essay of the same title. "Truth," after all, is the quest.

Today, any well informed blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can easily find the materials to point out an instance of false balance or the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Professional opinion has therefore shifted and among the better journalists, some of whom I know, it is no longer acceptable to defend he said, she said treatments when the materials are available to call out distortions and untruths.

Truth, Rosen noted, is rarely the mid-point between two factions. "He said, she said" journalism allows the reporter the ability to maintain distance, rather than pursue the truth, which again, is the ultimate mission of the journalist. If the reporter who practices the genre is part of a dying breed, then what will take its place?

Walter LippmannWalter Lippmann, the father of professional journalism, wrote in his 1920 book Liberty and the News, a compilation of essays from Atlantic Monthly, that "truth" was the victim of a press that put it second to its own views of right and wrong in human relations. Facts, he determined, could save humanity. Lippmann was a brilliant thinker and one of the greatest minds of the early Twentieth Century, but what do you do when "facts" are a part of a multifarious reality? Whose "facts" do you choose as "the" facts, which, when discovered, lead to truth?

...the most destructive form of untruth is sophistry and propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news.

When those who control (the news) arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable. Public opinion is blockaded. For when a people can no longer confidently repair 'to the best fountains for their information,' then anyone's guess and anyone's rumor, each man's hope and each man's whim becomes the basis of government. All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news.

...There can be no higher law in journalism that to tell the truth and shame the devil.

...The philosophy of the work itself needs to be discussed; the news about the news needs to be told. For the news about the government of the news structure touches the center of all modern government.

Lippmann was a social engineer and believed strongly that an educated mind was the only hope for democracy. His views of the objective press were elitist, although certainly well-intentioned. The practice of professional journalism has followed Lippmann's ideals, and it's amazing that we've ended up in exactly the same place that we were before Lippmann wrote Liberty and the News. Those who control the news still arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, so in the end, perhaps human nature is the enemy, for even "facts" can't be trusted to be as they appear.

Add to the "fact" that Lippmann's crony, Edward Bernays, the father of professional public relations, was an expert at manipulating facts. What do spin doctors spin, if not Lippmann's beloved facts. It is the alliance between these two institutions of the early Twentieth Century that cause most to be suspicious. What would Lippmann think, after all, if he could see the perpetual decline in confidence in his "facts-only" press as demonstrated by Gallup research going back 35 years? The spin doctors use the press today to convey their version of reality at the expense of all others, which is exactly what Lippmann was concerned about 100 years ago.

The older I get, the more I question this pursuit of a single, objective truth. In human affairs, the best we can get is various versions of truth, and then it is up to us to decide with which we choose to align. The problem, of course, is getting those who believe fervently in truth A to willingly consider truth B, but that is the new role of the press in today's mediated society.

Balanced news is about considering all sides, not presenting any one view as absolute. Fairness is another attribute for this pursuit. The public is clamoring for such, and while some of us think we're delivering just that, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Take the strange case of Sarah Palin. To the right, she is a sweet, although perhaps antagonistic, spokesperson for its views and positions. To the left, she is a mockery of intelligence. No one in the press — not one individual — has ever penned what I believe to be a fair or balanced piece about Sarah Palin. She is so polarizing that it simply does not exist. When editors choose to print pieces that make her look bad — even when it's her own words — are they not practicing exactly what Lippmann so despised? The Washington Post published an op-ed piece she had written and was booed for giving her a platform, but it was simultaneously applauded as "alerting (the public) to what the radical right intends to accomplish if it's returned to office."

Sarah Palin's column today in the Washington Post calling for President Obama to boycott the Copenhagen summit is pure malarkey. Which is why the Post was absolutely right to print it.

Likewise, when Fox News produces puff pieces that reveal her in the best possible light, are they not doing likewise? When audience counts are inflated and gaffes overlooked, are they not arrogating "to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose?"

Lippmann's big fear — although he came close to calling for it — was government regulation of the press.

If publishers and authors do not face the facts and attempt to deal with them, some day Congress, in a fit of temper, egged on by an outraged public opinion, will operate on the press with an ax. For somehow the community must find a way of making the men who publish news accept responsibility for an honest effort not to misrepresent the facts."

Today, we find ourselves before Congress, asking for help to maintain that which Lippmann favored, an objective press that is pursuing truth in the name of facts.

As the industry of the news continues to evolve, this matter will be at its heart, and future generations will look back in wonder at what is taking place today. What is this "truth" that we are pursuing and how does it influence the life of humankind? Is it the role of the press or of the clergy, and if the latter, then where is its voice in the public debate?

To the philosopher and the postmodernist, one's truth is revealed in how one lives his or her life. Take a look around at our culture, its institutions and what it seems to value and ask yourself, "Is this the truth that I want representing me?" If it is, then all is well with you and yours. If it's not, however, then perhaps you need to be looking for new versions of truth, new versions of reality to pursue.

That calling is for each of us and not to be determined by others. It is my great hope that we'll figure that out before it's too late.