By Mike Deupree
NSNC Board Member
Few things concern me as much as the position that news reporters should report “truth” and not just “facts.” In a philosophy class, there are any number of ways to define “truth,” but in journalism, “truth” has only one definition: It is someone’s interpretation of the facts.
If it is the interpretation of a source — a president, a corporation spokesman, an environmental activist, whomever — the job of a journalist is to make sure the reader/listener knows that. Unfortunately, in the news columns there is no way to make it clear that what’s being presented is the reporter’s evaluation.
Maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety, but back in the day there seemed to be a wider recognition of this. I recall being admonisted — this really dates me — that in covering a Vietnam War protest at the student union, it was not proper to say that a student “burned his draft card,” but we should write “burned what he said was his draft card.” In this case, the reason for caution was obvious; it was a felony to burn a draft card.
Another example I always liked was from Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” It posited a class of highly trained indviduals called “True Witnesses” who, when clad in their judicial garb, were incapable of telling anything but the truth. Asked what color a house in the distance was, the True Witness replied, “It’s white on this side.”
In the one example, the bogus claim of military service and/or honors, you just check the official record and write, “Sen. Harkin said he flew combat missions in Vietnam, but Air Force records have no record of him serving there.” You still have not absolutely identified the truth — you’ve set up a “he said, she said” between Harkin and the Air Force, and the latter could be wrong — but you’ve taken yourself out of the picture.
Except, of course, that something moved you to check the story in the first place, while it might not have occurred to you if you had been less suspicious of the original claim. And we are the ones who decide what to check and where to check it, and ultimately in some cases, we set the standard for what constitutes a lie. This is why I am so suspicious of all the “fact checking” that occurs during a political campaign. Who’s checking the fact-checkers?
Did Romney say Romneycare should be a model for the nation? It’s easy enough to check and see if he uttered those words. If you’re MediaMatters, you just find a comment to that effect and that’s enough. But if you’re seeking truth, you find the context….which yet again inserts yourself into the equation. If he wasn’t suggesting that his plan should be applied to the whole country, is the original version a lie? Or are you spinning on behalf of the Mittster? The fact is that you are probably doing your readers a disservice in either case.
Did Obama apologize for the U.S.? I think that’s beyond question, but that’s my opinion and obviously, a lot of people work from a different definition of “apologize.”
When Santorum said the schools don’t teach history, was that a lie? Or was it hyperbole? Either way, it wasn’t true.
And then you get into the practicality of covering a political campaign. I don’t care whether the candidate is a Republican or a Democrat, if the reporters covering the candidates decide to go beyond “merely” reporting what was said, Pandora’s box is not only opened, but shattered. And the reporter would never make a deadline.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This observation is a a “spontaneous rumination,” made on the NSNC discussion list, inspired by a column by fellow NSNC member Walt Brasch, “Reality, News Perception, and Accuracy.” Deupree says he is keenly aware that his position is likely to put him in the minority. Comments are open if you want to agree, disagree, or comment.