Searching for Truth in the News, Today?

President’s Message

By Larry Cohen
President
National Society of Newspaper Columnists

Larry Cohen

Larry Cohen

Decades ago, the Hartford (Conn.) Courant shipped me off to the national conclave of the Episcopal Church, in Louisville. The Anglican natives were restless. There was news to be reported.

Sure enough, the assembled faithful slapped around the sort-of-liberal church leadership at the time and elected a “conservative” Mississippi bishop to lead them into the future.

Yes, in my news lead, I called him “conservative.” That prompted hours of anguish on the part of the Courant editors, as they mulled the Objectivity Bible to decide whether it was appropriate for me to call him “conservative.”

Hartford CourantThat memory seems like something out of the days of letterpress printing and reporter fedoras. In the journalism of today, what seems jarringly odd is a dry, detached, third-person, fact-laden news lead on the order of, “something happened yesterday.”

Not so long ago, cautious newspapers would stick a “news analysis” label on almost anything that didn’t smack of a straight news story about a fire that “broke out” Tuesday. The implicit promise was a detachment bordering on mental illness; we would be objective and “fair” and quote all sides.

In the litany of late about the death of newspapers and the decline of objectivity and the explosion of Twitter-obsessed reporters and knee-jerk pundits, there is not much room for nostalgia. In an age of instant communication and 24-hour news cycle and lavish availability of information, it seems clear that we won’t sit around waiting a day for “news update” perspective – very objective, of course.

Everyone has their little “solution.” Linda Greenhouse, the long-time Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times, suggested in Nieman Reports that “he said/she said” journalism be tossed out with the trash – presumably to be replaced with the search for truth and clarity.

Ah, yes. Truth. The prolific public intellectual Neil Gabler wants a “journalism of truth,” especially on matters such as the health-care debate. He wants the “search for truth” to be the “highest journalistic value.”

Let’s all calm down and take a deep breath. There is no “truth” to be found in the massive, complex, ever-changing world of health care – nor will it found in most of the difficult, modern-day challenges we face. The news reporters can certainly “fact-check,” as part of their chore, but truth may be something that belongs in theology class.

Columnists are not on the sidelines in this debate. While “news” has certainly become more analytical; as cable television and talk radio have changed public perceptions of “public affairs” journalism, the public opinion polls show that the readers and listeners are uncomfortable with too much of it all – and yearning for some of that good-old “objective news.”

Of course, the public wants, needs and demands analysis and “opinion.” And they expect that from those of us who proudly call ourselves “columnists,” or some other flavor of opinion writer.

Whether we are op-ed writers or humor writers, or life-style opinion gurus, we are labeled as the folks intended to sort through the mess and offer up some clarity, some “opinion.” And while “metro columnists” still prowl the mean streets looking for column fodder, the news staff role should not be sullied by a “search for truth” that weakens their credibility as fact-gatherers – and intrudes on the role of columnists, who, of course, are gifts from God with a special role to play. That last part was my opinion. Oops.

Laurence D. Cohen is a former Hartford (Conn.) Courant columnist.

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