Truth and Journalism

29Jun08

So I came across this NPR piece today on “E-Politics.” For the most part, I like it. I do think that the Internet will change the political landscape, and I also think we need a better deployment for broadband across the US (though how to do that is up for debate). However, I came across this quote from Arianna Huffington towards the end of the piece:

“The pursuit of truth, no matter what, without any kind of flavor — that has always been the heart of good journalism,” said Huffington, whose Huffington Post site has become a destination for political junkies. “And we proved that when we posted a story, which was reported by one of our citizen journalists, Mayhill Fowler, during a fundraiser in San Francisco, which turned out to be Obama’s ‘bitter gate’ as it is now known.”

As I read it over, I had to ask myself a couple of things.

First, is it really plausible to pursue truth without any flavor? I’m of the camp that thinks we all bring our own perspectives and experiences to any situation, leading to differences in how we view any given event. I know journalism’s aim in the past has been to report truth without bias, but I’m just not sure that’s possible. Besides, if we aggregate a number of different viewpoints together and find their commonalities, we may get more than we would have by aiming for some flavorless version of truth.

Second, the “bitter gate” story was good journalism? In what way? What “truth” did that story uncover? The most I could see that came out of it was that pundits speculated for a few weeks on whether Obama was elitist, or hated religion, or hated guns, or all three. At the end of the day, that story hasn’t brought us any closer to anything I would call truth.

In my view, the most important thing journalists should be looking for in a campaign is clues to how the presidential candidates would govern. That’s a tough job, sure. It’s a lot easier to lean back and comment on that surface value character traits and how this “will affect voters perceptions of the candidate.” It’s easier to go on and on about which candidate is more “electable” rather than how each candidate’s approach would concretely affect the country.

In my view, when this happens frequently enough, people begin projecting future outcomes anyway, but based only on these character stories. This would be fine if it wasn’t so inaccurate and completely unnecessary provided journalists ask for and report on the right things.

I think we need to clarify what kind of truth we should be getting from the news, because if bitter gate is the standard we’re aspiring to, then political debate in this country is not going in a good direction.

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2 Responses to “Truth and Journalism”

  1. 1 Alison

    I really agree with the part where you said,

    “In my view, the most important thing journalists should be looking for in a campaign is clues to how the presidential candidates would govern. That’s a tough job, sure. It’s a lot easier to lean back and comment on that surface value character traits and how this “will affect voters perceptions of the candidate.” It’s easier to go on and on about which candidate is more “electable” rather than how each candidate’s approach would concretely affect the country.”

    Your assessment is so accurate. It makes me wonder what life would be like with a media that reported on governing capability rather than “electability.” The way you present it, “electability” should come after an honest assessment of governing potential. It follows naturally that the candidate depicted as the most “capable” will woo voters. (And hopefully, as you indicate in another post, this will not be a straightforward issue, but will involve complexity based on the nuances of the candidates’ positions.) By focusing on “electability” first, without thought to the actual job of being president, the media gets it backward, and voters are voting on the expectations media has of how voters will vote!


  1. 1 A Better Political Discourse « Beyond the Code

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