Truth and the Times

The New York Times has a compellingly if morbidly fascinating story today. I feel a little ashamed at being so fascinated: it seems like Schadenfreude, the matter being obviously such a nightmare for the paper and for so many editors who supervised the perpetrator. It’s such a basic malfunction, like those mortifying occasions when fast food restaurants serve up E-coli-laced hamburgers or salmonella in the salad. But I can’t help it, La Rochefoucauld and Burke (‘I am convinced that we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others’) notwithstanding, or do I mean confirmed, fascinated I am.

And it’s fair enough. There is plenty of human interest or gossip appeal in the story, but the core issue is of course entirely serious and at the center of Butterflies and Wheels’ reason for existence: truth. It is interesting and encouraging even if not altogether surprising that at a time when the very hippest and most knowing and (in their own eyes at least) sophisticated intellectuals like to smile skeptically at the very word ‘truth’, the Times forthrightly announces that truth is their most basic commitment.

Every newspaper, like every bank and every police department, trusts its employees to uphold central principles, and the inquiry found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth.

There you have it. No hedging, no raised eyebrows or smirks, no scare quotes, no bows to the deities of situatedness or anti-Eurocentrism or social construction, no playful ruminations about solidarity or what we can all agree on or what works for us to believe, just a flat-footed assertion that journalism is supposed to get it right as opposed to making it up.

And they keep saying it, too. Quite stubbornly. Over and over, as the story unfolds, as various editors try to teach and discipline their productive but ‘sloppy’ reporter to make fewer mistakes.

“Accuracy is all we have,” Mr. Landman wrote in a staff e-mail message. “It’s what we are and what we sell.”

What haunts Mr. Roberts now, he says, is one particular moment when editor and reporter were facing each other in a showdown over the core aim of their profession: truth. “Look me in the eye and tell me you did what you say you did,” Mr. Roberts demanded. Mr. Blair returned his gaze and said he had.

And the whole story is also an interesting object lesson in the fact that the truth is not necessarily easy to find, as juries, law enforcement investigators, prosecutors and defence lawyers, historians, scientists and many others know perfectly well, and as in fact all of us know perfectly well via everything from differing memories of shared events to differing ideas about childcare or politics. The reporter’s supervisors knew he made a lot of mistakes, but then all reporters make some, and he was very energetic and productive, and he seemed to be improving, and…so it goes.

But it’s good to have this little reminder that everything is not just a story, that we don’t get to make it up when we don’t know, that history isn’t just whatever someone decides it is, and that it’s not good enough to write an eye-witness account of events in Cleveland or D.C. or West Virginia by means of a laptop and a cell phone in Brooklyn.

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