What’s the Problem?

There is a highly interesting article in the July Prospect on a subject that, not surprisingly, keeps recurring on B and W: the quarrelsome relationship between journalism and truth. We examined the issue via the tale of Jayson Blair and the New York Times, for example, and also the self-contradictions and one-eyed views of the Guardian.

It is, after all, an important matter, isn’t it. Journalism is of necessity where most of us get our knowledge of what’s going on in the world. Even the movers and shakers, even the people who make things go on in the world, get some of their knowledge from journalism, and the rest of us naturally get most or all of it there. What on earth do we know of Saddam Hussein or George Bush, of AIDS in Africa and SARS in Hong Kong, of civil war in Liberia or military dictatorships in Burma, of plutonium reprocessing in North Korea or walls under construction on the West Bank, unless we read of it in the newspapers or hear it on the radio or tv? Nothing. Not one thing. And since we (we who produce this site at least, and many who read it) live in democracies, since we are able to vote, it is as well if we do know something of these things. And for the same sort of reason it is as well if the people who tell us about them make some effort to get them right. If they know the difference between accuracy and its absence, and if they think the difference matters. It’s unsettling to find out that they don’t.

Throughout the conversation, irritable on my side, Wellington adopted the patient, weary air of one who is dealing, not for the first time, with an unreasonable complainant….Oborne’s style was confident, impatient of questioning and diversionary-he kept turning the question to other issues, including my own journalism….Walters, Kampfner and Oborne interpret political events for, at times, millions of people. The last two appear routinely on radio and television, and write widely for other papers. Yet in their replies to my questions, they seemed surprised, even indignant, about being challenged. They were evasive and unconcerned to find out whether they had indeed misrepresented the facts…

To be sure, one of the two pieces John Lloyd is discussing here is an opinion piece, and opinions of course have more latitude than facts. But does that translate to a blank check for bizarre leaps of logic and ruthless oversimplification?

Kampfner’s e-mailed reply addressed none of my points and merely asserted that he had been fair. The compromises I and others had made to support the war, he wrote, “required an attack on multilateralism, on the positions of the UN, much of the EU and obviously France/Germany/Russia… in effect the adoption, however uncomfortably, of a Rumsfeld world view.” It’s a contention difficult to believe as one seriously held by a prominent political commentator, as against a prominent witch hunter. (You believe that Iraq should be invaded. So does Donald Rumsfeld. You thus must believe all the same things Rumsfeld believes. Confess!)

Journalists like to run up onto the moral high ground when they’re challenged, to claim to be doing the public’s work, keeping the democracy informed, respecting the right to know, and the like. But those claims are not always absolutely convincing.

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