Faking the truth — and real lies

By now we all know about the distress of The New York Times at the revelation that one of its reporters had been lying extensively in his news stories for the past four years. For those of us in the far-flung provinces of journalism, the Times’ self-flagellation, the shock and horror at the flagship of the Western press having one of its torpedoes blow up amidship, seems quaint and self-aggrandizing at first sight. The reaction at the Times stems from the premise that the newspaper is a vehicle of truth, the paper of record, that it cannot ever be suspected of breaching the readers’ trust. But even for us hacks in the real world, Jayson Blair’s deception is inexcusable. The minimum standard that a newspaper (or other news medium) has to meet is that its reporters are where they say they are, record what they witnessed (or make clear who conveyed the quote or incident to them) and admit what they do not know. That they have to do all this while meeting deadlines and still beating the opposition through the quality of their reporting and writing is what gives spice to the profession. The foundation of our work, though, is accuracy. The bricks that – one by one – make up the great edifice of the newspaper all have to be uniformly shaped, with no odd corners or broken edges. Jayson Blair gave his employer hollow bricks – bricks that undermined the whole structure of the paper and its long tradition. He needed to be punished and the Times had to restore the confidence of its readers. We can all agree on that. It’s what happens with the news from then on that makes the world a complicated place, even when all the reports are put together with accuracy, honesty and objectivity. First of all, a newspaper itself is colored by what it publishes and what it does not – either by intention or by mistake. Already the reader’s view of the world is swayed (assuming that readers, viewers or Internet surfers have not accumulated a wide range of sources of their own and broken away from newspapers as their sole source, but that is another story). Furthermore, newspapers are businesses and they have to make money to survive. In the worst case, this could mean that they intervene actively in events (or ignore them) in order to serve their own interests – perhaps by influencing companies or politicians. In the simplest case, newspapers have to be attractive to their readers and advertisers. This may determine the general course of the paper but one would demand that the news it covers is treated with the highest criteria of fairness and objectivity. Unfortunately, in many countries newspapers have too often been cheerleaders for causes or parties. In these cases, readers would choose the newspaper that suited their temperament, confirmed their prejudices and kept them informed about the progress of their cause and like-minded individuals. In Greece, as in many other countries, one’s politics can still largely be deduced by the newspaper one reads. In such circumstances, the ideal of the fair and objective newspaper is damaged by the fact that more often than not there is a lot of editorializing in the text and headlines of what would otherwise be news reports. But this does not alarm editors or readers, because it is precisely what they are looking for. When this line of opinion begins to run out of favor with readers, editors will begin to look for a new line but will most probably not consider separating news from opinion. Furthermore, very often opinions expressed in newspapers, and the profound analyses proferred, conveniently leave out facts that would show the issues in all their confusing shades of gray. American news media are no strangers to this, despite having the best examples of serious-minded newspapers, magazines and television channels among them. One has only to see how Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News channel has benefited in terms of viewership from leading the cheerleading in the war in Iraq, setting the agenda for other media to a great degree. Such channels and newspapers are far from The New York Times and its kind (and their great coverage of the war) and closer to partisan Arab (and Greek) ones, even if they say opposite things and support conflicting causes. Fox and Al-Jazeera, for example, have access to material that contradicts their thesis yet they knowingly ignore it so as not to mess up their message. Jayson Blair lied in order to enrich his stories and please his editors, taking short cuts and not doing the footwork that was expected of him. He got fired in the middle of great scandal. However, when newspapers or television channels play fast and loose with the truth they get higher ratings. Then there is the problem that arises when the sources of the news themselves are faulty and newspapers do not fulfill their mission of puncturing holes in the bubbles of deceit. It is understandable that when a country is at war even the most scrupulous news media will have to support the troops whose relatives, friends, and compatriots constitute their audience. It would be absurd and suicidal to expect otherwise. But if we can judge from some of the revelations and comments in serious American and British newspapers, there seems to have been a distressing abdication of responsibility by too many serious American and British news media in the last few months. They did not press hard on the reasons for war before it was waged and they have not pressed hard since it was waged. There must be very few people in the world who are sorry to have seen the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but this does not discredit those who argued that the evidence of weapons of mass destruction was not there nor that the United States should be wary about throwing itself into the snakepit of Middle East politics and religious conflict. Relief that the war is over and Saddam gone should not cloud our minds to the fact that the USA and Britain claimed the world had to go to war to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction – weapons that have not been found and were certainly not used in the war. Maybe the result was good but the pretext was a lie. This free ride given the US president by the press has coincided with the shameless manipulation of images and symbols aimed at making George Bush look more impressive (like his dramatic use of a plane landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln where he declared the «end» of the Iraqi war). In effect, the press has laid down its arms just as the American president has armed himself to the teeth with the latest communications tricks. The patriotic fervor prompted, most understandably, by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has left the serious press in confusion as to how far it can go in questioning authority, whereas Bush and his team have absolutely no doubts as to which way they want to lead America and the world and they have no qualms about lying because too few journalists take them to task for this. The greatest danger here is that the abandonment of standards of objectivity in the US news media will only confirm the lack of such standards in those of other countries. This can only lead to more ghettoes of the mind, which will cultivate dogma and export conflict. And that is why newspapers such as The New York Times have such an important mission, covering all sides of every story, fully and objectively, presenting opinions from all sides of the issues. That is why it is so important that they pursue the strictest standards without mercy. They have to show the power of an objective and inquiring press that others will want to emulate. It is frightening to consider that in this age, with news spreading around the world instantaneously but usually without context and analysis, the news media have the power to shape opinions and maintain convictions in the way that religion used to. And yet there is no system for training journalists and evaluating them according to a specific professional standard. Each newspaper or other medium has to set and maintain its procedures and standards in order to wield its considerable power in the fairest way. This leaves a lot to chance. But things are not that bad. A free and competitive press is the best guarantee of objectivity and accuracy. The purest form of news gathering is carried out by the wire services, who compete with each other not only in speed but also in terms of accuracy, objectivity and grace. They know that clients are constantly judging and comparing their work. They cannot afford to stray. That’s why the greatest defense of the press and, subsequently, of democracy, is diversity, in both the opinions they carry and media ownership. It was, after all, a complaint of plagiarism lodged by The San Antonio Express-News that finally tore apart Jayson Blair’s web of deceit.

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