Beyond pack journalism

WORLD will always march to a different drummer

Issue: "It's Bush vs. Gore," March 18, 2000

If the Lord had appeared to me in a dream a month ago and given me this choice, I wonder which I would have picked: "On the one hand," He might have said, "a leading American journalist will do a column in The New York Times about WORLD magazine, full of adulation and praise. You'll be embarrassed at all the nice things he says about you." "Or, on the other hand," the Lord might have continued, "you can choose just the opposite. The same columnist will chew you up and spit you out-in full view of all the NYT's millions of readers. He will call you sleazy and consign you to the city dump of journalists." No, I'm embarrassed to say that I don't really wonder. Almost certainly, I would have made the wrong choice. I'm vain enough to enjoy the acclaim of men. And I'm zealous enough for the future of WORLD magazine to want all the favorable mention we can get. To have had William Safire say in The New York Times that "every thinking person in America should subscribe to WORLD magazine" would obviously have made my day. Or maybe my year. That, of course, is not what he said. Instead, Mr. Safire devoted a whole column to accusing WORLD of a "hatchet job" and said we were guilty of "religio-political sleaze in action." I did not mistake those words for a compliment, and I am not expecting the Columbia Journalism Review to single us out for a special award. If you missed the details of the Safire episode, I'm not rehearsing them here. Go back and read editor Marvin Olasky's column in our March 4 issue. But as WORLD's founder, I'd like to reflect a bit on what we as publishers, and you as readers, might learn from the recent brouhaha. The test for success in any journalistic assignment is two-fold: Did you tell the truth? Did you do it fairly? WORLD told the truth. In its cover story for the Feb. 19 issue, we reported on aspects of the personal character of Sen. John McCain that had largely been ignored in the media. Now, several weeks later, voters across the country-and even some media people too-have had demonstrated for them some of the opportunism, the arrogance, the petulance, and the harshness of John McCain. And going to the polls in huge numbers, they have rejected the very character traits that for several weeks they had been told were strengths. Many McCain backers seemed stunned and blindsided when those idiosyncrasies surfaced in the pressure and heat of the campaign; but those who had read Bob Jones's story in WORLD were forewarned and unsurprised. (The same forewarning, incidentally, had occurred with WORLD's coverage last fall of candidate Gary Bauer, whose tone-deafness toward his most natural constituencies has now seriously minimized his effectiveness as a Christian leader on public-policy issues.) In the process, I talked personally (by phone and by email) to a number of you readers who, after reading the Safire column, expressed concern to us that WORLD had gotten careless with its facts. To almost all of you, I tried to make this offer: For every factual error you discover in our story, we'll give you a free year's subscription to WORLD. Not a single subscriber so much as challenged a phrase of our report. And, thankfully, the one error we did make-Perocet and Vicodin are narcotics, not barbiturates-we caught and corrected in the last issue. (If you cite that now, it doesn't count.) Good journalism tells the truth. And it does so even when the truth seems to run counter to conventional wisdom and nobody else is telling it. But did WORLD tell the McCain story fairly? By anyone's reading, WORLD's story was admittedly unflattering to Mr. McCain. But such a story must be seen in the context of the overall fawning media coverage of Mr. McCain through the first half of February. No one needed to hear more of his war heroics, or of his courage in challenging special-interest money. That side of the story had been told and retold. What, as Paul Harvey would say, was the rest of the story? WORLD told it. Could WORLD have told the rest of the story in gentler fashion? What about words like "Marxist" (applied not to Mr. McCain, but to the terminology he has frequently used) and phrases like "doesn't appear to be a particularly attentive husband"? On the one hand, I'd suggest that's pretty tame stuff compared to reporting in magazines like The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, and National Review. But the final test is truthfulness and how such words fit with the facts; by that test, Mr. Jones's story in WORLD was-as the Village Voice of New York noted last week-a "solid" piece of reporting. Was the timing fair, coming just before the crucial South Carolina primaries? Hey, that's what weekly journalism is all about. Mr. McCain was front-covered by all the media that week. We weren't singling him out for attention. When should we have done the story? After the inauguration? Telling the truth? We refused to run with the pack, and that's why our story sounded so different. But doing it unfairly? When the pack misses out, it's sometimes the only charge left. In this case, it simply doesn't fit.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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