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Journalism & humility

"Journalism & humility" Continued...

Issue: "Lavelle's wonderful life," Dec. 25, 2004

The context is important. The other 11 disciples have told Thomas, "We have seen the Lord." Thomas was doubtful because he did not trust the eyewitness evidence that others provided, and it's in this sense that those who believe without seeing for themselves are blessed: They are not so self-centered or solipsistic that they refuse to accept the testimony of anyone other than themselves.

Journalists also must rely heavily on what others say-and what reporter will not go to press when 10 people say the same thing, even if he has not seen it himself? Doubting Thomas, despite the name, is not a model for journalists: He's the model for a reporter who will always be scooped.

I could go on, but it's evident that the Bible does not favor blind faith. Instead, the Bible regularly appeals to personal experience, just as journalists do. The canyon between Christianity and today's mainstream journalism is large, but it does not have an evidentiary river running through it.

What, then, is the central difference? I'd suggest that the real difference is humility, and the real problem journalism faces is arrogance. That's particularly worth contemplating at Christmastime because we're celebrating the ultimate in humility, God lowering Himself to man's level so as to free us and fit us for life with Him.

Journalism as a religion

What happened to the fly-on-the-wall, humble journalism that did exist in some newsrooms (and may still be present at some smaller newspapers)? Several realizations and trends undermined it. One was that journalists often were not present when key events occurred, and they often could not be flies on the walls in the closed rooms within which decisions were made. Reporters thus had to rely on what doubting Thomas found inadequate: eyewitness reports and the testimony of others.

One difference, though, is that the eyewitnesses doubted by Thomas had a unanimous testimony, but reporters today garner conflicting descriptions and interpretations. Journalists need investigative time to cut through the chatter and find out what the fly would have seen and heard. That takes brains, heart, and time. The lazy or rushed way out, which over time became the norm, has been to quote person A's and person B's account of what transpired, balancing various subjective views in the oft-vain hope that objective truth would emerge.

Meanwhile, 20th-century intellectual trends were undercutting the philosophical foundation on which journalistic objectivity was based, so that by century's end professors would regularly house the words "objective truth" within ironic quotation marks. That started in the 1920s, when Freudianism swept into American colleges and suggested that we might think and act as we do because of childhood events of which our conscious minds are unaware. In the 1930s Marxism became hot, and with it came the notion that what we believe to be objectively real depends on our class background.

By the 1950s and 1960s existentialists were putting subjectivity on a pedestal, and what was called "The New Journalism" emerged, filled with idiosyncratic ways of seeing and writing that in the hands of a few led to brilliant prose, but in the typewriters of most ended up in self-indulgent self-celebration that was as far from humility as Tom Wolfe was from the literary sheep who tried to follow his example.

Toward the end of the century postmodernism was attacking the sense that objective reality even exists. In the face of such con-fusion the confidence that a journalist could be objective gave way to expressions of defeat, even despair. Two months ago Doug McGill, who worked on The New York Times and other publications for 27 years and has now gone independent, wrote in an essay titled The Fading Mystique of an Objective Press, "It's a matter of routine that reporters feel or know they are being lied to. Yet they take the quotes and pass them on, unchallenged. And they rationalize this essentially corrupt practice."

"Corrupt" is a strong word, but that's what many journalists think of the reporting practice originally intended to yield humility. Other journalists are merely confused. Mr. McGill writes, "We think of objectivity as meaning neutral. But also balanced. Impartial. Nonpartisan. Accurate. Verified. Fair. Factual. Unemotional. Detached. Scientific. Reasoned. Unbiased. Each of these definitions implies a very different essential quality or ideal, any two of which may be mutually exclusive. For example, a news report could be factual but unbalanced; or accurate but biased; or neutral but also unfair."

With all these dueling definitions, publications and sometimes individual reporters pick and choose which to use at any specific time. Pity the reporter who decides to be neutral about cancer or the Holocaust, and searches for someone who considers cancer a good thing or says the Holocaust never happened. On most newspapers reporters also avoid neutrality regarding individuals the newsroom sees as social cancer, such as Christians who criticize abortion or homosexuality.

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