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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Chasing down truth

There is such a thing as reality, but finding it and reporting it are not easy

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

Twenty years later, I still can't forget how perplexed I was. Here I was, heading up a group of eager reporters-and on at least two fronts, none of us were smart enough to know what was really going on.

Remember the conflict in Nicaragua between the Contras and the Sandinistas? So who were the good guys, and who were the rascals? We had a vague sense of things, but we wanted to tell WORLD's readers the unbiased, unvarnished, and definitive truth. Still, even after we paid a reporter to spend a couple of weeks on the front lines in a Contra camp, and even after I was privileged to go to her private office for a face-to-face one-on-one interview with Nicaragua's president, Violeta Chamarro, we were bewildered. Yes, we knew that the Sandinistas were Marxists to the core. But we also got a strong sense that many of the Contras were hardly the kind of heroes we'd be tickled to have in our homes as overnight guests. The ambiguities were both confusing and maddening.

Just about then, a curious thing happened here on the home front. A personal friend who worked for the local fire department told me over lunch how distressed he was with corruption in the personnel department there. "How you do on the tests doesn't really have much to do with who gets ahead," he charged. "What matters is whether you know the right people to get advance copies of the tests you have to take." I was startled by his certainty.

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The very next day I was with another friend who was a detective with the local police department. That unit happened to operate under the same personnel jurisdiction as that of the fire department. So I asked him whether he had any sense that there might be some hanky-panky at work in the way promotions were handled. Was everything on the up and up? But he was almost scornful, detailing six different ways such charges couldn't possibly be true.

So I didn't know then-and I don't know to this day-who had the better handle on the truth. But the juxtaposition of those events taught me an enduring journalistic lesson. A little modesty about this thing we call "the truth" is usually in order.

In the case closest at hand, City Hall was less than a mile from my office. There was no foreign language to confuse the stories. If I had to go back a second time, that was easy to do. There were no bullets flying, and no war would put me at lethal risk. My reports came from personal friends whom I trusted. And still-I didn't know.

In Nicaragua, my sources were all brand new. Hundreds of miles, a time zone, and a foreign language kept me from catching the nuances. No way could I dash back to Managua to double-check what I'd heard. And plenty of guns, pointed in both directions, prompted more than a little wariness.

If I wasn't all that sure about the easy assignment, shouldn't I be very careful about the harder one? In our zeal here at WORLD to do a faithful job from issue to issue in reporting the news to you loyal readers, a little modesty seems in order. We can arrogantly pretend, as many in the media regularly do, that we know exactly what's going on. But just as surely as we assume such a posture, God tends to upset the applecart one more time, sending us all back to the drawing boards.

The point is by no means to deny the possibility of learning the truth. There is such a thing as reality-and the diligent investment of a serious journalist's blood, sweat, and tears will bring results. It's just that we should never pretend that those results are any easier, or more automatic, than they really are. God writes history with a unique handwriting, and there's a discipline involved in learning how to read that handwriting accurately. When you pray for WORLD magazine, and its staff, pray that we will be attentive, adept, and trustworthy readers of all that God is providentially writing.

Email jbelz@worldmag.com

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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