News reporting not enough

These are the times that try journalists' souls, to paraphrase Thomas Paine, as newspapers try mightily to survive in an exponentially expanding electronic world. Radio and television were once thought to be the death of newspapers, and now the Internet, with its multiple applications and formats, is greatly feared. This is no phantom. Many afternoon dailies bit the dust in the 1950s when news was broadcast to our television sets at dinner time. Now even morning newspapers are disappearing while the Internet thrives. Kathleen Parker, the sometime conservative columnist with the neat turn of phrase and low tolerance for all lacking that gift, whatever their politics, blames critics of media bias while singing the praises of the underappreciated news reporting function as the foundation of our free republic.

Let's sort out of the salient observations from the nonsense here. There is no denying that years of so-called media bashing have had their effect. Millions of Americans now understand that the major media regularly skewer conservative Republicans and favor liberal Democrats under the guise of "objective news coverage." That means nothing more than utilizing the format of the standard inverted-pyramid news story to engage in selective reporting and quoting. It is an easy task for bright journalists to hide their partisanship while "giving the facts."

Unless the journalist is a god, his point of view will color his accounts, although there is still plenty of room for full and fair summary and explanation. Otherwise, every newspaper editorial or op-ed, and articles in opinion journals, have to be written off as hopelessly biased, which is absurd. Every article should be judged on it merits, regardless of format.

When Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States, he received letters from an aspiring Virginia journalist who asked him his opinion of what standards should govern newspapers. Jefferson wrote a lengthy reply, including a scathing indictment of the press. His most succinct and telling advice was to restrict the newspaper to "true facts and sound principles only." Not only a commitment to factual accuracy but to the principles of a free government were necessary, Jefferson emphasized.

For critics of media critics like Kathleen Parker, the main thing is factual accuracy with sound principles as only an afterthought. She rightly cherishes a free press as necessary to preserving our form of government, but she apparently has given little thought to what principles should govern that press beyond news reporting. As one of those pundits whom she obviously chooses not to deride, she performs the equally important, if not more important, function of contributing argumentation to the nation's deliberations on public policy.

But that is only half the matter. Commitment to factual accuracy is more than a good habit. It arises from minds devoted to finding the truth and doing what is right. Bad reporting, as Walter Lippmann wrote long ago, is akin to false testimony in a courtroom which, if done with knowledge, is perjury. Only a citizenry habituated to some semblance of moral and intellectual virtue practices, and honors, factual accuracy.

But Lippmann wrongly believed that factual accuracy in the media and the government would suffice to refine public opinion and improve public policy, at least he said so early in his career. Doubtless this man who became the premier "pundit" for half a century in this country appreciated the importance of informed commentary as well.

Someone once said that "Figures don't lie but liars can figure." He could have been referring to news reporters. The mere inclusion of multiple facts in a newspaper article is no guarantee of its accuracy, much less its contribution to public deliberation. By the same token, the proliferation of punditry on the Internet is hardly cause for alarm. However much we may cherish newspapers, many trees have to die to maintain that production. The press does not exhaust all media possibilities, and neither does news reporting.

There is much to admire in the news reporter's habit of presenting both sides of an argument, but there are difficulties. For one thing, understanding a point of view requires more than just the ability to gather facts. It means suspending judgment until one has fully understood the position under review. This is even more difficult (though not impossible) if you think the point of view is wrong. Add to this the space or time limitations of all media (not to mention many people's short attention spans), and justice may not be done.

What too often emerges is an oversimplified, truncated, almost child-like version of what someone is saying that effectively trivializes what should be understood as part of a serious debate over public policy.

Fortunately for sports fans, sports sections are often the healthiest in the newspaper, fueled by intense reader interest and largely unambiguous subject matter (somebody wins, somebody loses). But imagine ball games being reported as if they were political. "The Angels defeated the A's today, as umpires permitted more runs by Los Angeles." Or: "The Lakers scored more points than the Rockets last night as the referees maintained the tradition, questioned by some, of restricting the playing time to 48 minutes."

Sure, politics are controversial, but our fundamental political principles and our Constitution provide a standard and impose limits. Sports are also controversial, but true sportsmen would not permit changing the rules to accommodate their desires. In both cases, we must know what is right as well as what is a true fact.