Editorializing in news stories, once verboten, has now become de rigueur. Journalism, never perfect at any moment of its history, but full of aspiration to be objective and balanced, has now conceded entirely to Nietzsche’s critique of empiricism: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
Many years ago, in an earlier contentious era of American politics, the basic journalism courses I took at the University of Georgia emphasized the principal questions to ask for any story: who, what, when, where, how, and why? Working in journalism for five years in my fifties, I had a chance to put those questions into practice after all those years. A reader should be able to glean the crucial information from the first sentence or two of a news story. For example, “Last night at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, the two candidates for the presidency, Republican incumbent Pres. Donald Trump and Democratic challenger, former Vice-President Joe Biden, presented opposing stances on six major policy questions in a 90-minute debate moderated by Kristen Welker of NBC News.” More facts should follow, and the opinions of the reporter should be kept out of the story and reserved for the editorial page.
By contrast, let’s take an example from the reporting on the debate by CNN, where the anchor Chris Cuomo (son of Mario, brother of Andrew) asked “fact-checker” Daniel Dale to assess the “truthiness of both sides” (his words, his emphasis). Mr. Dale began, not by citing the specific claims of “both sides” and examining the factual basis of them, but by saying, “Well, Chris, we have a president who is running for re-election on a strategy of serial deliberate dishonesty—and it’s getting worse.” The fact-checker explained to Mr. Cuomo that although “the version of Trump we got” in this debate was not as “belligerent” as the Trump of the first debate, this version was worse “from an honesty perspective.”
In other words, the man singled out for fact-checking by the network accused Pres. Trump of “serial deliberate dishonesty” before presenting any evidence whatsoever. Mr. Cuomo at no point rebuked Mr. Dale for this overt, partisan editorializing, which included the ascription of inner motives in the words “strategy” and “deliberate dishonesty.” Rather, Mr. Cuomo—schooled, no doubt, by the deep sincerity of Anderson Cooper—looked soberly pained by these revelations about the motives of Pres. Trump in his campaign for reelection.
Did Mr. Dale understand when he used the word “serial” that it has a particularly dark connotation because of its use in such phrases as “serial killer” and “serial rapist”? Absolutely. In fact, Mr. Dale—at least in this elatedly twerpy version of himself—was so proud of the phrase, so sure it would be quoted by others and highlighted in CNN print stories, that he made sure to frontload it in his first sentence before he said anything else. Did he understand the phrase “deliberate dishonesty” to mean that Pres. Trump is never mistaken about facts? He does in fact attribute this extraordinary power to the president. In other words, Pres. Trump would have to know all of the facts in order to be dishonest about them, rather than mistaken.
Actually, Mr. Dale’s phrase “serial deliberate dishonesty” begins to crumble under scrutiny. “Lying” would be more concise, because lying is always deliberate, dishonest, and repeatable, as Huck Finn knew as well as Mr. Dale, but fact-checker Daniel Dale really wanted to characterize Pres. Trump’s “dishonesty” as a condition both of his character and of his campaign strategy. “Serial lying” would have kept the “serial” but it would still have sounded too plain. But surely “serial deliberate dishonesty” takes us deep into the secret motives of Pres. Trump that Mr. Dale wanted to reveal.
One might similarly investigate the reporting on Fox News, but I am sure that Mr. Dale has already done so. My point is that editorializing in news stories, once verboten, has now become de rigueur. The truth, as Mr. Cuomo magnanimously suggested in his request that Mr. Dale investigate both sides, has become “truthiness.” What is truth, as Pilate asked? Journalism, never perfect at any moment of its history, but full of aspiration to be objective and balanced, has now conceded entirely, it would seem, to Nietzsche’s critique of empiricism: far from it being the case that there are only facts, “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Mr. Dale would surely agree. There are no facts, when it comes down to it, to check. There is no news, really—only spin.
So what is the cause of our ache to understand the simple truth and base our judgments on it? Perhaps it owes to our sense, both from inner conscience and from revelation, that the Truth who stood before Pontius Pilate does not waver. I am reminded of Claudius in Hamlet, who murdered his own brother and managed to hide the fact:
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice;
And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ‘tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.
It’s enough to unnerve even the most dishonest of fact-checkers.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “‘What is truth?’ Christ and Pilate” (1890) by Nikolai Ge (1831–1894) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.