Back in the days when I knew everything worth knowing, I practiced the newspaper trade — which was the reason I knew everything worth knowing. See, we journalists are smart. We ooze intelligence and wisdom. We know what’s what. And we don’t mind letting you in on it, gentle reader.
Notice that the “truth” is what Lowery and the similarly disposed tell us is true. Nobody else has it.
While I wipe the superior smirk from my face, I will relate the reason behind this present revelation. It is that we journalists are in the middle of coming clean about our right to run the universe on the basis of our unapproachable knowledge. We’re throwing objectivity overboard. We’re into “moral clarity.” Moral clarity in reporting means we don’t let you, the reader, the viewer, judge the truth of a matter, especially a political matter. Moral clarity means we already know the truth. And here it is, you poor riffraff. Open your mouths and smile so we can shovel it down your throats. When we’re done shoveling, you can say, “Oh, thank you, great ones, for saving us the trouble of thinking.”
Think? Nobody thinks anymore. We just listen to the media. And let me tell you as a member of this selfsame institution, the media, for most of my increasingly long life, few threats to democracy are livelier than the media’s attempts to eliminate customer thought.
I have, for some time, watched journalism sink into the cesspool of subjectivity — the here’s-what-you-ought-to-think style of presentation. The modern media doesn’t think you, the voters, have a functioning brain cell — or that if you do have one, you’re using it right. This has been coming on since Watergate, but the horizon of issues on which the media finds it necessary to educate us has broadened immensely.
The summer of 2020 has put race relations at the center of American concerns. I would not argue (who could?) that race relations don’t deserve thoughtful attention. What they don’t deserve is thoughtless preaching by members of the media convinced of No. 1, President Donald Trump’s racism, and No. 2, white America’s duty to acknowledge and pay for past racial sins.
The moral-clarity bit comes into play just here. As Wesley Lowery of CBS writes in the New York Times, “Instead of telling hard truths in this polarized environment, America’s newsrooms too often deprive their readers of plainly stated facts that could expose reporters to accusations of partiality or imbalance.” “[E]uphemisms that obfuscate the truth” no longer cut it.
Notice that the “truth” is what Lowery and the similarly disposed tell us is true. Nobody else has it. Their job, as they see it, is to pick out the facts and factoids that reinforce their unique concept of truth. We don’t get to do that. We might, in the spirit of democracy and free speech, come up with assessments different from theirs.
Reporters, black or white, who try leading readers by the noses aren’t really reporters. They’re secular preachers; they’re politicians. It’s not the abstract truth they’re after. It’s power — naked power, power to compel thought and action and to shape policy in pursuit of the ends the powerful see as Good for Us.
Objective journalism, of the sort prevalent when I came into the profession decades ago, was — is — an aspiration imperfectly honored, dependent on interior factors like background. (Lowery sees race as dispositive: a buncha whites telling white stories.) I get that. How can you not? But the conscientious gathering of facts and perspectives that show the nonclarity of many, maybe most, human situations advances democracy. You give people the essentials. They decide — as a jury decides, in our adversarial legal proceedings. One side tells its story; the other side answers that side.
Our ever-so-smart moral-clarity journalists think the world depends on them to Light our Pathway. In fact, they distort our democratic arrangements and put themselves in moral jeopardy. How free will journalism be once the public catches on to what the moral-clarity crowd has in mind — and turns on them? If they’re as smart as they think they are, moral-clarity journalists would adopt a mode of business more in line with the customers’ rightful expectations. Maybe they’re just not that smart. Ya think?
William Murchison is writing a book on moral reconstruction in the 21st century. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.
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