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The Future and Past of Truth

By Ben L. Kaufman · November 14th, 2012 · On Second Thought
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The hangover from lies, misinformation and disinformation in the presidential campaign will continue to challenge our understanding of truth.     

As never before, the 2012 campaigns left me wondering if truth has been replaced by “truthiness” and whether we live in a “post-truth” era where journalists are expected to report untrue assertions by candidates and their supporters.

I’m not a cynic in the contradictory modern or classic senses. Instead, I think of myself as a soiled idealist. So my gloom was pierced briefly by reactions to Romney’s claim that Jeep production was moving from Toledo to China. When told he misinterpreted a Bloomberg News story that Chrysler might reopen an existing Jeep factory in China for that growing market, Romney could have corrected himself. 

Instead, he repeated what he had to know was false. Not for the first time, Romney and the GOP left me wondering whether a concern for truth, like sin, is no longer active in our nation’s daily life. And that recalled decades of lively discussions among my students probing “truth” in the context of journalism ethics.

Some argued that only their religion represented Truth. They wrote it with a capital T. Calling anything else “truth” could be demonic: secular, humanistic, situational, etc. Classmates agreed that faith-based Truth was absolute and cannot be disproven. However, their concern was fact-based truth with a “small t” that could change as better information became available.

Their ability to distinguish between religious Truth and journalist truth was our annual success story. Still, I had to warn them, “Lots of people won’t accept what you tell them. Distrust is pervasive. Many Americans reject the idea that journalists try to report the truth. However, that doesn’t excuse you from the duty to seek truth in what you report.” 

Our definition of truth drew on The Virtuous Journalist by Stephen Klaidman and Tom L. Beauchamp. I’ve quoted them before: Truth involves completeness, understanding, objectivity, accuracy and active avoidance of bias.

• Substantial completeness is the acceptable minimum in one story or continuing coverage. It’s enough information to allow an intelligent nonspecialist to evaluate the situation.

• Substantial understanding requires context and background of the event(s) being reported. Full understanding may be impossible given time, space and resource limits.

• Objectivity is the effort to produce a story that doesn’t take sides. There always are subjective elements, but objectivity can be defended by explaining decisions to readers/viewers/listeners. 

• Accuracy is not the same thing as being correct; a story can accurately report incorrect information offered in good faith by trustworthy, reliable and authoritative sources. This contradiction initially throws students, but common examples help. Say a race car leaps a barricade and lands in the crowd. Initial emergency personnel reports will provide numbers of dead and injured. Later, numbers could change as hospitals count bodies and arriving survivors. Still later, death totals might also reflect those who died in the hospital. That’s why we seek knowledgeable sources, we tell you who they are and do our best to verify what we’re told. 

• Actively avoiding one’s biases begins by knowing one’s biases. However, unconscious factors as race, class, gender, etc., can create bias or the appearance of bias. Even when bias is consciously avoided, dropped paragraphs with balancing information or unequal treatment of sources can create the appearance of bias and undermine claims to objectivity. 

Those complex but practical ingredients in truth reject almost-serious “truthiness.” Merriam-Webster online called truthiness the Word of the Year in 2006 and defined it as: 

1: “truth that comes from the gut, not books” (Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, October 2005); 2: “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true” (American Dialect Society, January 2006)

As my undergrad students progressed, attitudes evolved in a predictable way. Students for whom “Truth” was religious became less anxious. More than one explained how they consciously created a compartment called “secular” and worked with journalistic “truth” there. It was less threatening and allowed them to succeed in our journalism ethics class.
 
Most students also grasped the idea that we can pursue truth while certain we might never know the whole story or be able to persuade some people of its truth. We also talked about lying sources. We usually catch them by vigorously verifying “facts” we plan to use. Beyond that, we write corrections blaming the liars and strike them from our sources.


CURMUDGEON NOTES:

•    Monday’s Enquirer carries a sanitized obit for Larry Beaupre, the fine, aggressive Enquirer editor whose career was destroyed by a trusted reporter during the Chiquita scandal.    

Larry’s genius was motivating his staff to take chances and go the extra step. No one wanted to admit not making the last phone call to check something in a story. We made those calls.

As part of that, Larry brought the “woodshed” to the Enquirer newsroom on Elm Street. It was the perfect walk to his corner office overlooking the Ohio and Licking Rivers. There, Larry would privately discuss some failing or pratfall in that morning’s paper.

My favorite Larry story — there is no way I’ll call him Beaupre — is Lucasville. I was involved in coverage of that prison riot and occupation from its start on Easter, 1993. Larry was part of Pulitzer-winning coverage of the bloody Attica prison revolt in New York. He gave us everything we asked for at Lucasville. In the middle of that deadly mess — 24/7 for 11 days in Scioto County red clay mud outside the prison on what became press row — he drove down to deliver Sunday papers and thank his bleary staff. That’s leadership.

“I will never forget the Sunday morning when Beaupre showed up,” then-reporter Howard Wilkinson recalled for an earlier column. “He asked me what we needed. ‘Cash, and lots of it,’ I said, explaining that we had to buy food and clothing for the crew, most of whom came unprepared for 11 days in the mud. Larry pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and start counting out a wad of $50s . . . gave me $500 on the spot, which I ended up spending at Big Bear and the Subway in Lucasville. ‘There’s more where that came from,’ Beaupre said.”

Larry didn’t meddle when things went right. There always were questions about why we didn’t have some Lucasville story that someone else did. Larry always accepted “we checked it out and it’s not true.” We got it right and he honored that.    

A year later, he made sure we knew that a routine Lucasville anniversary story wasn’t acceptable. Kristen DelGuzzi and I spent weeks on race, religion and crowding in prisons around the country and Lucasville. The ordinary was not acceptable to Larry or his editors.

Not long ago, I sent Howard Wilkinson’s comment to Larry, along with that column anticipating the 20th anniversary of Lucasville in 2013.

Larry responded warmly, saying it’s nice to be remembered for something beyond Chiquita.

However, it’s the nature of our trade that we’re remembered for our biggest screwups. Ask Dan Rather. So it is with Larry: the year-long investigative effort and special 18-page section describing what reporters Mike Gallagher and Cam McWhirter learned about Chiquita operations here and abroad. Typically, Larry gave two trusted reporters all of the resources they needed. He and Gallagher had worked together before Larry brought him to Cincinnati. Gallagher’s decision to eavesdrop on Chiquita voice mails doomed the project and cost Larry his career.

They gave us a dark view of Chiquita operations, especially in Central America. The project blew up in our faces and Larry was the scapegoat even though the stories had gone all of the way up the corporate chain and back again.

Readers noted that despite the three page 1 apologies and curious renunciation of the stories that followed revelation of Gallagher’s dishonest reporting methods, the Enquirer did not retract the facts.

Larry and the Enquirer had challenged the most powerful man in Cincinnati, Carl Lindner. Gallagher’s dishonesty gave Lindner his opening and Lindner crippled the paper for years. As part of the deal with Lindner and Chiquita, the paper paid $14 million.

More devastating was the condition that Larry had to go. He did. McWhirter was moved to a top reporting job at the Gannett paper in Detroit. David Wells was removed as local editor — the one job he always wanted at the Enquirer - but stayed to become opinion page editor.

Gallagher — who lied to everyone about how he got those voice mails and included his lies in the published stories — was fired. He stayed around to plead guilty to tapping Chiquita voice mail system and stayed out of prison by naming his Chiquita-related sources.

The Enquirer lost the passion and editing talents of Larry and David Wells and Cam McWhirter’s reporting skills. Other colleagues began leaving; the Enquirer was tainted goods. Job applications from similarly talented journalists dried up, I’m told, for years. I’m not sure the Enquirer ever recovered.

•    Larry (above) and his family moved to Mt. Lookout from West Chester when he came from New York.  No matter what landscapers planted in his garden overlooking Ault Park, deer ate them. Then there were the raccoons. Larry came to my desk in distress, wondering what he could do. I suggested a nonlethal Havahart trap. Let the critter loose in another park. Larry tried it. Bait would be gone, the trapdoors closed and no ‘coon. One night he stayed up to see what was going on. The critter went in, ate the bait, and when the doors dropped, other raccoons tipped over the trap. Doors opened and “prisoner” walked free. I think he gave up; Midwestern deer and raccoons were more than his New York smarts could conquer.

•    If you missed it, go back to last Tuesday’s Enquirer opinion page and read mediator Bob Rack’s essay on civility in public life. It’s broader than elections and is more practical than the typical admonishment to behave.

•    Thursday’s Enquirer started a page 1 watch on the Pride of the Tristate, naysaying obstructionists Mitch and John. I hope Enquirer reporters tell us what Mitch and John and their House and Senate colleagues do in the name of “bipartisanship.” Skip their words. Watch what they do.  

•    “Gravitas” apparently is so 2010. The new word favored by many politics writers is “meme.” A wise editor once told me to avoid foreign words unless they’re so common that even an editor would know them. Meme — from the Greek — fails.

•    Quotationspage.com attributes this famous aphorism to department store merchant John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.” I wonder if that’s true about campaign ads. Billionaire right-winger Sheldon Abelson helped poison the well but the New York Times says only his candidates drank; they all lost. I haven’t seen a similar analysis of libertarian Koch brothers spending but it reportedly was far greater than even Abelson’s. Democrats countered by raising and spending zillions. The only difference was the far greater number of Democratic donors needed to reach the magic totals. Great for TV stations but brain damaging for the rest of us.
   
•    There is no “financial cliff.” We’re not going to go over it on Jan. 1. An end to Bush tax cuts won’t pitch us in a recession on Jan. 2.  Sequestration won’t suck zillions out of the economy in one day. Yes, there is a downward economic slope if Congress and Obama don’t sort out the tax/deficit mess. So, why do journalists continue to parrot bipartisan “over the cliff” rhetoric when the facts they report make it clear that no such precipice exists?
 
•    My nomination for a “Useless” award is the New York Times telephone people who are supposed to help with home delivery problems. Twice last week, the Times wasn’t there in the morning and replacement papers weren’t delivered that day or the next. That included Wednesday’s paper with the election results. More aggravating was the blue-wrapped Times on my neighbor’s drive, giving lie to the Times’ “problem resolution” staff’s explanation that there were problems at the printing plant. Times’ operators  and clueless supervisors were in Iowa: dim bulbs who sounded like they read from an all-purposes script.

•    I finally used the New York Times website to email their vp/circulation. A reply came quickly, promising to contact the Enquirer whose carriers deliver the Times. A prompt call from Enquirer circulation on Elm Street promised replacement papers and a personal delivery. Didn’t happen. Still hasn’t, a week later. A perfect union of ignorance and interstate bullshit.

•    Last week’s CityBeat cover story was the annual Project Censored; the most underreported major stories in the major news media. The list misses my No. 1 most underreported story of the year: third-party candidates for the presidency and their platforms.

About the only time the major news media noted Third Party existence was to wonder if a third party might get enough votes to deny victory to a Democrat or Republican in any state(s). Affecting a state’s vote totals would be bad for democracy, those news media anxieties imply.

So I’d offer two suggestions to my 24/7 news media colleagues. First, voting one’s principles is not bad for democracy and it has the potential for great news stories. Second, third party platforms suggest ingredients in whatever becomes conventional wisdom in 2016 or 2020.

That’s what third parties do; hopeful but realistic, they do the thinking that seems to escape mainstream Democrats and Republicans. If you doubt me, look at what came out of the Progressive era 100 years ago and what might come out of Tea Party initiative and energy.

•    Are news media short of photos of Petraeus in civvies? He’s no longer a general. Most images I saw after his surprise resignation had him in uniform. Also, the developing story of how his affair was discovered is fascinating. The FBI stumbled on Petraeus when it was investigating a complaint of online harassment against Paula Broadwell, the adoring graduate student who became author of the new Petraeus biography and his lover. The complaint came from another woman, a frightened friend of the Petraeus family. Agents looking at Broadwell’s emails found  classified information and romantic emails between Petraeus and Broadwell. Tacky as this is, it fell to Jay Leno to sum it up: Guys, Leno said, if the head of the CIA can’t keep an affair  secret, don’t you try it because if you do, “You’re screwed.”

•    BBC’s sex scandal — knighted entertainer Jimmy Savile and others at BBC abused hundreds of girls for years — continues to spread. So far, it hasn’t touched the BBC World Service which Americans get on WVXU/WMUB and other FM stations.

Last week, however, it cost BBC’s new top exec his job. He quit after one of his reporters suggested during a TV interview that he should “go” and a former Cabinet minister responsible for BBC said  Winnie the Pooh would have been a more effective curb on careless, defamatory reporting.

The latest mess involves BBC’s top domestic current affairs/investigative TV program, Newsnight and the broader issue of child abuse by prominent and powerful figures in British public life.

BBC’s Newsnight broadcast Steve Messham’s claim that a top Conservative politician was among men who molested him in a state children’s home during the 1980s. Newsnight didn’t name the Tory but others did on social media: Lord Alistair McAlpine. He came forward last week and denied wrongdoing.

When Messham saw a photo of McAlpine after the broadcast, Messham recanted and apologized. His abuser wasn’t McAlpine. No one showed Messham a photo of McAlpine before broadcasting his accusation. BBC last week apologized “unreservedly.” That phrase usually means a libel suit is anticipated.

Meanwhile, BBC officials canceled Newsnight investigations. Newsnight already is under investigation for killing an program that would have outed Savile as a serial abuser. Savile is dead but three colleagues have been arrested so far.

•    Thedailybeast.com excerpts from Into the Fire, a book by Dakota Meyer, the Kentuckian who won the Medal of Honor in Afghanistan. It’s a toy chest of news tips for reporters. Here’s part of the excerpt:

When I got home in December, I felt like I had landed on the moon. Kentucky is pretty much what you think: cheerful bluegrass music like Bill Monroe, rolling countryside, good moonshine, great bourbon and pretty girls. Greenery, lakes, the creeks and rolling hills, forests, birds, other critters and all the farms. There’s that genuine friendliness that comes with small towns and close-knit families. You don’t want to act like an asshole because it will get back to your grandmother by supper.


“Something like: ‘Well, Dakota, I hear you had some words today with that neighbor of Ellen’s sister’s boy.’

“Dad, of course, was happy to see me, as were my grandparents, so that was a good feeling. Dad didn’t give me a hard time about Ganjigal, and neither did my leatherneck Grandpa. We just didn’t talk much about it. It was great seeing my family and friends, but they had their own lives. Everyone around me was excited about football, Christmas, and other normal things; I was looking at the clapboard houses and the cars and thinking, man — so flimsy. They wouldn’t give cover worth shit in a firefight.

“It was an exposed feeling. And where were my machine guns? I found my old pistol and kept it around like a rabbit’s foot, but I missed my 240s and my .50-cals something awful. It seems weird, I’m sure, but I really just wasn’t buying it that there wasn’t some enemy about to come over the green hills, and I felt so unprepared—I wouldn’t be any good to protect anybody.

“I was set to soon go off to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, for PTSD therapy . .  . “

•    Next year, we’ll commemorate the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. It wasn’t the last time we underestimated the resilience of a far weaker “enemy.” JFK reportedly told the Times that he would have aborted the invasion if the Times had had the cajones to publish what it knew about preparations in Florida and Central America. However, during the two weeks before the invasion, the Times published stories about the preparations.

•    Next year, we’ll also commemorate JFK’s murder. I watched demonstrators at our London Grosvenor Square Embassy vilify the U.S. for its role in the Cuban missile crisis. The night of JFK’s death, crowds were back . . . to sign a book of condolences.

•    A federal judge ordered the FBI to pay journalist Seth Rosenfeld $479,459 for court costs and lawyers’ fees. He sued the FBI after it ignored his appropriate requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Poynter.com says Rosenfeld will donate the money to the First Amendment Project Project in Oakland, Calif. It handled his case pro bono for 20 years. That’s chump change to the bureau and it costs individual agents nothing for blowing him off. Meanwhile, news organizations say broad resistance to FOIA requests has worsened throughout the federal government under Obama.

•    Newsweek is going digital-only next year, in keeping with boss Tina Brown’s changing reading habits. She says she doesn’t even look at newsstands any longer; everything she wants is on her Kindle. Of course, she’ll fire people. Newsweek always was No. 2 to Time Magazine which continues its print edition. I’ve ignored giveaway offers from both magazines for years. It isn’t print, it’s their content. My choice? The Economist’s weekly U.S. print edition.

•    ABC said his family was unaware of film director Tony Scott’s brain cancer when he jumped off a bridge in August and died. Now, ABC admits its original unverified and uncorroborated story was wrong. There was no brain cancer. It only took two months to admit and correct the error.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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