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For the week of August 30 through September 5, 2000

Value of truth, objectivity in journalism debated

Modern writers disagree over ageless question


Kovach sees an ominous threat from the growth of "commercialized speech" in the overly profit-driven, corporate-owned media that allows itself to be essentially edited by big business, or conversely, uses the "news" to promote interests that have financial ties to the media.


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

"The fiction of nonfiction" and "Why we should believe in journalism" were two of the talks given by heavy hitters Lawrence Weschler and Bill Kovach in the big tent at last week’s Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. While extolling truth in journalism, they disagreed on how to accomplish it.

Who doesn’t want to believe in the written word? But what is truth—a philosophical construct, or a set of facts, that can be verified?

Weschler, a staff writer for The New Yorker who has twice won the George Polk Award and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, seemed almost gleeful Friday afternoon when he leaned over his microphone and announced to 600 readers that objectivity, considered by most to be essential to good journalism, is a "myth" and a "fraud," because every writer has a distinctive, inescapable narrative voice.

"Every narrative voice is fiction," he said. "The essential paradox today is that we know everything is chaos, and any form a writer discovers is in a sense imposed on the material."

Weschler said he is flabbergasted by news stories that say "a visitor" observed an event. "We all know it was the reporter," he said, so the story should say that—"anything else is a dishonest attempt to fool readers into thinking the story is objective. Stories should always have the "I voice," he said, to let the reader know this is one person’s perspective.

Sure, truth is still possible, he told a perplexed audience member, but it doesn’t depend on verifying a collection of tidbits.

A writer, he said, "can be scrupulously factual and still ring false, and in fact be false."

That sentiment had Kovach, a 41-year reporter, editor and bureau chief at The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, rolling his eyes and uttering an unintelligible disparagement during an early afternoon interview Sunday on the Sun Valley lawn.

During his talk earlier that morning, Kovach told practically the same audience that good journalists strive for truth "not in the philosophical sense, but in presenting facts in such a way to allow the reader to form a judgment." The function of those facts, he said, "is to bring to light hidden reality."

No doubt about it, the white-haired, regal-looking Kovach is the champion of good, old-fashioned reporting, which he says readers are as responsible for preserving as the press is.

Democracy, he said, depends on it: "Public opinion created democratic self government, and journalism created public opinion."

Kovach sees an ominous threat from the growth of "commercialized speech" in the overly profit-driven, corporate-owned media that allows itself to be essentially edited by big business, or conversely, uses the "news" to promote interests that have financial ties to the media. Kovach said commercialized speech often entertains more than it informs.

"The voice of independent, citizen-oriented journalism is hard to find now," he said.

To bring it back, he maintained, "talking about the craft is essential. Quality journalism depends on a critically aware and critically thinking public that demands it."

That doesn’t necessarily mean that a journalist can ever achieve absolute objectivity. Kovach said that no matter what a journalist writes, somebody, somewhere is likely to claim the writer was biased, but that’s okay.

"Journalists are not necessarily unbiased," he said. "It may not even be good for them to be unbiased. Sometimes, it’s good for journalists not to report right down the middle. I think you have the right to expect that kind of information, as well."

For his part, Kovach said he keeps an open mind to constructive criticism while striving to remain true to the things he thinks are important in a story.

Throughout history, he said, the more controlled society becomes, the more it has tended to belittle the idea of literal truth. In the early 1980s, just after Ronald Reagan became president, his press secretary, David Gergen, displayed an alarmingly cavalier attitude toward informing the public, Kovach said. As long as the "symbolic truth" of what the president says is valid, Kovach recalled Gergen telling the national press, the "literal truth is unimportant."

The public’s refusal to accept the government’s version of the truth was a major dismantler of communism, Kovach said. The Polish Solidarity movement in the early 1980s was largely a response to the communist government’s ratcheting down controls on the media, he said. Citizens began walking their dogs during news hour and they displayed the blank, cold screens of their unplugged televisions in the front windows of their homes as a protest, he said—and the underground press flourished.

"The thunderbolt of the electronic [Internet] news," Kovach feels, may inject into all reporting the sort of grassroots behavior on which democracy renews itself. Kovach praised Internet publications like Salon, whose editor, David Talbot, is "totally accessible" because he regularly goes online to answer readers’ questions.

"That kind of behavior is going to catch on," Kovach predicted.

And, he said, "There is a new active youth out there frustrated by inaccessible, remote power controlling their lives, and that’s good for the media. I think the pressure’s going to start coming, and that’s going to be positive."

 

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