Saturday, March 14, 2009

So Much News, So Little Truth

The hot topic this week has been inside information--in the Stewart-Cramer dustup, the Madoff mess, the Seymour Hersh blurtout about a Bush-Cheney "executive assassination ring." In a 24/7 flood of facts, factoids and fake news, who finds the truth and who tells it?

Barack Obama won the White House with promises of transparency to voters starved for some sense of reality in a world of flimflam and lies that have led to so much social devastation.

Yet truth-telling has traditionally been not the job of politicians but journalists. Half a century ago, as a newly appointed magazine editor, I was baited at a dinner party by the French war bride of a college classmate who was running a tabloid newspaper. "What is it exactly that you do?" she persisted

Since philosophical questions were not on the menu, I answered offhandedly, "Try to tell people the truth."

"Ah," she replied in triumph, "the truth! Camus doesn't know the truth, but you do."

For journalism, the goal has never been cosmic verities but everyday truth. It still is, but the world has become so sophisticated that we now find ourselves in a muddle over what the meaning of "is" is.

Jon Stewart's cri de coeur over "business journalism" reflects the loss of that function to what his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness," entertaining falsehoods, which viewers of CNBC to their regret took for facts and bet their shirts on.

Their mistake was a bookend to that of Bernard Madoff's victims who were eager to become privileged "in the know" insiders and now, according to hard-nosed New York Times business reporter Joe Nocera, are looking for someone else to fault:

"People did abdicate responsibility--and now, rather than face that fact, many of them are blaming the government for not, in effect, saving them from themselves."

Those journalists still obsessed with getting below the surface are likely to get as much abuse as acclaim. Bob Woodward has morphed from the hero of Watergate to what some jealous colleagues unjustly called a lapdog of the powerful to gain access for his remarkable reporting.

And now Hersh's remarks this week are leading not to outrage and further investigation of his charges but to media silence and, of course, Conservative attacks on his character.

Reason exhumes a four-year-old piece entitled "Sy Hersh Says It's Okay to Lie (Just Not in Print)," from New York Magazine, not the most objective observer of his prize-winning reporting in the rival New Yorker, which accuses him of nothing worse than sometimes getting ahead of himself in his passion to uncover official deception.

With all this, and millions of bloggers to boot, the flow of inside information is still somehow leaving us, on the important questions, out in the cold.

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