The Concord naturalist and writer Henry Thoreau had a great disdain for the news -- especially that conveyed in the newspapers of his time. Thoreau never read a newspaper and he was critical of anyone who did. Thoreau refused to profane his mind with the muck and slime of the daily news, especially as it related to commerce. Being a critical thinker, Thoreau was deeply suspicious of anything that appeared in the newspapers. Thoreau gave us the literary masterpieces Walden, Civil Disobedience and fourteen volumes of superlative journals. Civil Disobedience has inspired political movements around the world. Both Martin Luther King and Gandhi were inspired to action by Thoreau’s powerful political essays. There were many others.
Thoreau stated somewhere in the fourteen volumes of his journals: “The first rule of literary composition is to speak the truth.” In a nutshell this sums up the ethical obligation of journalism. Nothing more needs to be added or taken away.
What passes for journalism in America today is an amalgamation of pundits who spin the news to further the corporatist agenda of privatization. By privatization I mean the private ownership of everything from public water, National Forests and National Parks, social security and Medicare, to the genetic blueprint for life itself. Corporations, contrary to the propaganda espoused by the huge public relations firms hired by them, rarely operate in the public interest. What is good for the corporate bottom line is not good for America. Nor is it good for the world; and it is fatal to democracy as we know it. As a man who was unusually protective of his freedom, Thoreau instinctively understood this important lesson and he applied it to his literary craft.
What responsibility do journalists have? To whom do they have that responsibility? I ask these questions because journalists play an important role in how people decide issues and thus which public policies are set in motion and which are not. Few other professions have such a profound effect on the public mind as journalism. Journalists bear greater responsibility toward the public good than to the bottom line of the corporations they work for. Ultimately, if journalism is to have any integrity or moral authority, it must be responsible to the truth. That is the only bottom line that really matters.
During the past thirty years or so we have witnessed a systematic abdication of journalistic responsibility to truth. When journalists Judith Miller of the New York Times and now Bob Woodward of the Washington Post were seduced by proximity to power and by self promotion -- they prostituted themselves in order to gain access to the GOP leadership. In the process they betrayed the public trust. They placed ego above writing the truth. Because of their betrayal they have forfeited all journalistic integrity and blackened the eye of those who still honor the profession with honest work.
The political dialogue that transpires in for profit America is more illusory than real. As an example, consider the issue of global warming. Some media sources -- Fox News for example -- deny that the problem exists; or that it is human induced. The litany of neoconservative talk show hosts working the air waves proffer nothing of value on this and other environmental issues. They have a political agenda that offers no pretense of objectivity on the important issues of our times. Nothing they say on the matter of global warming has any relevance to reality. No one considers them legitimate journalists. Other media, presumably in an effort to appear fair and balanced, offer bewildering expert testimony from multiple sides of the issue without revealing the truth. You cannot get the right answers without asking the right questions and demanding complete candor. Policy makers have to be held accountable not only to the people, but also to the truth. When they aren’t, Vietnam and the invasion and occupation of Iraq happen. This is the result of journalism without conscience or backbone. It is what used to be called “Yellow Journalism.”
Certainly, the latter method of journalism is preferable to the former. But it leaves much to be desired because reality exists beyond the pale of words. While the pundits pontificate upon the issue of global warming the planet continues to heat up and the effects profoundly impact all of our lives. The pretense of debate does not affect the reality of what is happening.
With few exceptions, journalists have aided a corrupt government in selling its agenda of world domination and privatization to a gullible public. It has done so through many presidencies; and that is why we find ourselves in the present conundrum. Journalists cannot have it both ways. You cannot serve two masters. No one can be completely neutral. No one is totally objective. We speak and act from a perspective based upon prior experience and knowledge and -- yes -- even bias. The key to journalistic integrity is the same as for personal integrity -- to base one’s actions upon a critical examination of the evidence. We must think for ourselves, rather than do what we are told.
By consistently allowing those in power the false premise of their arguments in favor of invading Iraq, when the best available evidence screamed otherwise, we find ourselves with no credibility in the arena of world affairs. The rest of the world loathes us in part because our most visible journalists have turned their back on Thoreau’s simple but eloquent rule of literary composition -- to simply speak the truth. That is the only obligation any of us have. It is also our best hope for salvation.
Charles Sullivan is a furniture maker, photographer, and freelance writer residing in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.