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Wednesday 19 Jun 2024

Grub Street Philosophy: 3
Streeter Click

News media, writes Edward Jay Epstein, can seldom report truth. Impartiality, balancing two or more sides of an issue, rules reporting, and truth isn't a factor. News workers are "almost entirely dependent on self-interested sources for [what] they report." Truth is the victim.

There's a catch-22. Audiences expect truth, and respond as if news were truth. News workers are unlikely to provide truth, their practices, in a large sense, prevent it. Truth is the victim of source reliance, the albatross of the press.

Sources know this fact, well, and make the most of it. The current US Presidency takes the fascist horror, of source reliance, to new depths. Spinning news workers, ruthlessly, leads to a gross depreciation of democracy.


There are few genuine news work philosophers. John Milton, the poet, is most important. His "Areopagitica" (1644) first plead for a free press. Joseph Addison (1672-1719) wrote 40 essays for the "Tatler." Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) wrote 160 essays for the "Tatler" and the "Spectator." These essays are essential arguments for a free press. Most prominent, among contemporary thinkers about news are Walter Lippmann, G Stuart Adam and James Carey.

In 1922, Lippmann noted the heart of the problem of news and truth. These are different concepts. "The [purpose] of news," he wrote, "is to signalize an event; the [purpose] of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set [these facts] into relation [to] each other, and to make a picture of reality on which [women and men] can act." News workers report; that is, recreate events. Readers, listeners and viewers build a world from facts news workers report.

Truth is not news. News is history. Truth is meaning.

Rarely, wrote Lippmann, do news and truth coincide. Such coincidences exist in sports scores, final election vote tallies and other types of news. These results are certain, measurable and impartial facts, and meaning is explicit.

Many issues are uncertain. Politics is an example, and government plans are always in dispute. News workers can't report truthfully or reliably about these topics as they can about sports.

The dichotomy of news and truth roots in the exigencies of the news business. Space, time and budgets are always at a premium. Resources are always limited. Shareholders must be placated or jobs lost. Editorial is always on the line. Advertising is the golden child.

The result is decisions, such as can we afford to cover this story? Maybe, if the story causes as little flack as possible. Impartiality minimizes flack, and makes news possible.

For Lippmann, truth was desirable, but news workers were unable to provide it. Institutions other than the press must provide truth, that is, form a coherent whole from available facts. He wisely avoided examples of truth proffering institutions, although columnists, of whom he was the top, in his day, were surely high on his list.

No matter who or what provides truth, it'll only be a version, filtered through personal or institutional exigencies. Researching French-language newspapers, in France, recently, Dr. Randal Marlin, the philosopher, made an interesting discovery. "The allied bombers," during World War II, he reports, "were called terrioristes [terrorists] by the German-controlled French newspapers.

"That makes a good parallel," writes Marlin, "with the initial characterization of all Iraqis, who resisted the invasion, as "terrorists," by those newspapers using language supportive of the invasion, as for example the [Ottawa] Citizen."

Truth depends on who or what gets to make it. History is the tale of winners, seldom losers. When news workers act as stenographers, truth and history are fashioned scoundrels and scalawags and Howard Beale was right.


News workers have trouble accepting the idea they don't broker truth. Signalers are stenographers, they say. Bennett, Lawrence and Livingston suggest the White House Press Corps, from 2001 to 2006, acted as stenographers, doing the bidding of the Administration. No wonder few news workers see themselves as stenographers.

Purveyors of truth enjoy more status than do stenographers. In the news business, their titles include investigative or interpretative reporter, and, perhaps, columnist. Shareholders enjoy more status than readers, listeners and viewers. Thus, truth-seeking news workers are hen's teeth; stenographers are aplenty.

The apogee of the coincidence of news and truth was the post-Watergate era. Truth is a victim of the current US Presidency. That 16 government agencies banded together, an unlikely scenario unless times are dire, to flatly state Iran ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, as the President blissfully fibs away, is but one of too many examples. Truth is reading to resurge.

About 1907, H. L. Mencken, writing in the Baltimore "Sun," bemoaned the quality of candidates for the US Presidency. If, he wrote, the decline continues, the election of a moron as president is imminent. In 2000, a horror worse than Mencken occurred and truth paid a price above rubies.

Moron is an out-of-date word for someone who scores between 50 and 69, on a standardized IQ test, with an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 10. On such a scale, about .12%, that is 1/8th of 1%, below 70. A moron is likely intelligent enough not the bludgeon the truth.

Bennett, Lawrence and Livingston aren't as hopeful. They argue the current Presidency has taken US democracy to a point of questionable recovery. His strategy is bludgeoning truth in pursuit of self-interest. The next president must resurrect truth or pay a harsh price.

The ascendancy of Keith Olberman, on MSNBC, and his clones offer some promise, too. Interesting, how a sportscaster, Olberman, becomes the white knight of American democracy and the new media. Used to the surety of sports scores, he segued, with élan, into the vagary of hard news. When times are tough, the tough arise to meet the need.


Despite the vigorous media hyperbole, limits observed by Lippmann persist, more or less intact. The current US Presidency - maybe that should read Vice-presidency - makes it worse. Spatial, temporal and economic restrictions remain. To paraphrase Lippmann, the news page or newscast is still of a definite size or length, and it must still be ready at a precise moment. Given these conditions, these restrictions, it's unrealistic to expect news workers to produce anything beyond an abridged, truncated version of spin-muster reality.

The ostensible 24-hour news cycle of cable news, often invoked to counter Lippmann, is a myth. For the moment, no cable news channel runs a true 24-hour cycle. Late nights and weekends, the time of a small audience, feature repeats of newscasts and pseudo-documentaries, amazingly fascist in narrative.

Removing the restrictions, noted by Lippmann, wouldn't help, in the short run. Extant news workers lack the specialized skills and authority to establish truth in any issue of serious dispute. Their qualifications tend to the stenographic. The investment of a generation, to allow for a churning of skills, is required. In the interim, democracies would drift deeper into fascism, free from a critical eye.


What is required to establish truth, in all cases, is a standardized set of acceptable procedures. News work, as an occupation, has no such procedures. Until the 2000 US Presidential election, courts established relative truth, but no longer. Scholars offer truths, reliable and valid from years of study and thought, but shaped by disciple, field or area and, too often, cast in the arcane language of the uber-expect. News columnists and investigate reporters likely offer truth its best shot.

Nor do news workers have the authority to extract truth from anyone. They lack the authority of the judiciary to compel anyone to speak. Attempts at coercive inducements to elicit the truth would probably result in legal action against the press. The press can pay for information, but cheque book journalism seldom results in truth.

The "talking heads," popular on cable news, in particular, utter words mostly free of charge. The exposure they receive converts into prestige. In turn, the prestige converts into higher fees for writing or speaking. They say what sends readers, listeners or viewers to their web sites. Credibility is a hurdle, when considering truth and talking heads on news shows. For now, anyway, Pat Buchanan, of MSNBC, gets a pass, on the criticism.


Ultimately, news workers must rely on others to define reality. Those others have vested self-interests to promote or protect. Their version or analysis of reality reflects these interests.

The news media must use prepackaged stories, editorials, features and so forth. Exceptions exist, but are rare. It's easier to run with news or wire service content, where the source and his or her truth may be six degrees away, than seek reliable truth.

Wire service content's expedient, as Walter Sunderland and his colleagues repeatedly show. Wire copy's safe. Original material can generate more of a storm than bland new service content.

Owners and managers are conservative. They prefer less controversial material, news unlikely to raise the hackles of their friends. Shareholders prefer a bland, safe and profitable form of news, unless it's a report of higher dividends.

Noting the journalist's milieu, Edward Jay Epstein offers more insightful definitions of the news work methods: stenographic and interpretative investigative. He defines the stenographic as "the development of (news) sources among official spokesmen...." The prestigious investigative mode, Epstein writes, "Is merely the development of sources within the counter-elite or other dissidents in government."

Epstein suggests little difference in these methods. Even the integrity of information uncovered may not differ much. A job promotion may turn today's dissident into tomorrow's official spokesperson. An official spokesperson by-passed for promotion or otherwise soured may become tomorrow's dissident. Self-interest permeates ideas about truth.

Woodward and Bernstein led reporting on Watergate, in the 1970s. They benefited from a series of US Government officials soured by Nixon and his friends. As Epstein concluded, in the July 1974 issue of "Commentary," "The press did not uncover Watergate; it was agencies of government itself." 'Woodstein' were in the proverbial 'right place at the right time,' and no more. Leaks might just as well have gone to Jack Anderson, I. F. Stone, Len Downie, Martin Agronsky or ... heaven forbid - Sally Quinn."


News workers languish in a catch-22. They serve as channels for vested interests or they recast information into their own version of reality. The first alternative assures accurate reporting, but the information itself may be false or misleading. Alternative two, though certainly reducing the source control, simultaneously increases the probability of distortion and violates a fundamental news work ethic. Either way, the news worker is in for criticism from all sides. This catch-22 is insidious.

Confounding the situation is that better qualified, superior news works or better training can't alleviate the problem. The roots, of the catch-22, are deep. The dilemma arises, not out of defects in the practice of news work, but out of the relationship, of reporter and source, and the exigencies of day-to-day journalism.

Epstein offers a tentative solution. The tensions could be eased, he writes, "If [news workers] gave up the pretense of being establishers of truth, recognized themselves as agents of others, who desired to disclose information, and clearly labeled the circumstances and interested behind the information they reported, so that it could be intelligently evaluated." What Epstein proposes destroys the relationship of reporter and source. Who would or could speak, off the record, knowing their identity wasn't secret. The catch-22s increase geometrically.

What Epstein suggests would stop politicos from always running off at the mouth. Their simple-minded verbal diarrhea would stop. Evidence and skills to mask self-interest is always lacking and sources would soon run dry.

Moreover, news workers can't attribute or label every interest behind every story. Each new item might take days to finalize. News cycles, of any length, would grind to halt. Sources would evaporate, in the blink of a cosmic eye.


There's an alternative for news work. Operate as a purveyor of information, a signaler of changes in the direction of public policies or discourse. Leave truth to readers, listeners, viewers and others.

Truth, by definition, isn't available from the press. Agendas, signals of what's import, seem the news media forte. Agendas, rating issues by amount of time or space, tells us as to what needs our attention; what we need to decide is true or not.

This is power to the people to decide. What an outrageous idea. You, your family, friends or coworkers, allowed to decide for yourself. Were Groucho, Bruce and Hicks were right?


The integrity of news agendas depend on the professional approach of news workers. The more professional the approach, the clearer and more open the agenda; the more obvious the discountable self-interests. The less professional the approach, the more suspect the agenda.

In this sense, professional implies honesty, integrity and willingness to let readers, listeners and viewers decide for themselves.

Encouragingly, you can be reasonably certain a professional orientation is possible among news workers. Where the education includes a healthy non-skills component, offered by qualified instructors, news workers quickly acquire a professional orientation. Courses in political science, economics, philosophy and other disciplines usually open minds.


Ideally, Grub Street aims to make possible the citizen thinker. This web site is open to positing responsible comment from all sources. Agreement isn't a prerequisite for posting, only submission of responsible ideas, even less than full responsible ideas, too, for posting.

Click Philosphy 1, Philosophy 2, to learn more about Grub Street.



G Stuart Adam (1993), "Notes toward a Definition of Journalism," published by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

Lawrence Bennett, Regina A. Lawrence and Steven Livingston (2007), "When the Press Fails: political power and the news media from Iraq to Katrina," published by the University of Chicago Press.

James Carey (1989), "Communication as culture: essays on media and society," published by Unwin Hyman.

Edward Jay Epstein (2000 [1975]), "News from Nowhere," most recently published by Ivan R. Dee.

Edward Jay Epstein (1975), "Between Fact and Fiction: the problems of journalism. Vintage.

Neil Henry (2007), "American Carnival: journalism under siege in an age of new media," published by the University of California Press.

Walt Lippmann (1922), "Public Opinion," is published by Free Press.

Randal Marlin (2002), "Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion," published by Broadview Press.

Streeter Click is editor of GrubStreet.ca.

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