Many observers were taken aback by Sean Spicer’s first round in the White House press room on Inauguration weekend. In a room that usually sees White House spokespersons parrying reporters’ questions with a combination of information, obfuscation and humor, it was surprising to see so many thrusts at the press.
Combat with the Fourth Estate, however, is nothing new.
President Teddy Roosevelt gave to the crusading journalists of his day the epithet they came to wear proudly: muckrakers. At times, President Roosevelt appreciated their work, but he also criticized what he saw as their obsession with criticism.
Decades later, Vice President Spiro Agnew labeled the press “nattering nabobs of negativism,” only to have those nabobs report on his corrupt activity and his fall from power. Later, there was Senator Gary Hart’s assault on press reports of his infidelity, punctuated by his challenge to “follow me around” . . . which reporters did, leading to Hart’s own fall.
The modern tradition of a press that is independent, neutral, skeptical and even-handed has been giving way for some time. The post-modern era’s news industry has not entirely disdained the tradition of factual, objective reporting, but many have embraced the view that news can be told from an explicitly partisan or ideological vantage point and still be called news.
In fairness, one must acknowledge that true objectivity is difficult if not impossible to achieve. Scientists understand that the mere act of observing an event affects the event, and that the vantage point of the observer affects what the observer observes and the account the observer gives. So perhaps the only reasonable course is to abandon any claim to objectivity and leap unhesitatingly to the subjectivity of the left or the right.
Except . . .
I think most of us would agree that we deal with at least some facts in our daily lives. For example, these words you are reading now are the same words that most everyone who reads this blog post will read. If you and several other readers report on what you have read, a large audience of people will become familiar with the content . . . more or less accurately. What is more, if there should arise a question about what words were in this paragraph, you and the others can compare your reports to arrive at a shared account of the text.
Even here, there is room for obscuring the facts. Some will misunderstand, some misread, some misremember, and some intentionally manipulate the text.
But if enough people make enough observations of the same phenomenon, if enough people report about that phenomenon with a genuine desire to describe what is true, the resulting account will probably stand in pretty well for objective truth, even if we are all more modest in the claims we make for it.
And that, in my opinion, is one of the critical roles journalists can play if they will. With each additional independent account, certain truths are likely to become more clear, and certain ambiguities to become more clearly ambiguous.
Such efforts will not always be right, and they certainly will not always be neutral.
But to aspire to tell truth so that other truth-seekers recognize it as truth – that is a noble thing.