Sunday, September 02, 2012

Journalism, Truth and Politics

I'm not sure what to make of Andrea Seabrook's decision to leave her job as NPR's Washington correspondent to set up a new website/blog called DecodeDC. She complains of being lied to by politicians, and of being forced to report on the daily posturings and the theatre of DC rather than what is really going on. I sympathize, but from a certain point of view, it seems naive to complain about this: all politicians spin and tell half-truths, and it is the job of journalists to see through this, or to report on this. Otherwise, we would all simply read the politicians' press releases.

By coincidence, I just listened some old podcasts these days that provide admirable reporting that sees through the spin and fog.  David Wessel writes for the Wall Street Journal, which can often be quite ideological, but in his interview on NPR's Fresh Air, he discusses his book Red Ink and the problems with the federal budget deficit in a clear and bipartisan manner. He is able to explain why each side is not telling the whole story, and how values and ideals about the future determine the different views of what should be done.

In another example, Ryan Lizza wrote a story for the New Yorker on Paul Ryan, before he was nominated as Romney's VP partner. The story is very balanced, as noted in a Washington Post article, though Paul Ryan feared it would be a hatchet piece. Lizza does note, however, that Ryan had not had much bad press. Ryan has been popular with the press; he is considered fairly open, frank, and accessible.  On the other hand, Lizza in a blog is extremely critical of Ryan's GOP convention speech. He lists five attacks against the President that he says "were breathtakingly hypocritical" and ends saying, "Ryan started this race with a reputation for honesty. He’s on his way to losing it."

The problem is that some journalists seem to believe that all problems have technical solutions (Adam Davidson of NPR's Planet Money is the the best example). But political problems are NOT technical problems. It is a dangerous conceit of extremist ideology of the right and left that there is one best "scientific" solution to most problems. Political problems are "political" because they deal with who gets what, and they depend on values, and one's ideal image of the future. Lizza, in an interview on Fresh Air, mentions that Paul Ryan is motivated by Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism (As an aside, I view her philosophy as puerile, a very unsophisticated view that does not understand social forces and culture, but that is a topic for another day). Lizza reports that Ryan believes a person can only be free when they take responsibility for themselves, and that too many people are dependent on government, making them less free. This is a legitimate view that most people can accept to some extent, but it has to be balanced with the opposing view that one cannot be free when worried about where their next meal is coming from, or whether they can pay for cancer treatment, or for their parents' healthcare. And who should pay for all this? How we balance these issues depends on our class, our vision of a good society, and our values. There is no technical or scientific answer (though not all answers are the same and there are some answers that do not add up!)

Already many comments on Andrea Seabrooks website are very critical of her posts for being naive or biased. That should not surprise us. Good journalism, like Wessel's and Lizza's, help us understand the issues better, but they have to balance the blue and red perspectives, and show how both are valid moral views, even when politicians are not being entirely honest in their statements. Even then, partisans will have their gripes. That's politics.

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