Facts are sacred
November 8, 2002
It is almost a truism that real political freedom is based on wide and irreversible press freedoms. That the scrutiny of a free press, with power to expose errors and wrongdoings, holds a Damocles sword over public figures which discourages them from breaking rules or shirking responsibilities.
These are not abstract ideals. In the United States their power can extend to the White House, as Woodward and Bernstein proved. Less discussed is the hard work which sustains them. A culture of accuracy. A tradition of facts. For all too often the media are as flawed as the people they cover. Reporters and editors make mistakes, sometimes harmful ones; but because they write the headlines they hardly ever retract anything or resign in disgrace. Safe from public censure because they are the means of public censure, a careless press becomes a dangerous source of error, spreading conspiracy theories rather than debunking them with facts. Once the traditions which ought to constrain a free press are forgotten, the downside can be open-ended.
Take the case of the Washington sniper. With few hard facts, and with viewer interest comparable to the O.J. Simpson trial, many TV networks and newspapers decided to broadcast rampant speculation from a whole range of “specialists.”
Retired policemen, FBI profilers, criminologists and the hosts of current affairs segments volunteered a dazzling array of theories:
Angry white men, Al Qaeda operatives, a resident of Montgomery country, a delivery man in a white van, and so on, ad nauseam. When the truth emerged it was obvious that these guesses had been hopelessly wide of the mark. So much so that the Washington Post, which had itself published “expert” opinions on the sniper¹s identity was moved to ask whether “[b]y saturating the public’s consciousness with phantom images of thirtyish white men, did the media profilers distract attention from a more general and possibly open-minded search for the perpetrators?” Some people might go further and ask how much time was wasted on false leads, and ask how many lives were endangered or lost as a consequence of this lapse. What makes the Washington Post such a respected newspaper is that after it has made a mistake it is not afraid to say so, or to worry openly about the consequences of that mistake.
Another example is the story of Stephen Glass, a young journalist who fabricated a series of investigative reports published in The New Republic (he was a staff writer). His work was also published by Harper’s, George, and Rolling Stone.
When his scam was exposed, Harper’s ran a long apology and offered a full explanation to its readers. It did more than admit to a mistake, it examined itself publicly and promised to do better. That is what a responsible press ought to do: acknowledge its fallibility, eat humble pie and strive for higher standards.
When facts are forgotten, or not deemed interesting enough, the outcome can be more important than a mistaken criminal profile or editorial embarrassment. In October 1990, for example, a young Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah her last name was withheld, ostensibly for her protection gave testimony to a Congressional “Human Rights Caucus” about Iraqi soldiers taking babies out of incubators and leaving them to die on a hospital floor. The story was widely circulated in the US media until some journalists found out Nayirah was in fact the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador and no independent confirmation of the story existed. In fact, the whole thing was a hoax which had been put together by media consultants for the Kuwaiti government, to incite public opinion against Iraq.
The wariness of easy stories which should underlie the practice of a responsible free press is well illustrated by a correction to a photograph caption which appeared in the book “A Moral Reckoning” by Daniel Goldhagen. Writing about the Catholic church’s questionable relationships with the Nazis, Goldhagen’s carelessness with source material and fact-checking led to this rebuke from the books editor of the Weekly Standard: “[t]he caption ... identifies a photo as “Cardinal Michael Faulhaber marches between rows of SA men at a Nazi rally in Munich.” Leave aside the fact that the man in the picture isn’t the Bavarian bishop Faulhaber but the papal nuncio Cesare Orsenigo, also the fact that the city isn’t Munich, but Berlin; and the fact that it isn’t a Nazi rally but a May Day parade for labor; and the fact that the nuncio, as ex-officio dean of the diplomatic corps, was required to attend dozens of such functions a month; and the fact that the year was 1934, which was somewhat early for Goldhagen’s point.
Leaving all that aside, it’s the slander of Faulhaber that is particularly obscene. The Nazis hated Faulhaber, as he hated them (1934 was one of the years, for instance, in which they tried to have him assassinated). Even the Encyclopedia Britannica describes the man as a hero of resistance to Hitler.
Couldn’t Goldhagen look anything up?” When someone is willing, and able, to parse fifteen words in a book so carefully, they are entitled to make judgments.
In countries with a developed free press, facts are checked and errors quickly exposed and admitted to by journalists who take their work seriously. Quality media earn the trust of the readers. When we accept a lower standard, we open the door to chimeras like a terrorist sniper, baby-killing Iraqis and Nazi-friendly clergy. We surrender a cultural responsibility to the truth.