John Walcott: Truth is not subjective

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 9, 2008 

John Walcott, Washington bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, receives the first annual I. F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence.

MICHAEL TEMCHINE / NIEMAN FOUNDATION

Editor's note: John Walcott, Washington bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, delivered this speech on Oct. 7, 2008, upon accepting the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence from Bob Giles of the Nieman Foundation.

Thank you, Bob. I must say that when you told me that the Nieman Foundation had decided to make me the first recipient of this extraordinary honor, my first reaction was something between shock and surprise. In fact, I haven't been so surprised since my wife, Nancy, said, "yes" to my marriage proposal some 36 years ago. I can imagine no higher honor for anyone in our profession than to be compared to I.F. Stone. I do not believe that I deserve that honor, or that I've earned it, but I must confess that I'm grateful that someone, somewhere, for some reason, thinks that I do.

When you then told me that the price of this priceless medal was giving a speech, my second reaction was a troubling recollection of something that David Eisenhower, Richard Nixon's son-in-law, once said: "Newspaper reporters aren't as interesting as they think they are." I hope that what I have to say today isn't confirmation of that. There is confirmation enough on television.

My third reaction, when you told me that my selection was based on an anonymous nomination to a somewhat mysterious jury, was to wonder whether Dick Cheney and David Addington had somehow had a hand in it. It is, after all, at least vaguely reminiscent of the selection process for Guantanamo Bay.

That, of course, is the skeptical reporter that remains in me, even after 19 years as an editor. I'll come back to that subject in a moment, because I think it was at the heart of who I.F. Stone was, what his legacy to us is and what's been missing in American journalism in recent years, not just in the coverage of the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq, but also in our coverage of the Wall Street machinations, congressional abdications and regulatory alterations that have brought our economy and the well-being of so many Americans to the present precipice.

First, though, I want to acknowledge one obvious difference between I.F. Stone and me. Stone wrote that he was "an independent capitalist, the owner of my own enterprise, subject to neither mortgager, factor or patron ... beholden to no one but my good readers."

He wrote that in 1963, and he added that at that time, " ... young men, setting out in a career of journalism, must find their niche in some huge newspaper or magazine combine." As you can see, I'm no longer young, but that pretty much describes my career: For more than a decade, I've worked for two publicly-owned newspaper companies, Knight Ridder and McClatchy, and before that I worked for Newsweek, for The Wall Street Journal and for U.S. News & World Report.

Those associations, however, have been a blessing, not a curse, and I would like to take a moment to thank a few of the people who were foolish enough to hire me at those places and patient enough to teach me how to do my job. We would be here all day and all night if I thanked all of them, but they include the late Bob King at the Bergen Record; Mel Elfin, Henry Hubbard and Jim Doyle at Newsweek; Al Hunt, Ken Bacon and Walt Mossberg at the Journal; Mimi McLoughlin and Mike Ruby at U.S. News; Clark Hoyt, Kathleen Carroll and the late Gary Blonston at Knight Ridder; and David Westphal and Howard Weaver at McClatchy.

Stone also wrote that before he became an independent capitalist, he was "fortunate in my employers," and I feel the same way. I want to single out two remarkable CEOs for whom I've been privileged to work. Tony Ridder and Gary Pruitt have come in for a lot of criticism in recent years, but let me say this as plainly as I can: First Tony and now Gary have never been anything but supportive of the journalism that we've tried to do in the Knight Ridder and McClatchy Washington Bureaus. Not once — not one time — has either of them second-guessed our editorial decisions or our stories, even when bigger and better known news organizations were reporting the opposite. Not once has either of them bent to any political or economic pressures or let any of the heat that they've taken trickle down to us. If you've seen Buying the War, Bill Moyers' documentary on the run-up to the Iraq war, then you know that wasn't true everywhere.

I also want to take a moment to tell you why this award is a little bit embarrassing to me. It's because it rightly belongs to so many other people who worked long and hard to scrutinize the Bush administration's pronouncements about Iraq and al Qaida, about Iraq's nuclear program and about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Day-in and day-out, Jonathan Landay, Warren Strobel, Joe Galloway and their editor, Renee Schoof, pried open doors, pried loose documents and pried out the truth. We withheld Joe's byline from much of what we wrote to protect his sources, and this is the first time that any of us has talked publicly about the crucial role he played in this reporting. Sadly, he can't be here today; happily, that's because he's in Canberra at an Australian Army conference.

This award belongs to Jon, Joe, Renee and Warren at least as much as it belongs to me, maybe more, and to me it confirms the virtues of old-fashioned "beat" reporting, of getting to know the people and the issues over a long period of time, rather than hopping up some career ladder from job to job as quickly as you can. In 2001, Joe, Jon, Warren and I had a combined 84 years of experience covering foreign affairs.

It also belongs in part to a number of officials in the Bush administration, some of whose names many of you know well, some of whose names you may never know. They worked in the CIA; in the DIA; in other intelligence agencies; in the uniformed military; in the State Department, in the Defense Department, in the Energy Department and elsewhere. It may be true, as a wonderful book about I.F. Stone is titled, that "all governments lie," but it is not true that everyone in government lies.

In fact, one of the striking things about what in October 2002 we called "the Bush administration's double-time march to war in Iraq" was that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, defense secretary Rumsfeld and the others who were calling the tune ignored the advice, the dissents and the warnings of so many of the experts in their own government.

Why, in a nutshell, was our reporting different from so much other reporting? One important reason was that we sought out the dissidents, and we listened to them, instead of serving as stenographers to high-ranking officials and Iraqi exiles. I'm afraid that much the same thing may have happened on Wall Street. Power and money and celebrity, in other words, can blind you. Somehow, the idea has taken hold in Washington journalism that the value of a source is directly proportional to his or her rank, when in my experience the relationship is more often inverse.

That brings up a larger point, and one that I think is another part of what went wrong back in 2002, and what may have gone wrong on Wall Street. Instead of being members of the Fourth Estate, too many Washington reporters have been itching to move up an estate or two, to become part of the Establishment or share in the good times. I.F. Stone, on the other hand, knew well that reporters, by definition, are outsiders. After Stone died, Pat Oliphant drew a marvelous cartoon of him standing at the gates of heaven, holding a pencil and a notebook. Like all great political cartoons, it says more than words ever could. St. Peter is on the phone to a Higher Authority, and he's saying: "Yes, that I.F. Stone, Sir. He says he doesn't want to come in — he'd rather hang around out here, and keep things honest."

Being an outsider, a gadfly, a muckracker, isn’t always as much fun as being an insider, a celebrity journalist on TV and the lecture circuit. Worse, in these troubled economic times for the news media, it makes enemies, sometimes powerful ones, and it can offend readers, advertisers — and, as conditions in our business continue to worsen — potential employers in public relations and other industries.

But there were much bigger problems with the media after 9/11 than just too-cozy relationships with the wrong sources and timidity about challenging a popular president in the wake of an attack on all of us.

There was simple laziness: Much of what the Bush administration said, especially about Iraq and al Qaida, made no sense, yet very few reporters bothered to check it out. They were stenographers; they were not reporters. Ahmad Chalabi is an intelligent man, but many of the stories he spun made no sense. One of his sources, for example, was a Kurd who claimed he had the run of Saddam’s secret weapons facilities. As a test subject, perhaps. Another failed a polygraph test. Yet very few reporters checked out their stories, and too many just ran with what they were handed. Instead, they handed bullhorns to people who already had megaphones.

Some of my colleagues have cited the fact that the Democrats in Congress failed to challenge the administration on Iraq as a reason for their lapses, but the Democrats' dereliction of duty doesn't explain our own, much less excuse it.

Finally, the most highly regarded news organizations in the country, led by The New York Times and the editorial page of The Washington Post, were wrong about Iraq, and too many others simply followed them, like lemmings, over the cliff.

Nevertheless, concentration in the news business is getting worse, not better, especially when it comes to foreign and national news. Only a handful of print news organizations — The Times, the Post, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, the Associated Press and McClatchy — still maintain significant foreign news operations. The Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday have abandoned their foreign bureaus and are cutting back in Washington. So have the major television networks. Newhouse and Copley are eliminating their Washington bureaus, and Hearst and others are downsizing here.

We've reached a point, I fear, where the journalism of I.F. Stone is now very much at risk from a combination of economic, technological, political and philosophical developments. I've talked a little about the pressures on news companies to cut costs to compensate for falling revenues, and I know there are those out there who think that's fine, that the traditional "Mainstream Media" have so discredited themselves on Iraq and other issues that we should all say "good riddance" to them and turn to the blogosphere for all our news and analysis.

There are two reasons why I think that's foolish, at least for now.

The first is that the blogosphere, like cable television and talk radio, reflects the political polarization in our country today. People go to Fox News or MSNBC, to O'Reilly or Air America, to Daily Kos or to Redstate.org, to have their biases reaffirmed, not to have their assumptions challenged or unpleasant truths exposed. It's been a good business model, but I don't think that it's good journalism, and I suspect that I.F. Stone, as hard to pin down ideologically as he was, might agree.

That same political polarization, coupled with the economic weakness of the news media, has both encouraged and enabled the government, and here I mean the Bush administration, to restrict the amount of information that's available to the media, the kind of information that was such grist for I.F. Stone's mill. Some of it's been done using the time-honored "national security" excuse, but nowadays Freedom of Information requests frequently are answered either with, "It'll take us a year to find that" or "Sue us," and suing the federal government, of course, can get expensive, as the government well knows.

The second reason that I don't think that even the best blogsites are a substitute for the mainstream media is that bloggers cannot do all of the things that mainstream media companies can do, at least for now. In June, for example, we completed an investigation of the Bush administration's detainee program, which you may have read about in a piece by Tony Lewis in The New York Review of Books. I think I.F. Stone might have liked it, but it took the lead reporter, Tom Lasseter, other reporters and Travis Heying, a photographer for the Wichita Eagle, to 11 countries on three continents over the course of eight months. It's hard for bloggers, no matter how good they are, to do that kind of work.

Technology and economics, I think, have taken another toll on the kind of reporting that Stone did, the kind that we need so desperately today. Virtually every reporter today, with a few precious exceptions, has become a wire service reporter, a slave to the old UPI motto of "a deadline every minute." In the scramble to try to generate more revenue online, they've also become cameramen, soundmen, bloggers and producers. All of that producing leaves less time for digging, and worse, it leaves less time for thinking.

That brings me to may last point: Relying on The Times, or McClatchy or any other news source, for all the truth is dumb, but it's infinitely preferable to the pernicious philosophical notions that there is no such thing as truth, that truth is relative, or that, as some journalists seem to believe, it can be found midway between the two opposing poles of any argument.

My father, who's with us today, made his living designing navigational instruments for aircraft, missiles and submarines, and although my mathematical and engineering skills are, shall we say, less evident than his, I learned two important lessons from his work.

The first is that if you want to know where you are, it's helpful to know where you started. The second is a concept that's called "ground truth," which in a nutshell means checking your calculations against information collected on the ground. In other words, reporting.

I know that I'm wading into deep and muddy water here, but I'm doing so in deference, or rather, in reverence, to the fact that I.F. Stone was a scholar as well as a journalist. He taught himself ancient Greek to write about the trial of Socrates, and I still struggle with modern French, but I'll wade in nevertheless.

Does the truth lie halfway between say, slavery and abolition, or between segregation and civil rights, or between communism and democracy? If you quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Winston Churchill, in other words, must you then give equal time and credence to Hitler and Joseph Goebbels? If you write an article that's critical of John McCain, are you then obligated to devote an identical number of words to criticism of Barack Obama, and vice versa?

The idea that truth is merely a social construct, that it's subjective, in other words, first appeared in academia as a corruption of post-modernism, but it’s taken root in our culture without our really realizing it or understanding its implications.

It began with liberal academics arguing, for example, that some Southwestern Indians' belief that humans are descended from a subterranean world of supernatural spirits is, as one archaeologist put it, "just as valid as archaeology." As NYU philosophy professor Paul Boghossian puts it in a wonderful little book, "Fear of Knowledge": " ... the idea that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them, has taken very deep root."

Although this kind of thinking, relativism and constructivism, started on the left, many conservatives now feel empowered by it, too, and some of them have embraced it with a vengeance on issues ranging from global warming and evolution to the war in Iraq.

"Journalists live in the reality-based world," a White House official told Ron Suskind, writing for The New York Times Magazine back in the headier days of 2004. "The world doesn't really work that way any more. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

I respectfully disagree.

The Church was wrong, and Copernicus and Galileo were right.

There is not one truth for Fox News and another for The Nation. Fair is not always balanced, and balanced is not always fair.

No matter how devoutly they may have believed their own propaganda, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were wrong about Enron, and a whole lot of very smart, very rich people were very wrong about mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps.

President Bush was wrong to think that it would be a simple matter to make Iraq the mother of all Mideast democracy.

Or, as the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said when he was asked what he thought historians might say about the First World War: "They will not say that Belgium invaded Germany."

I'm not talking here about matters of taste or of partisan politics or, heaven help us, of faith: Whether Monet or Manet was a better painter or whether Jesus was the Messiah, a prophet or a fraud. Those are personal matters, beliefs, opinions and preferences of which we all must learn to be more tolerant.

Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton, puts it this way in a marvelous little book called, "On Truth" (which is the sequel to "On Bullshit"): "It seems ever more clear to me that higher levels of civilization must depend even more heavily on a conscientious respect for the importance of honesty and clarity in reporting the facts, and on a stubborn concern for accuracy in determining what the facts are."

That is what I.F. Stone always sought to do, and I think it's what journalists should always strive to do. If, in the short run, doing so seems costly, I think we've all seen, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now on Wall Street and on Main Street, that the costs of not doing so are far greater.

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