Thursday, August 18, 2011

A journalist does his job...for once

I don't want to give this too much oxygen - I have a bigger point to make - but as you may have heard, Christine O'Donnell walked out of an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan because he asked her a question about something that's in her book. Since, however, this blog is not to my knowledge read by thousands of people, I'll indulge a bit.

I don't care what Christine O'Donnell does; as far as I'm concerned, she's Sarah Palin with even less policy knowledge. (If you watch the video carefully, she even delivers a Caribou Barbie wink.) However, it's telling that she's able to get away with calling Morgan "rude" for pressing her on a point she's made again and again in the various (unsuccessful) political campaigns she's conducted. What's telling is not that such a claim is unusual, but that it's completely usual.

I think what we're seeing is an example of how the role of a journalist has changed in the last forty years, and a review of the basics is clearly needed. A journalist's goal is not, I repeat, not, objectivity. The goal of a journalist is to get to the truth. Period. If one political party's line is closer to the truth than the other's, it's the journalist's job to call that out. It is most decidedly not the job of a journalist to engage in false equivalency, in which every story has two sides that are equally credible and well supported, and, gosh-darn it, there is just no way to choose between them.

Here's an example. Creationists (or intelligent design proponents, if you prefer) believe that evolution is unsupported by the evidence, and that irreducible complexity is a compelling argument in their favor. Scientists know, and can empirically demonstrate, that evolution is so well supported that it's just not reasonable to doubt it. A bad journalist interviews a creationist and a biologist, gives each equal column space, then throws up his hands and concludes that there is just no way to tell. A good journalist interviews the same people, then she checks the facts, looks at the history of the theory, talks to some other scientists, and reports that the biologist is pretty much correct. She treats everyone involved fairly, but excusing anyone from the truth is not fairness; it's cowardice.

So was Piers Morgan rude? No, but if he had been, so what? In these days of powder-puff, ideologically biased media outlets like Fox News we could use more rudeness and less cowardice from our journalists. A nation was never hurt by a lack of courtesy, but a lack of courage can be deadly.