Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Bernstein: 'Best obtainable version of truth'

Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters who broke the Watergate story during the 1970s, has a definition that I've liked ever since I first came across it in our copyediting textbook, Modern News Editing by Mark Ludwig and Gene Gilmore (5th ed. Ames, Iowa: Blackwell, 2005). Journalism, according to Bernstein, is "the best obtainable version of the truth" (231). Ludwig and Gilmore add it's "an acknowledgement that the full truth is hard to grab hold of and may shift over time as more facts are revealed."

Turns out Bernstein has been saying it for years. Especially after he and fellow Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward were portrayed in the Hollywood movie "All the President's Men" (1976), Bernstein has been a fixture on the rubber-chicken dinner and lecture circuit. And he gives this definition of journalism to audience after audience. Usually he says it's being undermined by celebrity news and cost-cutting in U.S. newsrooms.

It makes sense to me. I think it makes sense to a lot of people who have covered the news, and who know from the experience how elusive the truth can be. I like it because it doesn't promise too much. It doesn't promise The Truth with a capital "T."

"Truth is the word that summarizes many journalistic ideas," say Ludwig and Gilmore. "But what, philosopy has always asked, is Truth? Working newsmen and newswomen know what truth means on the job and don't worry too much about the big picture, so far as they can discover and portray it." The best obtainable version, in other words, of truth.

Ironically, Bernstein credits Woodward with the phrase. When the two were interviewed by Larry King of CNN, they said:
... it -- but it -- it -- you know, and our concern is that -- and Carl makes this point, and it's a critical one, that the business of this kind of journalism, trying to get to the bottom of something complicated, hidden, scandalous, or important decisions by people who have lots of power, involves lots of sources. Not one source, not 10, but dozens or even hundreds.

BERNSTEIN: You know, Bob said right after Watergate, that really, what this story was about, like all reporting, or good reporting, is the best obtainable version of the truth. And that phrase has always stuck with me about what real reporting is. When we did "All the President's Men," it turned out unintentionally it was maybe a primer on the basic kind of police reporting and slogging and knocking on doors.
They went on from there, on Larry King Live. But for me the best obtainable version of truth has something to do with "the basic kind of police reporting and slogging and knocking on doors."

In seeking the best obtainable truth, Ludwig and Gilmore look for several things.

The most important is accuracy. "Newsrooms rightly develop a fixation on accuracy about names and addresses. But reporters must be at least as careful about accurate quotation, or about the accuracy of the impression that results from the way facts are put together."

Almost as important is objectivity. Ludwig and Gilmore cite the conventional wisdom: "Reporters should keep themselves out of the story, and editors should see that they do."

Closely related to accuracy and objectivity is fairness. Ludwig and Gilmore have a simple standard for editors: "They treat everybody alike."

Bernstein's rubber-chicken dinner speech, as he gave it Sept. 26, 1998, at the annual convention of the Radio and Television News Directors Association, is available on line. In it he says:
The truth is often complex, very complex. “The best obtainable version of the truth” is partly about context and this is perhaps the greatest single failing of our journalism in media today. For too much of it is utterly without context. Facts by themselves are not necessarily the truth. Thus the gossip press, the tabloids, too much of what we see on the air, even when the facts are somewhat straight, they are often a form of misinformation, because their aim is to shock, to titillate, to distort, to give grotesque emphasis.
How did journalists in the good old days -- which happen to coincide with Bernstein's reporting days -- find the best obtainable version? Bernstein suggests they looked for "thoroughness, for accuracy, for context." Hard to do, he adds, when an "idiot culture" demands 24/7 coverage of celebrities and political foodfights:
The hunger for gossip and trash and simple answers to tough questions in our culture today is ravenous and the interest in real truth, hard, difficult, complex truth, that requires hard work, digging, reporting, is waning In America our political system, and I think we are seeing it now, has been failing and with its failure we have been witnessing as well a breakdown of the comity and the community and the civility, that has traditionally allowed our political discourse to evolve. The advent of the talk show nation, not just on radio, but on television especially, with its standards of the grotesque and people screaming mindlessly at each other on the air is part of this breakdown.
Does Bernstein overdo his critique? Probably. But does he have a point there? Probably. His speech has been covered by the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and the Daily Texan, student paper at the University of Texas in Austin, among others.

No comments: