Thursday, April 19, 2012

When truth is merely relative

Trib's Facts ‘obit’ highlights huge dilemma

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
The eloquently written obituary admired a lifetime of achievement that ultimately was doomed to fail in a modern culture which appears to value the loudest, most insistent voices over mere details such as fact or truth.

The obituary published online Thursday was written by Chicago Tribune reporter Rex W. Huppke about the life and times of Facts, 360 B.C.-A.D. 2012.

The impetus for Huppke’s sad report was the claim by U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House are communists. That, Huppke writes, was the fatal blow to Facts.

His satirical lament for the death of Facts is all too familiar and well-worth reading. Many journalists have been lamenting what appears to be the nation’s loss of interest in truth, which all too frequently is being replaced with point of view, or opinion, no matter how outrageous or how much that viewpoint disregards Facts and truth.

I suppose part of the reason for the decline is related to the resurgence of moral relativism in the 20th century. In essence, moral relativism holds that there are no moral or ethical absolutes, that truth is subject to interpretation. In other words, what is morally or ethically true for you may not be so for me, because truth, or fact, is based on interpretation, and interpretation is colored by the individual’s perceptions through the lens of life experiences.

The conclusion? All opinions are equally valid and should be tolerated
That is a precious sentiment in a nation that holds dear the right to freedom of expression, but it also is a deadly threat to Facts, to truth, as can be seen readily in our nation’s partisan bickering. Each party claims to hold THE truth in terms of leading the nation, yet each party twists, maims and dismembers Facts to “prove” its own truth. Yet, if truth be told, each party is wholly without a clue in regard to Facts and truth, because each is morally corrupt and rudderless.

But I digress.

The relevance of this to journalism has been growing for decades but has been becoming abundantly clear in the past 15 years. If the decline in newspaper readership and the increasing popularity of politically biased “news” providers and bloggers more interested in selling viewpoint than truth is any indication, then readers today are more inclined to shop for information sources that validate their own world view, regardless of Facts or truth.

I find that disturbing, to say the least, as someone who has dedicated most of his adult life to a career that puts such a high value on truth and objectivity. But the implications are alarming for a newspaper industry that is struggling to find its footing — and a new business model — in the digital world.

News organizations are businesses, after all, and some like Fox and MSNBC already have found success in promoting a partisan view that appeals to their viewers.

But the price is high — disregard for what constitutes Facts, loosely defining truth and absolute scorn for objectivity guts the standards to which journalism, generally, aspires.

Some would argue, rightly, that no one can be truly objective because everyone has a world view, and that, therefore, journalism is incapable of objectivity. Certainly not every journalist succeeds every time in setting aside his or her personal viewpoint while reporting a story. But that is the goal, and in the past, editors have been there at several different levels to ensure that goal is met.

But it certainly is a goal whose standard has become more difficult to reach. That’s largely because the layoffs which have shaken the industry to its core, particularly since 2007, .have removed a layer of experienced editing as cuts were made to newspaper copy and design desks. Combine those cuts with increased workloads and you have a recipe for system failure — not at one, but at most newspaper companies.

It could worsen, particularly if journalism as a business guides itself toward models like Fox and MSNBC, where Facts and truth take a back seat to viewpoint.

But then perhaps we will have to live with that. If, as Huppke points out, Facts is dead, then truth can’t be far behind.

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