True blue

Senior opinion column

By
Thursday, May 26, 2005

When Brown students in 2030 sit down in the campus center with a cup of coffee and open a newspaper, what will they read? And when they open their history books and read about the first years of the new millennium, what will they think of the times we live in today? Will the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency be remembered as an aberration or as the beginning of a new era?

I know it goes against the ideal of journalistic objectivity for me to state this, but it’s also blindingly obvious: I am a Democrat – not a lesser-of-two-evils Democrat but a gung-ho partisan Democrat. And like many Democrats, I can’t help feeling apprehensive as I look toward the future.

In between two semesters of adopting a neutral perspective as an editor of The Herald, I spent the summer working in the press office of John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Inverting my relationship with journalism was an enlightening and often difficult experience. It was frustrating to read and watch news coverage that was often petty, sloppy and biased, and to wonder if we at The Herald weren’t sometimes guilty of the same offenses. And it was frustrating to put aside partisanship when I returned to Brown in the fall, writing editorials that encouraged voting but never endorsed Kerry, no matter how passionately I personally supported him.

During the months and weeks before the election, I would often wonder why I had declared my primary allegiance to journalism rather than to the Democrats and given up advocacy just when my party was most in need of support. But I came to realize that I hadn’t given up advocacy at all. As much as I wish the idea of objectivity were neutral and nonpolitical, it isn’t. The principles of a free press are very much in danger today, and when I left the Kerry campaign for The Herald, it was with a renewed commitment to fight for those principles.

It seems that reality itself is out of vogue these days – under attack both from a political movement that does not recognize the validity of empirical arguments and from a mainstream media that no longer values facts, only opinion.

The Bush administration and its allies on the right have deliberately distanced themselves from what a Bush aide, quoted in a New York Times Magazine article last fall, famously termed the “reality-based community.” The political power of radical Christian movements is one force driving this process, but the radical right’s disregard for the truth extends beyond religious matters. President Bush and his allies glibly dismiss any questions or facts they deem politically disagreeable. Bush projects an appearance of confidence and trustworthiness as he repeatedly lies and distorts the truth.

Meanwhile, television and print reporters alike have adopted a bizarrely relativistic attitude toward their duty as journalists, reporting all claims from all parties as equally valid. It’s no wonder, as CNN anchor Anderson Cooper said in his May 6 lecture here at Brown, that nothing in politics seems real anymore. The mainstream media has lost its own connection to reality, presenting critical policy debates as if they were merely fights over political capital with no relevance for anyone outside the Beltway. Cynics and Greens can be forgiven for thinking that there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans, because in today’s content-free political journalism, that’s exactly how they’re presented.

Perhaps the best articulation of this problem comes from Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt, whose essay “On Bullshit” is now a bestselling book. Bullshit artists, Frankfurt writes, are unlike liars in that they do not deliberately argue against the truth; rather, they pay no attention to the truth in the first place. Frankfurt concludes: “Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” In political debate and in the media, we are truly living in an age of bullshit. It is not that the truth is deliberately obscured but that, somehow, it has become irrelevant.

I know many people at Brown think The Herald is too critical, or that it takes itself too seriously. Perhaps they’re right. But when we’re skeptical of what an administrator tells us, when we publish news that’s true and noteworthy even if it doesn’t help Brown’s public image, when we ask uncomfortable questions, we’re not doing it because we’re out to get anyone. Striving to be objective – to find the facts even when the facts are unpleasant – is how we uphold the values of this community.

Respecting the value of the truth doesn’t just mean distinguishing between truth and fiction. It means distinguishing between fact and opinion and between reporting and public relations. And that line has to be drawn even at the local level, because when people stop appreciating the value of objective truth, all bets are off. Not only would journalism be worthless in such an environment, but so would academia.

Our generation will be called upon to address many crucial intellectual and policy questions in our lifetimes. But we cannot make wise decisions if we cannot count on having meaningful debate grounded in fact. This is why the current state of things frightens me, and it is why I think the most important challenge facing our generation is to preserve the value of reality. Whether I end up working in public service, government, journalism, or something else entirely, I hope I’ll never stop fighting against bullshit in all its forms.

Twenty-five years from now, the political environment will have changed a great deal. But when Brown students in 2030 open a newspaper, read a blog, or have bytes of news virtually transmitted to their brains, I hope they’ll still be searching for the truth and reading about matters of substance. And I hope our generation, having ascended to positions of power in media and politics, will make up for our legacy of bullshit by acting in defense of justice and in defense of truth.

Julia Zuckerman ’05 was a Herald executive editor.

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