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Wisdom and objectivity

James Matthew Wilson | Friday, October 13, 2006

As a freshman in college, I heard a classmate say he did not have time to read the newspaper and so had difficulty keeping up with current events. His solution was to read the editorial page alone. This allowed him, he averred, to grasp the complexity of political happenings in short order, as if an opinion piece were the event and its interpretation at once.

This memory has remained with me as a parable charting my own ambivalence concerning the nature of journalism and its consequences for our political culture.

My classmate’s attempt to render editorial pages as Cliffs Notes for reality expressed what Cardinal Newman condemned as the “opinionatedness” of modern culture, in which having a position on every question is not only a right but a necessity. If one lacks leisure to contemplate the stakes of a given question, finding a shortcut to a firm opinion seems only practical.

Journalists, in general, are not sophisticated thinkers, and that helps in their business. If one can see through the ambiguities of an event and immediately discover the pro or con formula at its core, one would likely make a fine reporter. Never mind that this kind of “seeing through” is in truth a blindness to difficulties. Americans support or oppose the Iraq war for multiple reasons. In the world constructed by the news media these reasons are the first jetsam jettisoned and all that remains is a standardized index of favorable and unfavorable sentiments.

One may attempt to vindicate such dichotomous thinking on the grounds that the ballot box does not consider reasons but rather counts votes, and so our political discourse must pragmatically model itself on the instrument of popular suffrage. Some such conception must lie behind the practice in certain college political science courses where the students use small “clickers” to register their for/against opinion on numerous issues at each class meeting. Education in such a course does not attempt to “get behind” the practices of a democracy to explore and interpret them. Rather it seeks to assure its students that speedy “opinionatedness” goes all the way down. One understands politics as soon as one understands the necessity of having an opinion about everything.

Studies of the news media’s effect on popular opinion suggest that the press does not shape persons’ beliefs per se, but rather, frames the categories in which people think through those beliefs. The press may not sway me to support a given immigration bill, but it can and does delimit the menu of responses most people will have to it.

The deleterious effects of such categorical thinking may not result merely from the coarseness of journalists’ intellects, however. Journalists generally pursue a professional commitment to avoid “bias,” and they often try to do so outside of the greenroom of the editorial page. Their attempt, unfortunately, is constituted by a series of five “objective” tests that determine whether an article is unbiased. The most damaging of these is the test that a story must represent “both sides” of a given topic. The power to decide how a question may be asked, how a debate may be framed, is four-fifths of the terrain of politics. Choosing sides accounts for the last fraction, and is the sorry postage stamp remaining to most of us.

One should be suspicious of any series of “objective” tests that establish a piece of writing’s fairness. While the efforts of journalists to achieve “fair and balanced” news coverage are admirable, they have miscarried. This is so not because clarity and honesty are unobtainable, but because these are goals that can be obtained, as it were, only though a personal commitment to them. The attempt to free oneself of this commitment by following five – or five hundred – external tests should be an embarrassment almost as sad as the lukewarm citizen who insists he is a “good person” because he has not killed anyone, paid his taxes and stopped at every stop sign.

To be a good person, one must studiously conceive an image of what the “good life for man” looks like and harness the will to model one’s own life upon it. Strength of will is naturally important, but so is the faculty that matures as one contemplates the experiences of a lifetime, namely, wisdom.

A freshman student of my own once wrote an essay on “bias in the media” and concluded that “tests” do not fair news make. Only wisdom, the practice of honestly evaluating a question in the light of one’s accumulated experience, can result in articulate truth. If this were recognized, newspapers would probably have fewer young reporters writing copy, but they might also cultivate editorial writers who could reflect inwardly on the difficulties of a question, drawing on the integrity of their experience, rather than merely excrete an opinion pro or con at every question framed on the front page.

Before the emergence of journalism programs in America, the popular news presses tended to cater explicitly to its own partisan audience. The journalist had authority with readers because they had a priori trust in his sharing fundamental beliefs and principles with them. So long as the journalist clung to a standard of honor and honesty, the “interested” perspective of the writing testified to commitment to a certain body of wisdom. Of late, this kind of writing has reemerged in magazines like First Things, The Weekly Standard, The American Conservative and The New Republic. However much I sometimes disagree with the opinions threaded through their pages, the commitment of their writers to acknowledging the principles on which, and through which, they argue testifies to their integrity and wisdom. In contrast, the unacknowledged distortions and infuriating simplifications of The New York Times lead one to conclude that its writers may pass all the “objectivity tests” in the world and still not give us the truth.

Wisdom may seem an unreliable substitute for the “certainty” of tests that can be taught in journalism courses. But certain tests are not themselves truth and the only path to truth is full of unfortunate but inevitable byways.

James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin Research Fellow, and recalls daily George Santayana’s avowal that “It is not wisdom to be only wise.” He can be reached at jwilson5@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.