Facts Versus Free Comment

“Comment is free, but facts are sacred” was a statement of faith, a first commandment of commitment for any aspiring journalist seeking a coveted reporter’s position with the Manchester Guardian in 1921.

The edict came from the pen of Editor C.P. Scott, remembered by Alan Rusbridger in his book “News – And How to Read It.” Rusbridger served as Editor-in-Chief of Guardian News and Media from 1985 to 2015.

The Manchester Guardian is now just The Guardian, celebrating 200 years of publication and standing tall in today’s turbulent ocean of “news” swamping us in digital print. Rusbridger and the Guardian has thrown readers a lifeline. Grabbing it will not guarantee salvation from the overwhelming flood of waste washing over us threatening to choke sound reasoning – but it might help us tread water until common sense proves a lifeboat.

I am not a newcomer to the Wailing Wall where I can find excuses for my own failures to be more careful with what I write. Long time readers may remember my several pieces over the years on Bob Considine, who’s framed Newspaperman’s Prayer hung at eye level for many years over my Legislature Press Gallery desk until it was stolen. 

I can still remember the opening words: “Dear God, may I be fair. Circumstances and dumb luck have placed in my thumby paws a degree of authority which I may not fully comprehend. Let me not profane it … Give me the drive that will make me check and countercheck the facts. Guide me when, lost for want of a rudder or lead, I stumble through the jungle of speculation …”

I had hoped Rusbridger would give me more of the same home spun thoughts on how to handle the never-ending need for vigilance by reporters, especially personal opinion scribblers, to strive for Scott’s reverence for accuracy, honesty and fairness when dealing with facts. It isn’t always easy.

Rusbridger tells us “Facts are powerful. A single fact can make a story. A single fact can change society.” There are basic facts – a name, an age, an address – that are for the most part indisputable. Photographs, if verified, can confirm a claimed fact, or demolish the claim. He cites, for example, the disputed size of the crowd at President Donald Trump’s January 2017 inaugural. Aerial photographs were proof positive that the crowd was thousands short of the Trump claim.

The President left one of his army of publicists to handle the problem and Kellyanne Conway did so with a flourish. The President and the press were both right – they were just dealing with “alternative facts.”

Rusbridger quite properly noted there are no alternative facts. Just as TV mythology mistakenly records that Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday used say: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

I hesitantly recommend “News – And How to Read It” to anyone interested in an accurate, factual picture of what’s going on in our swirling media world today. There are interesting looks at interesting inside stories and occasionally, in chapters like Caveat Emptor, the blunt recommendation from Don Gilmour, journalist turned academic, to “never take it for granted that what we read, see or hear from media sources of any kind is trustworthy.” This caution applies to every scrap of information that comes our way whether from traditional news organizations, blogs, on-line videos, Facebook updates or any other source.

I prefer Considine: “Make me use my legs and eyes the better to track down and see the truth. Deafen me to the Lorelei song of rootless hearsay, rumour and the gossip of town loafers …”

Amen.

3 comments

  1. Most of us were brought up to respect the truth and were taught that it was something objective. Unfortunately, many university students today are being indoctrinated in a postmodern approach: truth is relative, there are many truths or truth is only the most persuasive argument.

    That last definition suggests a current truth is only valid until a better one comes along and it may explain the
    “overwhelming flood of waste washing over us.”

  2. I hadn’t heard of Considine’s prayer before, but I hope that whoever stole it from your legislature office is breathing deeply of its intent, because it’s difficult to know what to trust these days. I’ve been highly suspicious of The Guardian’s reporting, ever since its correspondent declared the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver to be “the worst Olympics ever” — on Day One. The NY Times has been full of itself since before Gay Talese wrote “The Kingdom and the Power” in the late 60s, and outlets like NBC have been running a continuing vendetta against Donald Trump which, regardless of its veracity, only feeds the trope that the former president is the victim of a “media-elite witch-hunt”; the BBC’s credibility is taking a hit for the subterfuge involved in Martin Bashir’s interview with Diana, Princess of Wales … who, really, is following the Considine Prayer?

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