Trust, truth and facts the bedrock of news

By Gerald V Paul

“For in an exact sense the present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis of journalism,” said Walter Lippmann, arguably the most influential American journalist in the 20th Century.

He continued, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.” Go figure.

And according to the theory of journalism? Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. Yes, truth is the first casualty of war – not Justin Trudeau, the federal opposition leader as pointed out by a mainstream columnist.

Also, Lippmann described the press as a searchlight that restlessly prowls across the expanses, never staying on any feature for very long.

But Jack Fuller, former president and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, said: “Actually, human curiosity is the searchlight. We journalists just go where it points.”

Eyesers, kindly allow me to indulge in some navel gazing. Like Lippmann, I – as a former public or civil servant – was recruited to serve as press secretary at a government ministerial level during a dictatorship regime, dishing out propaganda. Yes, there came a point where enough, was enough. Lippmann enthusiastically accepted an appointment as the U.S. representative on the Inter-Allied Propaganda Board.

And when Lippmann came to the realization that the then-government had whipped up war support through jingoism? It was thanks but no thanks … you know, you can take this job and …

He submitted a blistering report in 1918 on how the committee manipulated news to foster national hysteria.

So what’s new/s?

Sidney Blumenthal, author and journalist, revealed the book Liberty and the News, first published in 1920, is being reissued by Princeton University Press and its insights into the “error, illusion and misinterpretation” in wartime of the “news-structure” remain as fresh as ever.

Lippmann was the original and the most prescient analyst of the modern media. In The Liberty and the News, Public Opinion and The Phantom Public, Lippmann deconstructed the distortions and lies of government propaganda eagerly transmitted by a jingoist press corps, with a false reality.

According to Blumenthal, “Everywhere today,” Lippmann wrote in the Liberty and the News, “men are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school had prepared them to understand. Increasingly they know that they cannot understand them if the facts are not available; and they are wondering whether by consent is an unregulated private enterprise.”

As informed readers and media practitioners in Canada and the Caribbean know, Lippmann is prophetic. Let’s give him our rapt attention: “Just as the most poisonous form of disorder is the mob incited from high places, the most immoral act the immorality of a government, so the most destructive form of the untruth is sophistry and propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news.

“The news columns are common carriers. When those who control them arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable. Public opinion is blockaded. For when a people can no longer confidently repair ‘to the best foundations for their information,’ then anyone’s guess and anyone’s rumour, each man’s hope and each man’s whim become the basis of government.

“All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. No one can manage anything on pap. Neither can a people.”

Gerald V. Paul
Gerald V. Paul