Magazine | December 31, 2014, Issue

The Poetic-Truth Beat

For a number of years I worked as a metro columnist at a bustling city newspaper. For a time, my cubicle was located next to the investigation desk of the paper, where, unlike those assigned to more modest beats, reporters were allowed to take deep dives into weighty issues — often for months, even years.

This was the prestige position. The spot where reputations were made. The place where Pulitzers could be won (and almost were). More than any of those piddling advantages, though, it was the place where journalists could mete out some much-needed “justice.” And I soon noticed that nearly every angle this crack team chased down was propelled by . . . let’s call them poetic truths. Things that liberals know are true even if they can’t necessarily prove them.

In one case, the team set out to detail the existence of widespread corruption within the state’s judicial system, even though that’s not what the dearth of evidence suggested. Naturally, my neighbors turned to a time-honored tradition among journalists: They found a zealous advocacy group to do the work for them. And as my colleagues turned into stenographers, the phone conversations wafting toward my workspace began to lack any skepticism and increasingly featured pronouns journalists should never use, such as “we” and “us.” They had big plans. Once all leads had been exhausted, the story was whittled down to a single case of false identity that had been reported earlier in another paper. Still, their gut told them the system was rotten. They intimated as much in the piece. It’s what the kids call “truthiness.”

Alas, today’s journalism sounds a lot like my old cubicle.

For decades — maybe since Watergate, probably long before then — the Fourth Estate has saturated in a misguided resolve. Few people have articulated this thinking better than Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who explained at the International Press Freedom Awards that journalism should be used not only to relay facts but also as “a weapon for a higher purpose: justice.” Not only does the “best of journalism happen[] when we side with the victims, with the most vulnerable, with those who have no rights. The best of journalism happens when we, purposely, stop pretending that we are neutral and recognize that we have a moral obligation to tell truth to power.”

Actually, we should start by defining our terms. As you might guess, “power” does not mean the IRS or the EPA or some local finger-wagging school-board union lackey or the abortionist. Of course not. And a victim is not the unborn child or the preteen stuck in a failing public school or the prospective business owner wrestling with regulatory excess.

And how about telling truth, period. One of the journalist’s few moral obligations is to be a tenacious doubter of fanciful stories. And the more remarkable, beautiful, dramatic, ugly, or bias-confirming the stories are, the more a reporter should be dubious.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely at Rolling Stone was able to print what is likely a fabulist tale of a horrific rape at the University of Virginia because these genuine obligations were abandoned. How could an editor with a supposed duty to be a victims’ advocate challenge the story of a young woman who claims she was gang-raped? Her heartbreaking story must have been easy to believe. In our college “rape culture,” one out of every five women is sexually assaulted.

If that sounds a bit high, it’s undoubtedly because the number, according to the Justice Department at least, is more like 1 in every 52 college women. Still too high, of course, but a number that undercuts the idea that there’s an unprecedented and pervasive societal problem with rape. Yet, as the story was incrementally debunked, it was the debunkers who were accused of contributing to the denial of rape culture.

Poetic truths, you see, can never be invalidated. Not long ago, a well-known CNN contributor tweeted out a picture of herself and three colleagues in the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose in solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” protests. Since the Ferguson grand jury decided not to press charges against the policeman who fatally shot Michael Brown, thousands of Americans have demonstrated by raising their hands in surrender. This includes the Senate chaplain, who with hundreds of congressional staffers walked out of work and into the streets of Washington.

The evidence in the tragic Brown case does not substantiate the belief that the teen had his hands up and was shot while surrendering. Nor is there any proof that the incident was driven by racial animus. These are assumptions that metastasized into ugly truths and national demonstrations. Though there is plenty of work to do, the idea that black lives “do not matter” is an ugly accusation without much merit. How often do the media mention that there’s been a precipitous drop in violent crime in America or that shootings by cops have also fallen in the past few decades? Not often.

Around the time my colleagues were bolstering their worldview, a frustrated editor proposed that I head to the gas station and interview victims of local price-gouging and Big Oil. Prices had spiked recently. So, you know, maybe I could find some elderly ladies or a single mom — or anyone dealt an unfair hand in life. I returned with a piece defending gouging as a sensible economic safety valve and argued that fossil fuels had done more to alleviate the hardships of the poor than any government program yet invented. These, I admit, are arguable contentions. The piece, as you might imagine, was not a success with the editors or the public. I had forgotten the most vital lesson of modern journalism: The best stories happen when you side with the supposed victims. Never let a good story get bogged down by facts.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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