Top of the Month: The ‘News’ Is the News

January 30, 2015

by Craig Ladwig

The news this last week was that we don’t know what news is.

There were some in the Pence administration who thought news might be the pronouncements of their own bureaucracy. And the Indianapolis Star thought it might be boosterish speculation about deflated footballs. Both were wrong; the Pence administration at least admitted it by week’s end.

Indeed, if the overly enthusiastic creators of the now defunct government newspaper JustIN could have stepped back from the pressure of the political life for a moment, their idea would not have made sense even to them. News must be honest and predictive to have value, a simple but elegant idea to which we will return in a moment. Bureaucracies and political groupings are anything but honest and predictive, as those of us who have toiled within the bellies of those beasts are especially aware.

“However well intentioned, after thorough review of the preliminary planning and careful consideration of the concerns expressed, I am writing you to inform you that I have made a decision to terminate development of the JustIN website immediately,” Gov. Mike Pence announced.

Oh, if the editors of the Star were as forthright. They, unlike gubernatorial staff, aren’t paid for their socio-political enthusiasms and have no excuse. They are carriers of a century-old journalism tradition (although lately they are practitioners of a pale variant). They should know what news is. They should be able to differentiate it from wild guessing and self-fulfilling analysis.

There was a case in point a few days ago. Before anyone knew anything more than that some official had declared some footballs unofficial, Star columnist Matt Tully made the leap to ethical doom. “Can you imagine being the parent of a football-obsessed child in New England this week?” he wrote in a pique even as physicists were beginning experiments that would raise doubts about his conspiracy theories. “There you’d be, surely hoping that your son or daughter has learned or is learning about right and wrong and about playing fair, and then watching them see the team they love going to the biggest game in the world after cheating in the game that got them there.”

Strong words from a man sitting at a desk staring out the window desperate for tomorrow’s column idea. His was cheap emoting — advocacy, not journalism. Nobody would pay for it. Star subscribers or advertisers weren’t helped to understand the arcana of sports-equipment management or the science of the “ideal gas law,” let alone the strategy of one of the most exciting Super Bowls.

So where is journalism’s value? Bob Bartley, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, answered the question in various essays winding up his career. Bartley imagined that the first journalist was a caveman sitting around the fire, the one who could most accurately scratch in the dirt the game trails for the next day’s hunt. He may have been allowed a ration of nuts or berries in appreciation.

Objectivity, then, is more critical than consensus, be it consensus within the Pence administration or the Star newsroom. If editors are again to be trusted arbiters of the public discussion, they must base their careers on something more than zeal for their own ideas. They must re-master the basics of the craft — sorting, sifting, verifying, remembering.

“The opinion of the press corps tends toward consensus because of an astonishing uniformity of viewpoint. Certain types of people want to become journalists, and they carry certain political and cultural opinions,” Bartley wrote in another essay. “This self-selection is hardened by peer-group pressure. No conspiracy is necessary; journalists quite spontaneously think alike. The problem comes because this group-think is by now divorced from the thoughts and attitudes of readers.”

Bartley’s central point was that journalism — news, that is — must serve a readership and a nation by trying to be honest and predictive, not by being in political or cultural synchrony. And to be honest and predictive, the news must be assembled by independent minds rather than shills and flacks.

That was the expectation of those who granted us great privilege under the First Amendment. The real news this week was that Governor Pence reaffirmed its principles, and the Indianapolis Star did not.

Craig Ladwig, formerly an aide to a U.S. senator, is editor of The Indiana Policy Review and a veteran of 50 years in journalism, including editorships at the Kansas City Star and Knight-Ridder News, Inc.

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