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Journalism and Truth

Jack Lessenberry

Happy New Year!  Since Michigan Radio graciously allows me to express my opinions, I thought I’d start by asserting the holidays were a very nice break, but that they didn’t last long enough. Well, that may be the least controversial thing I’ve said in a while.

We are in a new year, about to have a new administration in Washington, and I thought I might start it out by talking about the nature of journalism and what I try to do.

I was moved to do this partly by a post on Facebook, a few days ago, in which a kind person whom I don’t know personally wrote simply, “Thank you for being a journalist.”

Other people expressed similar thoughts, but someone also posted that I might be a professor and a writer, but that I wasn’t really a journalist because I constantly expressed opinions, and that I wasn’t “objective.”

Well, that’s an interesting criticism, and deserves a response, and I also think that listeners and readers deserve to know where I am coming from. Many people think of me as a “liberal,” whatever that means these days. My view is that words like “liberal” and “conservative” are too often a substitute for thinking, both on the part of those throwing them around and on the part of people, especially politicians, who define themselves by labels.

My own model for what I try to do was best expressed by someone who saw himself as on the right: the late William Safire, a longtime columnist for the New York Times, who called what he did “opinionated reporting,” with the accent on reporting.

He began with a point of view, but followed the facts where they led him, which often caused him to make enemies on both sides, as when he concluded that he could not support the first President Bush because he thought he wasn’t being truthful about the Iran-Contra scandal.

I admired that. My personal journalistic models include first of all George Orwell, whose  essays emphasize common sense and honesty, and I share the creed of the irreverent H.L. Mencken, who said he believed that it was better to be informed than ignorant. What I seek to do most of all is to give people information and perhaps a different framework for looking at issues.

What pleases me most is when people tell me they’ve heard or read me and then thought “wow, I didn’t know that. I need to think about this some more.”

I do have certain fundamental beliefs, which include the notion that this nation must see to it that everyone has the right to a decent education, and that we all suffer when this doesn’t happen. I think that everyone deserves a chance at a decent life, and that we need government to do things like maintain the roads and infrastructure for the common good, including private enterprise. Most of all I believe in facts, and that both journalists and politicians should try to avoid spreading horse exhaust, or getting stuck in some perverse mood.

We are living in an era when truth itself is often ignored. I think I have a duty to oppose that, and I am grateful to anyone who seriously considers what I have to say.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Senior news analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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