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David Danbom, Published May 08 2011

Danbom: Truth loses in barstool journalism

Americans of all political stripes were understandably elated to learn of Osama bin Laden’s death last Sunday night. He masterminded the deadliest terror attack ever on the United States, indirectly brought us into two wars, and dramatically reshaped our sense of ourselves and of the world. He was an evil person, and his demise was a good thing.

If the patrons of a downtown bar visited by Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki are representative, most Fargoans agreed that bin Laden’s death was a good thing. Most, but not all.

One of Nowatzki’s interviewees, a cook at a downtown grill, opined that bin Laden’s death meant nothing, that the president’s announcement of the death was “grandstanding,” and, most remarkably, that bin Laden “wasn’t responsible for 9/11.”

Nowatzki chose not to press this cook on the source of his startling assertions, or to interrogate ideas that must seem bizarre to most people. Instead, he just treated them as another set of opinions, no better or worse than the other opinions he recorded in his story.

In letting this craziness pass, Nowatzki was not violating contemporary journalistic standards. Indeed, he was exemplifying them. And therein lies the problem.

My mother was a journalist, and a darned good one. She was the first woman to be appointed a bureau chief for International News Service, and those positions did not come to hacks and timeservers. She always said that the job of a journalist was to determine the truth and tell it, and that involved getting at the facts. Public opinion had a place in the newspaper, on the letters-to-the-editor page or in the “Man on the Street” column, but the basic job of the press was to determine truth and share it with readers.

As it is practiced today, journalism is less and less about assembling facts and determining truth than it is about passively exposing diverse opinions. If most people agree bin Laden was behind 9/11, find some guy who disagrees. If you quote someone who believes President Barack Obama was born here, be sure to quote some guy who says he wasn’t. If you do a piece on the roundness of the Earth, save a place for the nut who says it’s flat.

Journalists and, alas, journalism professors will tell you that this is how they strive for “balance” or “objectivity.” They will argue that they are giving readers alternatives, while subtly suggesting that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, or, worse, that there is no truth.

But this is simply rationalization for timid and lazy journalism. Some things are true and some things are false, and you don’t serve the public by balancing the two.

When the Founders guaranteed freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights, they did so because they knew a free society needed journalists who would discover the true and expose the false. They didn’t expect that journalists would use their freedom to give citizens what they could get by sitting on a barstool in downtown Fargo.

Danbom, a contributor to The Forum’s commentary page, is a retired university professor of history.