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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Memo to Journalism: "You Can't Handle The Truth"

A student in my class this week raised an interesting question: "Is the goal of journalism," he asked, "to get to the truth or is the truth always elusive?"

In probing where this was coming from, he allowed that in an English class, the professor told him that there is no truth, only the reader's perception of truth.

My response was to explain that English departments have always been centers of "deconstruction." Which, as I understand it, means that the reader and the text are always changing, because people are always changing. So re-reading Dickens means that you can never read him the same way twice.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher once stated that "You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you."

My friend Murray Horwitz, former head of NPR's cultural programming once told my class at Georgetown that journalists can never get to the truth. Only artists can. Murray was being, as usual, provocative. And effectively so. The students were upset that someone was assuming that journalists can't have a monopoly on truth-telling. Obviously Horwitz must be a descendant of that eminent Greek.

But to get back to my student at Ryerson, I thought he asked the right question. At a time when journalism is on the defensive everywhere and ideologues insist on one version of reality only (theirs), I still think that the goal of journalism must be to tell the truth. Or at least to tell a version that is as close an approximation to the truth as we can honestly provide.

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