Truth in journalism

In a report exemplifying the kind of journalism-as-stenography in which David Sanger specializes, comes this observation about the pressures under which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper now operates — thanks to Edward Snowden:

The continuing revelations have posed a particular challenge to Mr. Clapper, a retired Air Force general and longtime intelligence expert, who has made no secret of his dislike for testifying in public. Critics have charged that he deliberately misled Congress and the public last year when asked if the intelligence agencies collected information on domestic communications. He was forced by the Snowden revelations to correct his statements, and he has been somewhat more careful in his testimony.

“Critics have charged” that Clapper perjured himself in Congress, but as studiously impartial journalists, Sanger (and his colleague Eric Schmitt) are incapable of making any determination on that matter.

This is really pseudo-impartiality since by avoiding using the word lied and framing this as a “charge” from “critics” the reporters are insinuating that Clapper might have merely made a mistake. Indeed, to say that he has since been more “careful” in his testimony suggests that his earlier statements were careless.

Seven members of Congress who in December called for a Justice Department investigation of Clapper, were not suffering from the same affliction which makes Times reporters mealy-mouthed so often. They called Clapper’s words by their real name: a willful lie.

Director Clapper has served his country with distinction, and we have no doubt he believed he was acting in its best interest. Nevertheless, the law is clear. He was asked a question and he was obligated to answer it truthfully. He could have declined to answer. He could have offered to answer in a classified setting. He could have corrected himself immediately following the hearing. He did none of these things despite advance warning that the question was coming.

The country’s interests are best served when its leaders deal truthfully with its citizens. The mutual sense of good faith it fosters permits compromise and concessions in those cases that warrant it. Director Clapper’s willful lie under oath fuels the unhealthy cynicism and distrust that citizens feel toward their government and undermines Congress’s ability to perform its Constitutional function.

There are differences of opinion about the propriety of the NSA’s data collection programs. There can be no disagreement, however, on the basic premise that congressional witnesses must answer truthfully.

A willingness to align oneself with those in positions of power is the explicit price of access for journalists who cherish their ability to communicate with senior officials, yet Jane Mayer describes how little such access can be worth:

Not long after coming to Washington in 1984 to cover the Reagan White House for The Wall Street Journal, I learned that Reagan’s embattled national security adviser was about to resign. I quickly went to see him and asked him about this point-blank, and with warm brown eyes that kind of looked like a trustworthy Labrador retriever, he looked across the desk at me and told me that he had absolutely no plans to resign.

I may be telescoping this in memory, but as I remember it, the very next day after I had shelved my story, they announced his resignation and I was stunned. Government officials lie. They lie to reporters boldly and straight-faced. It taught me that access is overrated. Never forget that the relationship between reporters and the subjects in power that we cover is, by necessity, one that is adversarial and sometimes full of distrust and opposition.

True. But I would argue that whether a journalist is aligned or in an adversarial relationship with power is an issue that can itself become a distraction.

What counts more than anything is a commitment to truth.

Such a commitment neither presupposes a trust or distrust of power. It is not in awe of power either positively or negatively. It recognizes that those perceived as the most important people in this world are never as grand as the positions they occupy.

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