“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.” When Walter Cronkite read those words about the Vietnam War on the Feb. 27, 1968, broadcast of “The CBS Evening News,” President Lyndon Johnson was moved to say, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” When Cronkite died 41 years later, nearly every obituary cited the anchorman’s commentary as the one honorable exception to his scrupulous objectivity.
They got it wrong.
Cronkite, having traveled to Vietnam and seen for himself the state of the war, concluded that, “in the face of the evidence,” the projections of victory from the Pentagon and the White House were simply not true. In other words, he acted exactly as a reporter should, choosing reality over giving the benefit of the doubt to those in power.
And yet, from journalism schools to newsrooms, we still cling to what Hunter S. Thompson so rightly called the “pompous waffle” of alleged objective journalism. The most prominent recent cheerleader for this position is Wall Street Journal editor in chief Gerald Baker who, in a New Year’s Day interview on “Meet the Press,” when asked if he would be comfortable characterizing a Donald Trump statement as a lie, said, “I’d be careful about using the word ‘lie.’ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.” Attempting to cover his posterior on the Journal’s editorial page three days later, Baker attributed the condemnation of his remarks to “pearl-clutching among the journalistic elite” (i.e., real men don’t care about ethics), while going out of his way to avoid calling Trump a liar. (“For my part, it’s not because I don’t believe that Mr. Trump has said things that are untrue.” You mean, lies?).
Of course journalists should be careful about calling something a lie when the speaker is merely confused or misinformed. Cronkite did not use the word liar, but he did insist on the available evidence. Yet from small things (claiming he received a letter from the NFL raising concern about the dates of televised debates), to large (claiming he never supported the Iraq War or that millions of fraudulent ballots were cast in the November election), the evidence has shown Trump to be a habitual and unrepentant liar. When Baker says, “The word ‘lie’ conveys a moral as well as factual judgment,” he’s not wrong, but in characterizing that judgment as something to avoid, he, and by extension the objective journalism crowd, wants to believe that journalism can or should avoid judgments.
You can see the grotesque absurdity of this in things like The New York Times’ insistence on referring to waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and then “brutal interrogation techniques” but not, for years, as torture. And “balance,” that fetish that goes hand in hand with objectivity, leads to things like this Jan. 6 lead paragraph from The New York Times’ Nelson D. Schwartz: “The American economy added 156,000 jobs in December, capping the final full month of President Obama’s term on a tepid note, even as his successor, Donald J. Trump, promises that much bigger gains could be around the corner.” If journalists are now going to counter a proven accomplishment with an undocumented boast, then maybe it’s time for them to start making judgments.
Journalism that, in the face of the facts, refuses a reasonable and obvious judgment has abandoned not journalistic ethics, but common sense. Baker and all those who think his demurrals are reasonable now have a decision to make: Act as journalists or as part of the most prestigious union of stenographers the nation has ever seen.
Charles Taylor teaches writing at New York University. His book “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You” will be published in June.