Intellectual honesty

I don’t remember where I heard it first but one replacement for the discredited value of journalistic objectivity is intellectual honesty: reporting that which contradicts one’s own beliefs or hypotheses. That is the way to support one’s credibility.

Example from today’s NY Times: Dexter Filkins reports on his return to Iraq. Even as he promotes his book, The Forever War, he wonders whether the war could be over. There are plenty of caveats, as well their should be. But he also writes:

When I left Baghdad two years ago, the nation’s social fabric seemed too shredded to ever come together again. The very worst had lost its power to shock. To return now is to be jarred in the oddest way possible: by the normal, by the pleasant, even by hope. The questions are jarring, too. Is it really different now? Is this something like peace or victory? And, if so, for whom: the Americans or the Iraqis?

  • Neo

    Even Barack Obama, who opposed the Iraq troop surge, has finally acknowledged its success. But some of his fellow Democrats in Congress apparently remain unconvinced. Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin teamed up to block a vote on a bipartisan resolution “recognizing the strategic success of the troop surge in Iraq” and thanking our men and women in uniform for their efforts.

    This is naked partisanship.

  • Intellectual honesty… good phrase.

    I liken it to science. While the scientist might have a hypothesis, they first acknowledge it as a hypothesis. Then search for facts. And let the facts sway them. It then goes to peer review to ensure that they aren’t snowing themselves. If they were snowing themselves, it hurt their reputation. So they checked and checked before publishing their conclusions.

    I might be naive, but I think journalism used to work a bit like this. Reporters were… I don’t know – maybe “humble” is the right word? – to realize that they weren’t experts, that the people they interviewed might have an agenda, and that their chief mission was to search for the facts, the provable. If they put out a bad story with bad facts or if they came across as just the PR mouthpiece for someone, it hurt their reputation.

    Not any more. It’s not whether a journalist knows the facts, can prove the facts, or be swayed by the facts. It’s whether he or she agrees with the Big Clique.

    Isn’t that religion? A faith-based initiative? Let’s line up the priests and ask them if Republicans are evil/misguided…

    Intellectual honesty is good, but I’d add humility to it. In fact, I think humility leads to intellectual honesty. It’s okay to be wrong once in a while and admit it. Even human.

    Here’s an open question to journalists: What if the Dems you so admire are wrong sometimes? What if they mislead you on occasion?

    Here’s another: What if Republicans are actually – dare I say it – right about some things?

    Is that possible?

    Would you consider it? Would you change the way you pursue the truth? Would your sources change? Would your reporting?

    Or would your buddies in journalism give you a hard time for writing that “pro-Republican” piece?

    Could you work to shame the corrupt on either side of the aisle? I’ll give you two examples – please pursue both with equal vigilence: Ted Stevens (Republican earmark king) and Chris Dodd (Fannie Mae bribe taker).

    What is the principle role of the journalist? Is it to expose the truth?

    Or is it to expose the truth as long as it doesn’t embarrass the Democrats?

    How’s your intellectual honesty on that one?

  • Intellectual honesty: keeping one’s convictions in proportion to one’s valid evidence, according to Wikipeda. That’s a quality I look for in those that make or advocate policy. Although right now I’d be happy with plain old honesty. For journalists, and for anyone else, it only seems necessary if they are being advocates. Otherwise, their responsibility is to ensure intellectual honesty in every public figure, including journalists that advocate policies.

    It seems sufficient that journalists point out, or help their readers discover, intellectual dishonesty. How? By reporting the convictions held by public figures, providing a critique of their reasoning and their evidence, and pointing out those that fall short of their own lofty standards. The critique needs to be accurate, thorough, and diligent. Through self regulation this is a sufficient condition for your request, that journalists, when playing the role of advocate, themselves be intellectually honest.

    I submit, therefore, that there is an old-school definition of objectivity, which when combined with diligence in its execution, allows us to ensure intellectual honesty of all public figures, and of advocacy journalists.

    Or let me tackle this another way. Say I accept your proposal that intellectual honesty replace objectivity. Then riddle me this, by what mechanism will the public ensure that journalists are intellectually honest? Is it self-evident? Hardly, that’s why journalists are a critical part of our democracy. The answer is old-school objectivity.

  • Journalists are not a critical part of our democracy. To suggest such a thing is just wee bit overinflated.

    Now the press? Oh sure – the press is a critical part of our democracy. But then “the press” was never a class of people, but a mechanism for free speech by, well, anyone.

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