McClatchy Bureau Chief Attacks Compulsive Centrist Disorder

McClatchy Washington bureau chief John Walcott recently received the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence. While doing so, he called out Compulsive Centrist Disorder. Walcott's remarks:

Relying on The Times, or McClatchy or any other news source, for all the truth is dumb, but it's infinitely preferable to the pernicious philosophical notions that there is no such thing as truth, that truth is relative, or that, as some journalists seem to believe, it can be found midway between the two opposing poles of any argument.....

Does the truth lie halfway between say, slavery and abolition, or between segregation and civil rights, or between communism and democracy? If you quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Winston Churchill, in other words, must you then give equal time and credence to Hitler and Joseph Goebbels? If you write an article that's critical of John McCain, are you then obligated to devote an identical number of words to criticism of Barack Obama, and vice versa?

The idea that truth is merely a social construct, that it's subjective, in other words, first appeared in academia as a corruption of post-modernism, but it's taken root in our culture without our really realizing it or understanding its implications.

It began with liberal academics arguing, for example, that some Southwestern Indians' belief that humans are descended from a subterranean world of supernatural spirits is, as one archaeologist put it, "just as valid as archaeology." As NYU philosophy professor Paul Boghossian puts it in a wonderful little book, "Fear of Knowledge": " ... the idea that there are many equally valid ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them, has taken very deep root."

Although this kind of thinking, relativism and constructivism, started on the left, many conservatives now feel empowered by it, too, and some of them have embraced it with a vengeance on issues ranging from global warming and evolution to the war in Iraq.

"Journalists live in the reality-based world," a White House official told Ron Suskind, writing for The New York Times Magazine back in the headier days of 2004. "The world doesn't really work that way any more. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

I respectfully disagree.

The Church was wrong, and Copernicus and Galileo were right.

There is not one truth for Fox News and another for The Nation. Fair is not always balanced, and balanced is not always fair.

No matter how devoutly they may have believed their own propaganda, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were wrong about Enron, and a whole lot of very smart, very rich people were very wrong about mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps.

President Bush was wrong to think that it would be a simple matter to make Iraq the mother of all Mideast democracy.

Or, as the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said when he was asked what he thought historians might say about the First World War: "They will not say that Belgium invaded Germany."

I'm not talking here about matters of taste or of partisan politics or, heaven help us, of faith: Whether Monet or Manet was a better painter or whether Jesus was the Messiah, a prophet or a fraud. Those are personal matters, beliefs, opinions and preferences of which we all must learn to be more tolerant.

Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton, puts it this way in a marvelous little book called, "On Truth" (which is the sequel to "On Bullshit"): "It seems ever more clear to me that higher levels of civilization must depend even more heavily on a conscientious respect for the importance of honesty and clarity in reporting the facts, and on a stubborn concern for accuracy in determining what the facts are."

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I like the quote from Frankfurt - "On Bullshit" and "On Truth" are two very good essays worth reading by just about anyone.

However, I would disagree about classifying "whether Jesus was the Messiah, a prophet or a fraud" in the same category as "[w]hether Monet or Manet was a better painter." Saying Jesus was the Messiah has certain testable predictions that do not depend on opinion. Testing the prediction "Monet is a better painter" requires looking into someone's brain, and will give you different results depending on which brain you choose. Testing the prediction "Jesus was dead on Friday and wasn't on Sunday" does not similarly depend on any particular brain.

Whether or not we currently have the ability to test those predictions is questionable, but that's different from saying the question is simply a matter of opinion. Not to mention that if there's no reliable evidence that Jesus, for example, was born of a virgin, the prior probability is so ridiculously low (how many children of virgins do you know?) that to even consider the hypothesis is giving it more credit than it deserves.

Some time ago, on the subject of something not actually related, Fred Clark over at Slacktivist said something that I've been working hard to adopt as my personal motto:

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Everyone is not entitled to their own facts.

John Walcott is missing the fact that most people make little effort to distinguish between different news sources. What damages the reputation of NYT or Washington Post damages the reputation of Knight Ridder almost as much. He mentions the mainstream media delusions on Iraq and the current financial crisis, but that is, if anything, only the tip of the iceberg. With the exception of a handful of reporters, reporting on global warming was nightmarishly wrong for nearly twenty years - if not more. Reporting on ocean acidification continues to be almost non-existant. Reporting on 'alternative medicine' continues to be an ongoing disaster that contributes to the return of diseases such as measles. I could go on and on.

As the old media continues to disintegrate, we are offered the choice, not between ignorance and news, but between ignorance and delusion.