Lester Holt, longtime NBC News anchor, is one of many once-respected newsmen who appears to have sold out to editorial pressures. He recently gave voice to something many journalists, editors, news anchors, and talk show hosts have believed for at least the last ten years or so – and perhaps for very much longer than that. On March 30, while accepting an award at the 45th Murrow Symposium, Holt admitted that he believes reporters should decide for themselves – and presumably for their audience – what is true and what is fact, and then quite simply disregard everything else.
Is Holt implying that journalists do not have a duty to search for the truth? Yes, that is exactly what he’s saying. After all, the truth – of anything – is not always obvious. Oftentimes the truth can only be clearly discerned by questioning, by doubting, by cross-examining. Sometimes, facts can only be established by searching for the existence of alternative facts.
No Duty to Question?
This is precisely why people suspected of committing crimes are tried before they are convicted. This is how scientific discoveries are made. This is why we now know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than the opposite; something that was once considered “fact.”
Journalists should follow a different model, according to Holt. He is, in essence, claiming that confirmation bias should be the gold standard in journalism; that reporters and correspondents should not be lending credibility to anything that would appear to cast doubt on what they have already decided is true.
For those not familiar with the term, confirmation bias is the disregarding of any information, statements, or opinions that do not support one’s beliefs, while searching out only that which supports the position one has already chosen to take. Most people are, to a certain extent, guilty of confirmation bias. Politicians and journalists are probably the ones who suffer the most from this affliction.
“I think it’s become clear that fairness is overrated,” Holt said before going on to elaborate. “The idea that we should always give two sides equal weight and merit does not reflect the world we find ourselves in.”
That’s just fine, so long as one side of an issue is absolutely beyond question. In such a case, the anchor would be correct; what has “fairness” got to do with anything when the indisputable truth has been established? Is it worth giving someone a platform to deny that truth, just to be “fair”? As Holt himself put it: “That the sun sets in the west is a fact. Any contrary view does not deserve our time or attention.”
Where the argument falls apart, though, is determining what is true – what is factually accurate – and what is not. There is a discovery process involved, here, that gets us to the point of ascertaining the truth and the facts. During that discovery process, alternative accounts of what happened and who said what must be considered.
Holt is arguing that this discovery process is not just unnecessary, but bad journalistic practice. He contends that he and his media colleagues are – and should be – the arbiters of truth; and once they have decided what is the truth they have a duty to exclude any information that appears to cast doubt – silence anyone who claims that the truth, as accepted, is not really the truth.
As an example, the establishment media is outraged by the “fact” that Georgia’s new election law prohibits anyone from providing water to people standing in line at a polling place. If Holt’s argument is to be applied to this story, then no newspaper, website, or TV news channel should allow any time or column inches to anyone who disputes this supposedly established fact. Yet, the Georgia law explicitly allows for the provision of water to people who are lining up to vote; it is not permitted to approach someone in line, but water can be given to the polling staff who can then distribute it to those who need it.
There are just too many cases to list of newspapers, websites, and even cable or broadcast news shows having to retract a story or issue an apology for airing or publishing claims that were factually inaccurate, misleading, or deceptive. In some cases, journalists, hosts, or editors have been fired for such transgressions. Numerous reports of highly consequential events have relied upon “anonymous sources” that turned out to be unreliable or, in some cases, perhaps entirely fictional.
Holt is conflating “fairness” with accountability; suggesting that news organizations need not allow themselves to be questioned or doubted, once they have decided what is “true.” Clearly – and recent history has shown this to be the case, time and time again – the media, with few exceptions, have not proven themselves to be responsible enough or honest enough to be afforded immunity from cross-examination, which is what Holt is demanding.
Read more from Graham J. Noble.