A Newspaper Should be Divided Into Four Sections: Truths, Probabilities, Possibilities, Lies—Thomas Jefferson

John Osborne of the New Republic.

In a February 3 post, Raymond Price laid out his “Dirty Dozen” complaints about the press. Price had been a New York Herald Tribune reporter and editorial writer; he then became President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter and his complaints about the press were drawn from his 1977 book, With Nixon. Here, also from the Washingtonian book excerpt, he praises John Osborne of the New Republic for being what a journalist should be.

Thomas Jefferson once facetiously suggested that a newspaper should be divided into four sections: (1) truths, (2) probabilities, (3) possibilities, and (4) lies. Without going quite that far, newsmen could—and should—go much further than they ordinarily do in identifying their degree of certainty in what they write. A few, but only a very few, do that. The competitive pressures of the news business all push them in the direction of pretending that what they report is the “real, inside story,” even when it may be only rumor, gossip, or speculation.

One of the few who do resist these pressures is John Osborne, White House correspondent for the New Republic. Osborne was one of Nixon’s severest critics. But he retained exceptionally good sources at the White House because he retained the respect of his sources.

Osborne is a man of rigorous intellectual integrity and great personal decency. More to the point, he is a “professional’s professional” as a newsman. Taking a leaf from Jefferson, he meticulously separates what he knows from what he surmises, and leads the reader through the degrees of probability in what he reports. While presenting both fact and opinion, he distinguishes between the two. He tries scrupulously to be fair. When he discovers later that something he reported in a previous column was wrong, he makes point of reporting the discovery. In short, he makes it possible to disagree entirely with his conclusions, while still entirely respecting both the process by which he reaches those conclusions and the manner in which he presents them.

His work is not error free—no reporting could be—but he never tries to con the reader, he never pretends to a greater authority than he has, he announces his biases and attempts to discount for them, and he corrects his mistakes. Moreover, he was one of the relatively few reporters with whom I felt free to discuss a complex problem confident that some one phrase would not be lifted out of context to smear or distort.

Price then goes on to quote Henry Fairlie, another journalist, about what is this thing we call news:

Even those old-fashioned journalists who still believe that the function of news is to present the facts have to depend on their own subjective judgments, Henry Fairlie wrote a year ago in the Washington Post:

“News is not what has happened—it is not ‘the way it is,’ as Walter Cronkite says—it is an account of what a few people, journalists like myself, think has happened. Out of what we think has happened, we select and elaborate; and we provide each day what is called the news.

“This is our job: to make the news up. That may sound like a shocking confession; it is, in fact, the only honorable description of journalism. We are engaged in ‘making up’ stories about the little we know what has gone on in the world in the near past.”

Price, focused back in the 1970s on how television was changing journalism, concluded:

In the news, all is hyped. Reporters are made or broken, publications live or die, ratings are gained or lost, by the ability to command attention. One of the fiercest—and least reported—contests in the nation is the contest among network reporters to get their own stories, and therefore themselves, on the evening news. The way to get on is to make the story seem dramatic. For a journalist, it becomes very easy to persuade himself that a story achieves nothing unless it grabs the reader or the viewer, and therefore hyping the lead is a service to essential truth even if not to literal truth.


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