David Von Drehle: “Journalists should ask questions—not think that they have all the answers”

From a Washington Post column by David Von Drehle headlined “Journalists should ask questions—not think that they have all the answers”:

Among media critics (and who, after all, is not a media critic — there is so much to criticize), one sees a dangerous trend. Reporters are increasingly urged to be definitive, to call out “liars” and defend “science” and hurl all sorts of Zeus-like thunderbolts adjudicating the Truth. This is a terrible idea.

I’ve spent my adult life around reporters. I’m married to one; I count others among my best friends. Indeed, I have lived for 60 years inside the skin of one. I find reporters to be congenial and amusing company, on the whole. Some are inspirational. I’ve never met one who knows everything or is right all the time.

What makes a good reporter is not knowledge. It’s the hunger for knowledge: curiosity, open-mindedness, independence and a willingness to think anew. The good reporter wakes up each day ready to be surprised, ready to see a new thing, or an old thing cast in a new light.

This leads to a corollary observation: Generally, the more reporters know about a subject, the more open-minded they become. A veteran baseball writer can explain why Henry Aaron was a better hitter than Stan Musial and also why Musial was better than Aaron — all while understanding that the question itself, while fun to think about, does not admit of a correct answer.

Likewise, a knowledgeable reporter on the climate change beat is one who understands that computer models of future climate involve a lot of guesswork, that the role of greenhouse gases in day-to-day weather events is not as simple as cause and effect, and that the mixture of technological advance and behavioral change necessary to zero out carbon emissions is far more complicated than voting yes for one bill over another.

Political reporters — and I say this with love — rarely know much of anything. Few of us have ever run for office. We are almost never “in the room where it happens,” as Lin Manuel-Miranda put it in his musical “Hamilton.” A political reporter on a typical day is something like a music critic who (a) has no musical experience and (b) doesn’t hear the performance. Instead, we wait outside the concert hall to ask the first violinist, the conductor and the featured soloist how things transpired inside, and read poll results and tweets reflecting audience reaction.

This doesn’t make political coverage worthless, though much of it is. Politics affects lives. It is important. It bears watching. But it does mean that political journalism should be done in a spirit of humility — and the bigger the stage, the more humble the journalists should be. If the city council funds a $1 million contract to build a dog park on Juniper Street, it’s probably fair to report that folks can expect to see some happy dogs on Juniper. But if Congress appropriates $500 billion to change the way electricity is generated and consumed in the United States, we can only speculate as to the impact on atmospheric chemistry in 2050.

In my experience, a journalist who admits uncertainty and owns up to mistakes is ultimately more trusted, not less so. (Even opinion writers should be accountable to facts and alive to the unknowable.) For this reason, CNN is wrong to double down on its smug reports that vaccine-skeptic podcaster Joe Rogan treated his coronavirus with “horse dewormer.” He did not, as nearly as I can determine. Rogan’s covid-19 was treated, he said, with a number of medicines, including the anti-parasite drug ivermectin — the same medication that former president Jimmy Carter’s foundation has used to fight the scourge of river blindness in Africa and Latin America. Like many drugs, ivermectin also has veterinary applications.

So far, there isn’t a lot of evidence that ivermectin is a good anti-covid therapy, and federal agencies have warned people who hear about the drug not to consume a paste intended for livestock. But that doesn’t mean Rogan ate horse dewormer. You don’t fight disinformation with disinformation. Not if you’re a good reporter.

CNN’s pundits might not have sneered at Rogan if he had toed the line on coronavirus vaccines — even if it is a line that is underinformed and overconfident. I yield to no one in my enthusiasm for these vaccines. They are wonderfully effective, and the speed of their development was a scientific triumph. However: The vaccines are new. There are unanswered questions about long-term effectiveness and potentially unforeseen effects. And even vaccinated people keep dying — albeit at much lower rates. It’s understandable that some — such as Rogan — will air doubts. CNN shouldn’t be stigmatizing their natural skepticism.

It is not the journalist’s job to tell people what to think. The job is to question, to learn and to share those learnings — as well as their limits. In weighing the credibility of sources, we must first examine ourselves.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”

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