“Five minutes for Hitler, five minutes for the Jews.”
That, according to legend – and a Facebook page for alumni of The Miami Herald – was the routine response of an ’80s-era editor whenever some hapless reporter was working overly hard to bring “balance” to a story where none should exist, where the moral high ground was clearly held by one side or the other. I don’t know who the editor was, but that riposte brims with a wisdom sorely lacking in modern news media, obsessed as they are with the fallacy of journalism without judgment.
Take as Exhibit A Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal. In a Sunday interview with Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press,” he explained why his paper declines to label Donald Trump’s manifold falsehoods as lies.
“‘Lie,’” he said, “implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.” It is better, he argued, to report a given Trump claim, juxtapose it with the facts and let the audience make up its own mind. Otherwise, he said, “you run the risk that you look like you are … not being objective.”
Besides, he added, Hillary Clinton also spoke some untruths, but media were not so quick to label her a liar.
Of course, the plain fact is that Trump is a liar – and a fantastically prodigious one at that. Baker’s preferred method of handling this would be like reporting on each individual drop of water that falls, but never mentioning the storm.
And likening Trump’s untruths to Clinton’s is like likening Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring to Zan Tabak’s. Abdul-Jabbar is the all-time leading scorer in NBA history. You’ve probably never heard of Tabak, though he also played in the NBA and, once in a while, scored a basket.
Baker’s is a mindset that has become all too common. With the obvious exception of certain partisan news outlets, some reporters, fearful of being tagged for “bias” on contentious issues, seek to safeguard themselves by ritually quoting a source from Side A and another from Side B while avoiding even painfully obvious conclusions. They call this “fair and balanced.” It’s actually gutless and dumb.
Five minutes for Hitler, five minutes for the Jews.
And then what? Five minutes for ISIS, five minutes for Charlie Hebdo?
Yes, these are outlandish examples. They are also logical extrapolations.
The plain fact is, journalism without judgment – moral judgment – cannot exist. If you doubt it, try a thought experiment. You’re a news manager on a day when the mayor is cutting the ribbon on a new hospital and there’s been a mass shooting at the mall. What’s your top story? Is it the shooting? Why? Won’t the hospital directly impact more people? If you go with the shooting, what angle will you take? What resources will you commit? What answers will you demand?
Congratulations, you just committed multiple acts of moral judgment.
Yes, news media must strive to be fair, to hold all sides to rigorous account, to offer a balanced view. But occasionally, there comes a point – subjective, but no less real for that – when pretending to moral equivalence between those sides is a lie, an act of journalistic malpractice.
In these perilous times, with authoritarianism coming to the White House and bizarre untruths infesting our national discourse, that is a sin we can ill afford. No one ever had to remind Cronkite or Murrow of the need to speak the truth when the truth was plain and the moral imperative clear. No one should have to remind this generation of journalists either.
There are two sides to every story, goes the axiom. But you know what?
Sometimes there’s only the one.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.