Victor Argo
Last updated: 9 November, 2012

“Good journalism starts with being humble – about the fact that there is no such thing as truth”

An article in Foreign Policy magazine a couple of weeks ago caught my eye: Terry Anderson explained why the world still needed war correspondents. Anderson was writing about Austin Tice, the freelance journalist recently kidnapped in Syria, and the dangers of the trade in general when going to a war zone.

Terry Anderson? A familiar figure among historians of the Lebanese civil war; a journalist most famous for a long period when he didn’t write a single word. Terry Anderson had been the AP’s Beirut bureau chief for two years when he was abducted by armed militias in Ain al-Mreisseh, west Beirut on March 16, 1985. He spent six years and nine months being held as a hostage by a group answering to the name of Islamic Jihad.

One point particularly struck me when reading Anderson’s article: “war correspondents are here to find and tell the truth, as best as they can.” He grew up in America, Anderson went on, where freedom of speech and the free flow of information makes the democracy work. Where the proper way to fight wrong is with truth and honesty.

Truth. A short word, a big word. Democracy, honesty: my cynical me gets wary when reading these words. I went to the internet and searched for truth. “Truth is most often used to mean in accord with fact or reality,” I found, “or in fidelity to an original, or to a standard or an ideal.” Whose ideals? Whose standards? Anderson’s? America’s? The Syrians’ standards? Or Tice’s very own personal ideals?

My digging for truth continued. “Truth is a matter of accurately copying objective reality“, I read, “and then representing it in thoughts, words and symbols.”

“Objective” is a word I have stopped using.

“Truth is constructed by social processes, is historically and culturally specific and is in part shaped through the power struggles within a community.“

Better! Truth is a construction of the strong.

I stopped at Alfred North Whitehead and his “there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that play the devil.“ I reached my final destination with French philosopher Jean Baudrillard who considers truth to be largely simulated, pretending to have something where it has not.

Examples, Baudrillard?

“Prisons simulate the truth that society is free; scandals simulate that corruption is corrected“ – and here it comes: “Disney simulates that the U.S. itself are an adult place.“

Ha! My cynical me liked the last one best. Everything’s great in America! It’s great to be a kid in America. Objective reality is replaced by subjective distortions.

Which truth is Anderson looking for? Does he, do journalists, recognize the different cultures, the different political systems that shape the different perceptions of a subjective reality? Do they search for (Western style) democracy when they should be looking for legitimacy of power?

Ali Hashem and other journalists quit Al Jazeera this spring because the truth imposed on them by the editors in Qatar was different to what they saw in the field. Amber Lyon, an award winning American journalist, fought with CNN because the folks in Atlanta wouldn’t broadcast her report on the background and the manifestations of the popular protests in Bahrain.

Journalists operate within a complex framework of interests. Their interest to investigate is countered by the political interests of their governments. The commercial interests of their employers are encouraged by cheques and balances of lobby groups who want a different story to be told.

Good journalism starts with the truth – about the many guidelines the journalist is restricted by. Good journalism starts with being humble – about the fact that there is no such thing as truth. Or as Richard Feynman, the physicist, put it: “we never are definitely right, we can only be sure we are wrong.“ Let’s start with this. It would be more than enough. Right, Terry?