Playing by the rules
When raising questions about journalistic practice or content, civility is crucial
“In our age,” George Orwell wrote, “there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.” Nothing has happened in the 66 years since “Politics and the English Language” was published to diminish the truth in Orwell’s words. Given the current state of discourse, perhaps paranoia and cynicism should join Orwell’s list. People seem too inclined to believe negative information — not the positive; that would make them seem naïve — and too ready to believe that everyone, particularly everyone in politics and the media, is working their own angles, completely indifferent to duty.
Skepticism is healthy; cynicism is a cancer. It requires almost nothing beyond a reptilian reflex to dismiss inconvenient facts and irritating people, to avoid consideration and thought. A natural outgrowth of cynicism that is also part of its foundation is a habit of presenting assertions as if they were facts, without offering any evidence beyond a knowing shoulder shrug. One thing that allows cynical assertions to take the place of facts in public discussions is the failure to take them seriously, to dismiss them as so outrageous and so clearly untrue that no one could believe them. Even the most ludicrous attacks require a response because some people will interpret silence as admission. Repetition and time give the color of truth to lies and the appearance of substance to fevered fantasy. That is why I am responding to someone writing as “Human Rights” who posted this response to one of my recent columns:
“Tim Thornton works for the UVA administration, and has several times turned the journalistic integrity button to the ‘off’ position when their (sic) interests are threatened. Missing person’s (sic) cases, students dropping dead on campus, and so on. He occasionally will correct an error in content or sources, but all in all he is part of the team that keeps honesty, transparency, or unbiased coverage/debates from causing too much trouble on Grounds. Like the rest of the local media, the Cav Daily and Tim Thornton will play along.”
I do not work for the University’s administration, literally or figuratively. I am a hired gun, a freelancer — a term Sir Walter Scott apparently coined to describe a medieval mercenary. The Cavalier Daily’s Managing Board employs me, which could seem to be a conflict of interest, but it is difficult to see how that appearance can be avoided. Who else would pay the paper’s ombudsman? How would that paymaster prove its lack of bias? How could The Cavalier Daily be an independent newspaper if it were forced to publish a weekly critique of the paper’s performance — a critique paid for by someone else?
The only guarantee of the integrity of this process is the integrity of the Managing Board and the integrity of the ombudsman. While I have sometimes disagreed with the board’s judgment, I have never questioned the group’s integrity. My integrity is something you are free to criticize, of course, but I have never hesitated to bite the hand that feeds me — gnaw on it, even — when the situation called for it. The idea that I help keep “honesty, transparency, or unbiased coverage/debates from causing too much trouble on Grounds” is laughable. Much of what I have written encourages writers and editors to question more, not less. Honesty and transparency are what I work for. An unbiased debate is a contradiction in terms. Debates would not happen if everyone held the same view. Truly unbiased, objective coverage is a myth. As long as humans write and edit news stories, the best those humans can do is be aware of their biases and try to minimize the effects. Honesty and fairness should be a reporter’s goals, because they are achievable.
Objectivity is not.
To say “[l]ike the rest of the local media, the Cav Daily and Tim Thornton will play along” is to show a startling lack of reason. Local media — The Cavalier Daily, Cville Weekly, The Daily Progress, cvilletomorrow, cvillenews, for-profit and public radio and television stations — sure, they are all alike.
If anyone has complaints about The Cavalier Daily’s coverage or my written reaction to it, please share them. I want the coverage to be as good and as complete as possible. If I have been unfair or insensitive or gotten something wrong, please tell me. But please do not be so lazy that you lump all local media into one pile or jump to conclusions clearly contrary to fact or affect a cynic’s pose. Every issue of The Cavalier Daily includes Thomas Jefferson’s quote: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Please join the conversation, but give those of us already in it the courtesy of a reasoned discussion.
Tim Thornton is the ombudsman for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.