In the past few weeks, some of the more interesting things I’ve heard have come from my friends. One talked to me about the devastating earthquake in Haiti and how one of the world’s most prominent international-relief charities thoroughly squandered the money that it received from donors. Another spoke about a scam widely perpetrated by affluent high school kids who have figured out how to get tons of extra time on their SATs by pretending to have some sort of “learning disability.” I was also informed about how one of our nation’s top colleges is similarly pretending to have a diverse student body when, in fact, it has simply figured out how to stock up on white kids with the temerity to call themselves “Native American,” even though they may have few if any Native American ancestors.
I’d love to know how much truth there is to these statements. And I’d really love for our society-at-large to be informed, assuming these statements are accurate. Because I trust my sources, I suspect there is plenty of truth in those rumors that ought to be revealed. But most likely, the facts here will remain buried. That’s because we have now reached the point in our society where the relevance of investigative reporting has hit rock bottom.
Oh, the rumor mills are churning out pulp like never before. Yet for someone like me, that provides little sustenance. I’m not satisfied with allegations, I want demonstrated facts. I want to read articles from respected, impartial news sources that have been meticulously researched and that quote credible witnesses or documents. Unsubstantiated talk is cheap – and it hardly is worthy of the term “journalism.”
Perhaps I personally shoulder some of the blame. Every week, I enter this quadrant of cyberspace and pump out my thoughts to hither and yon. The question needs to be asked: what gives me the right to spew opinions – let alone “facts” – concerning world affairs, domestic politics, and other Empathic Rationalist staples when I work as a full-time lawyer and part time author and interfaith activist? Please allow me to state the obvious: I am no journalist. I don’t take the personal risks that journalists take, I don’t take the time to serve as an investigative reporter, and I don’t have credible sources in the halls of power who talk to me when they wish to reveal the truth to the world.
Fortunately for my soul, however, I don’t hold myself out to be a journalist. Never have. But lately, while watching TV news, reading the newspaper, or clicking onto the major on-line news sites, I’ve been bombarded with blather from “journalists” who don’t seem to have much more of a claim to that moniker than I do. Perhaps that should be expected from cable news. What is far more disturbing, though, is the weakening of investigative journalism in the newspapers. Unless we’re talking about unearthing the latest foray into the never-ending feud between Democrats and Republicans, neither my daily New York Times nor my daily Washington Post uncovers the kind of dark facts about our world that educated citizens need to understand. For that matter, if some intrepid journalist did write an analysis on a topic that fell outside the domain of politically-partisan bickering, we can be sure that it would be relegated to page 13 of the newspaper and perhaps 30 seconds on CNN. Not even MSNBC or Fox News would cover it.
It is difficult to overestimate the consequences of the death of investigative journalism. Let’s just mention a few. First, we can no longer expect to be a society of scientists, historians or philosophers who are driven by facts. Instead, we will find it easier to be a society of herd animals, driven by opinions and perspectives that happen to agree with our own (and our fellow partisans). Stated differently, if we did approach our media outlets with honest-to-God curiosity about learning truths, we’d rapidly realize that this curiosity would never be sated. As a result, we gratify what we’re able to gratify -- the urge to get even more pissed off at the politicians or political parties that we already opposed when we picked up the newspaper or turned on the TV. Second, even though we live in a world in which certain critical facts must be comprehended if we hope to make responsible decisions as voters or consumers (the likely effects of climate change come immediately to mind), we are condemned not to learn these facts. As a result, we will tend to screw up when it comes time to enter the ballot box, head to the department store, support a charity, or choose a college. Third, we will tend not to fall in love with journalism or scholarship but rather with entertainment, rhetoric, bullshit ... and those who peddle it. In fact, because those peddlers get rich and famous doing what seemingly anyone without much discernable talent could do, that only helps us to relate to and appreciate them even more.
Spinoza once wrote that “[A]ll happiness or unhappiness depends solely on the quality of the object to which we are bound by love.” When a citizenry is informed by investigative journalism, that beloved is the “objective truth” – or at least as objective a truth as we human beings are capable of attaining. By contrast, when a citizenry is informed by bloggers, talking heads, and tendentious reporters, our greatest beloved becomes our own pre-determined world view ... and the closed mind that emerges from it.
As our President would say, “Sad.”