Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell the difference.
“Now, class,” said professor Howard Bashford, “today let us examine an example of the kind of journalism I hope you all will practice after you graduate from this august university.
The famed pedagogue was, of course, referring to Crawford Notch University in New Hampshire, where he holds the prestigious folding chair in journalistic studies.
“We’ll concentrate on the opening paragraphs of this work, from the McClatchy News Service,” Bashford continued. “There’s no point in going deep into the text, as most newspaper consumers only read the top four or five column inches of any story. Let me put it on the screen.”
The professor turned on an overhead projector, and the screen filled with these words:
“WASHINGTON – Even though their key charges have been refuted – some by their own members – House Republicans announced Friday they’ll seek to form a select committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, trying anew to reap political gains in advance of this year’s congressional elections and the 2016 presidential contest.”
Bashford stood silent for a moment, as though feasting his eyes on the work.
“Magnificent,” he said under his breath.
At last he addressed the students, “In the opening paragraph, note how cleverly the writer starts with a negation and ends with an explanation.
“This is what modern reporters – gifted with clairvoyance – are supposed to do. That is, explain for their benighted readers not only ‘what it all means’ but also their subjects’ motivation. As you know, most citizens are just too stupid to analyze the facts for themselves and might not recognize what the vicious radical right is trying to accomplish.”
He put up another slide with another paragraph from the story: “‘You create a special committee if you want a bigger spotlight on a subject, which is more 2014-2016-related,’ said Norman Ornstein, a resident political scholar at the center-right American Enterprise Institute.”
Said Bashford, “See how the writers carefully assure the reader that the American Enterprise Institute is ‘center-right,’ according to his judgment. And why shouldn’t they? After all, journalists are experts at explaining where organizations lie along the political spectrum. He also gives his assessment credibility by pointing out that the source is a ‘scholar.’
“File this away in your memory banks, students. All journalists must know how to season their writing with loaded words.”
A final slide from the story was the paragraph saying, “Many of the original charges that blamed the White House for the deaths have never held up. But Republicans ramped up their efforts this week with the emergence of new e-mails that they have labeled a ‘smoking gun.’”
“Note the reporters’ assertion that Benghazi ‘charges’ ‘have never held up,’” Bashford said. “This is wonderful journalism! It states as fact matters still in controversy, relieving the reader of the necessity of deciding the matter for himself.”
In the back of the class a student tentatively raised his hand.
“Yes?” said Bashford, turning toward the young scholar.
“Professor, I read somewhere that reporters should strive to be objective,” said the student. “Isn’t this writing the opposite of that?”
“Obviously,” said the professor, suppressing a sneer, “you’re reading outdated books, probably something from the 1960s. The latest thinking is that so-called objectivity is impossible, because we all have our own opinions.
“Keeping our own opinions out of our reporting is so difficult as to be impossible, so it isn’t worth the effort. We just try to be fair.”
The student persisted, asking, “Well then, who is to decide what is fair?”
Bashford now was exasperated. “It’s as simple as A-B-C,” he said tartly. “You ask yourself, ‘Am I being fair?’ and if your answer is ‘yes,’ then you are being fair.
“Of course, you have to put the question into context. You might ask yourself, ‘Am I being fair to this right-wing nut case who is trying unjustly to besmirch the noble efforts of President Obama – or Hillary Clinton?’
“This would be a reasonable context, and you would answer ‘yes’ because it is very difficult to be unfair to a right-wing nut case.”
“So, it’s up to me?” asked the student.
“Exactly,” said Bashford. “You soon will be a professional journalist, highly trained by expert practitioners such as myself. If newspaper readers can’t trust your judgment and fairness, who can they trust?”
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