Columnists can't let ideology trump facts

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The reporter's constant challenge to separate facts from point of view -- or, more specifically, the failure to meet that challenge -- was on display Tuesday night for all the nation to see, but to have caught it, you had to have watched more than one national news broadcast.

Both ABC and CBS led their programs with stories on the barbaric killings of Pfc. Thomas Tucker and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca in Iraq last week. Mr. Tucker's family released a statement saying they were devastated by his death but grateful for the support of so many people.

One significant sentence was aired in full on the CBS Evening News: "Tom has gained a much larger family through this ordeal than he had when he left home to go help to free the Iraqi people and protect his country from the threat of terrorism." The sentence straightforwardly expresses the Tucker family's view of the war's purpose and, therefore, the noble meaning of their son's death.

ABC, however, aired a story on how the two soldiers' deaths might affect public opinion on the war. "Even here in this military town"-- Ft. Campbell, Ky. -- "you can hear doubts now about the sacrifice," the reporter said, "and it is that heartfelt concern that prompted Private Tucker's grieving family to say in a statement today that they realize, 'Tom has gained a much larger family through this ordeal than he had when he left home.'"

The rest of the sentence was missing -- the part that stated this particular military family's lack of doubt about their very real sacrifice. It's hard to miss the fact that including it would have refuted the very point the story aimed to make. This misrepresentation of the truth might reasonably cause one to question how trustworthy the rest of the story is and whether, for that matter, its central premise stands up to scrutiny: Are expressions of "heartfelt concern" truly the same as "doubts about the sacrifice"?

When a news consumer's critical examination of a story leads too often to such negative assessment, he's likely to conclude that a reporter went looking for evidence to fit his theory -- an utter failure of the job's primary challenge. A similar pitfall awaits columnists, depending on the subject matter, and despite the fact that we are paid to express our opinions.

Although having a coherent viewpoint is central to a columnist's work, the serious reader needs to see the writer's viewpoint tested against and shaped by the facts -- to see her struggling with the world as it is, not struggling to make it conform to her viewpoint. That's a tricky balance, in writing as in life. And just as the unexamined life isn't worth living, the unexamined newspaper isn't worth reading.

After Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death two weeks ago, I wrote about noticing that previously loud anti-war Web sites and correspondents that kept up a constant barrage of e-mails were suddenly silent when an opportunity to praise American troops was at hand. Were the ones I'd been hearing from a representative of this mostly left-wing movement? I went looking online, but because I used the name "al-Zarqawi" to search, rather than just "Zarqawi," my results on one Web site were skewed. I had to at least consider whether I had missed a relevant stream of commentary because I wanted to.

My initiation into making distinctions between fact and viewpoint occurred in 1976, when Gerald Ford was in the White House and the head of the Missouri teachers' union was my civics teacher. In one lecture, Ms. Behnke commented what a travesty it was that, during this bicentennial year, the man leading the country hadn't even been elected to the presidency.

Hoping to impress others, I repeated this superior insight at the family dinner table. My father replied, "It's not a travesty, but a wonderful affirmation that our Constitution works. Not one, but two unworthy men have been shamed out of office, and we've elevated an elected representative to assume the responsibility they betrayed -- all without bloodshed or the dissolution of the republic."

Rarely are the facts so easily established and the choice of viewpoint so stark, especially in our times, with a technology-fed flood of information and disinformation. Disentangling the truth from personal or political agendas has always been a sober undertaking -- ultimately impossible, perhaps, but always necessary. The need to re-embrace this undertaking has never been more urgent.


Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1733.


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