[OPINION] Of tweets, goosebumps, Tootsie Rolls, and journalistic distance
The New York Times’ Lauren Wolfe’s tweet came crashing down the runway as United States President Joe Biden’s plane landed at Joint Base Andrews recently.
“Biden landing at Joint Base Andrews now. I have chills,” tweeted Wolfe. According to a PhilSTAR L!fe report, one I stumbled on before morning coffee, Biden decided to ditch Air Force One by using “his own plane.”
And for that, Wolfe, the Times’ “Live” section editor, got fired.
Prior to my retrenchment due to the pandemic, I sat for 11 years as editor-in-chief of the oldest, longest-running political and literary magazine in the country.
Would I have made the same call for reasons of “journalistic integrity”?
The times demand that we take sides, that we rally behind the facts and the closures they form.
Before I answer that, allow me some reminiscing. A little over 30 years of writing experience, 15 years as a journalist, 11 of which as chief of the newsroom, taught me many a crazy thing.
Among others, that neutrality and objectivity are much too far removed from each other that their DNA would fail to identify them as siblings, let alone twins.
Neutrality refers mainly to the attitude of the individual, a kind of fence-sitting Humpty Dumpty had become famous for. We all how that ended.
Journalistic objectivity, on the other hand, refers to the mental approach journalists take behind the process of amassing evidence, paper trails, eye-witness accounts, and the like.
When done fairly well, inclusive of the overarching context necessary to arrive at a veritable conclusion—best defined as a provable fact, or in more logical terms, a truth—the same fact or truth is, by all standards, the biased kind.
Say for example, if in a corruption case the journalist stumbles on solid, irrefutable evidence linking an official to stolen loot, it is safe to arrive at the conclusion that this particular official is guilty of graft and corruption.
That has nothing at all to do with being “anti-government.” It has everything to do with the facts of the case.
Truth or fact is never anything but “biased,” if by bias you mean predisposed to end at a certain, extremely specific conclusion. Wanting to arrive at the facts—the one and only predisposition allowed—lies in the search for evidence.
Through the centuries, the word bias (first used in the mid-16th century to mean “oblique” or slanting towards something) has suffered the foible of being unfair, subjective, even prejudiced. Journalistic bias is a different creature altogether.
As for Wolfe’s tweet, I see nothing particularly wrong or jarring in it. As a journalist, her coverage of the Trump presidency had given her a front-row seat to what was going on.
I would probably do the same, that is, post an extremely biased Facebook post should I have the happy occasion of seeing an incompetent, infantile head of state replaced by a new and hopefully not-your-run-of-the-mill brat.
Maybe even throw a drunken soiree and post photos of the same all over Instagram, screaming good riddance while sloshed in my favorite bourbon.
Tyranny, or any display of amateurish, lying and violent rulership is not a matter of scholarly or even journalistic debate. It is not a theme for objective reportage to splash over the front page without the scalpel of context and evidence cutting it down to its raw malevolent intentions.
We’re required to grab that bull by the horns and wrestle it down to the ground. We don't simply boot erring officials out of office, we haul their little Tootsie Rolls into prison. I'd really be happy to see that and, if I'm editor at the time, even publish it. Forget Twitter.
I have always insisted in my lectures on Journalism Ethics that journalistic integrity must include the use of objective processes that do away with neutrality. To come to a rock-solid conclusion is crucial to any attempt at shaping relevant and trustworthy reportage.
The times demand that we take sides, that we rally behind the facts and the closures they form. The traditional “He said, She said” presentation of the news works only to empower oppressors. Besides, I find it unnecessary to remind people that Wolfe is human.
To be on the wrong side of history, to fence-sit on the wall of indifference and call it journalistic integrity, is not as simple as making a bad choice for which you can apologize later; it’s an effing nightmare. Ask dear old Humpty.
Wolfe’s “I have chills” may have forced the hands of her editors not to renew her contract with the New York Times. If I were her editor, I would more likely reward her with an all-expense paid trip to the Bahamas for 30 days, with a $100,000 “do-with-it-as-you-please” pocket money. This goes with the expectation that she’ll return packed with stories.
It’s the least I can do for a colleague who shares my sentiments. Biased? You can bet your sweet Tootsie Rolls on it.