Journalism and Humility (Marvin Olasky)
The author of this monograph, Marvin Olasky is editor-in-chief of World, a national news magazine from a biblical perspective. He is considered the father of compassionate conservatism and was an informal advisor to Texas Gov. George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign. Olasky has been a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin since 1983 and is a senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. His writings have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, and many other newspapers. He has written 20 books, including a journalism text for Christian colleges entitled Telling the Truth. Born into a Russian Jewish family, Olasky received an A.B. from Yale University in 1971 and a Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan in 1976. He has taught for the World Journalism Institute.
By Marvin Olasky
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:3-7).
Put the two words “journalistic humility” into the Lexis-Nexis electronic retrieval system. Ask for all articles over the past year that include the term. Here’s the reply message: “No documents were found for your search. You should edit your search and try again.”
A generation or two ago the reportorial ethic came as close to emphasizing humility as it ever has. A California friend of mine remembers that at The Orange County Register she enjoyed being “a fly on the wall,” listening to a variety of views and then presenting them fairly rather than imposing or even insinuating her own. Columnists (like liberal Supreme Court justices) could flaunt their opinions, but reporters were to be strict constructors of stories and avoid legislating from their notepads.
This was journalism still based on statements of faith such as “The Journalist’s Creed,” written by Walter Williams, Dean of the University of Missouri’s Journalism School from 1908 to 1935. The creed states that “the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public.” Williams called for reporting that “fears God and honors man . . . self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers.”
It’s hard to tell how many reporters followed that creed, let alone the Apostles’ Creed. Movies throughout the 20th century tended to emphasize journalistic cynicism and rudeness, but some reporters—particularly Christians like McCandlish Phillips of The New York Times—saw themselves as public servants, not puppet masters.
The chasm between modern mainstream media and Christianity now seems immense. Last month Mark McGuire of the Albany Times Union wrote that the gorge was inevitable because of “the conflict between religious faith and journalistic skepticism.” He offered the hoary journalistic joke, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” He concluded that reporters can’t take anything on faith, while Christianity is built on faith, so never the twain shall meet.
That analysis is provocative but flawed for one main reason: A major theme of the Bible is its repeated declaration that If your heavenly Father says He loves you, check it out. Why else would Luke stress at the beginning of his Gospel that he relied on eyewitnesses, that he had “followed all things closely for some time,” and that his goal was to offer the recipient of his letter, Theophilus, “certainty concerning the things you have been taught”?
Why else are we instructed in Psalm 107 to “give thanks to the Lord, for He is good”? The psalm explains how God delivered from distress those who “wandered in desert wastes,” those who “sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,” those who “went down to the sea in ships” and, amid storms, “reeled and staggered like drunken men.” The psalm gives the experience of deliverance that millions have had, and concludes, “Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things.”
That appeal not for blind faith but for attending to the lessons of experience emerges throughout the Bible. For example, we can continue thumbing through Psalms and note 116:1, “I love the Lord, because He has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.” Or Psalm 118:5, “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free.” Or Psalm 119:65, “You have dealt well with Your servant, O Lord, according to Your word.”
The Bible also offers the evidence from Israel’s history to explain why we should have faith in God. In Joshua 24:7 God tells the Israelites, “Your eyes saw what I did in Egypt.” In Acts 7:36 Stephen tells of how Moses showed God’s power by “performing wonders and signs” not only in Egypt but “at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for 40 years.”
Yet, what of the famous words in John 20:28? Jesus asked the apostle who became known as Doubting Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Those sentences are sometimes taken, out of context, as signifying that faith and evidence are opposed.
The context is important. The other 11 disciples have told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas was doubtful because he did not trust the eyewitness evidence that others provided, and it’s in this sense that those who believe without seeing for themselves are blessed: They are not so self-centered or solipsistic that they refuse to accept the testimony of anyone other than themselves.
Journalists also must rely heavily on what others say—and what reporter will not go to press when 10 people say the same thing, even if he has not seen it himself? Doubting Thomas, despite the name, is not a model for journalists: He’s the model for a reporter who will always be scooped.
I could go on, but it’s evident that the Bible does not favor blind faith. Instead, the Bible regularly appeals to personal experience, just as journalists do. The canyon between Christianity and today’s mainstream journalism is large, but it does not have an evidentiary river running through it.
What, then, is the central difference? I’d suggest that the real difference is humility, and the real problem journalism faces is arrogance. That’s particularly worth contemplating at Christmastime because we’re celebrating the ultimate in humility, God lowering Himself to man’s level so as to free us and fit us for life with Him.
JOURNALISM AS A RELIGION
What happened to the fly-on-the-wall, humble journalism that did exist in some newsrooms (and may still be present at some smaller newspapers)? Several realizations and trends undermined it. One was that journalists often were not present when key events occurred, and they often could not be flies on the walls in the closed rooms within which decisions were made. Reporters thus had to rely on what Doubting Thomas found inadequate: eyewitness reports and the testimony of others.
One difference, though, is that the eyewitnesses doubted by Thomas had a unanimous testimony, but reporters today garner conflicting descriptions and interpretations. Journalists need investigative time to cut through the chatter and find out what the fly would have seen and heard. That takes brains, heart, and time. The lazy or rushed way out, which over time became the norm, has been to quote person A’s and person B’s account of what transpired, balancing various subjective views in the oft-vain hope that objective truth would emerge.
Meanwhile, 20th-century intellectual trends were undercutting the philosophical foundation on which journalistic objectivity was based, so that by century’s end professors would regularly house the words “objective truth” within ironic quotation marks. That started in the 1920s, when Freudianism swept into American colleges and suggested that we might think and act as we do because of childhood events of which our conscious minds are unaware. In the 1930s Marxism became hot, and with it came the notion that what we believe to be objectively real depends on our class background.
By the 1950s and 1960s existentialists were putting subjectivity on a pedestal, and what was called “The New Journalism” emerged, filled with idiosyncratic ways of seeing and writing that in the hands of a few led to brilliant prose, but in the typewriters of most ended up in self-indulgent self-celebration that was as far from humility as Tom Wolfe was from the literary sheep who tried to follow his example.
Toward the end of the century postmodernism was attacking the sense that objective reality even exists. In the face of such con-fusion the confidence that a journalist could be objective gave way to expressions of defeat, even despair. Two months ago Doug McGill, who worked on The New York Times and other publications for 27 years and has now gone independent, wrote in an essay titled The Fading Mystique of an Objective Press, “It’s a matter of routine that reporters feel or know they are being lied to. Yet they take the quotes and pass them on, unchallenged. And they rationalize this essentially corrupt practice.”
“Corrupt” is a strong word, but that’s what many journalists think of the reporting practice originally intended to yield humility. Other journalists are merely confused. Mr. McGill writes, “We think of objectivity as meaning neutral. But also balanced. Impartial. Nonpartisan. Accurate. Verified. Fair. Factual. Unemotional. Detached. Scientific. Reasoned. Unbiased. Each of these definitions implies a very different essential quality or ideal, any two of which may be mutually exclusive. For example, a news report could be factual but unbalanced; or accurate but biased; or neutral but also unfair.”
With all these dueling definitions, publications and sometimes individual reporters pick and choose which to use at any specific time. Pity the reporter who decides to be neutral about cancer or the Holocaust, and searches for someone who considers cancer a good thing or says the Holocaust never happened. On most newspapers reporters also avoid neutrality regarding individuals the newsroom sees as social cancer, such as Christians who criticize abortion or homosexuality.
Before 1960 newspapers typically portrayed abortion as evil. For a brief period during the 1960s they offered “balanced” abortion coverage; then they typically became pro-abortion. Press coverage of homosexuality (once considered deviant behavior) changed rapidly in the 1980s, with journalists both before and after calling their reporting objective. Should positive coverage of something the Bible views as wrong be called “objective”? Should even neutral stories about clearly sinful activity receive that label? Is “objectivity” based on shifting social mores a house built on sand?
It’s easy to raise more questions of this sort, but—regardless of the theoretical issues—current practice makes one big change apparent: Mainstream journalists generally consider “fly on the wall” humility less important than nailing to the wall the hides of those considered reactionary. In that sense American journalism is slowly becoming European, with newspapers revealing a clear ideological base.
I saw the beginnings of this firsthand while serving my journalistic apprenticeship at The Boston Globe in 1970-1971 and in 1973, at a time when the Globe was transitioning from a reporting staff of sometimes cynical but often humble old-timers to a brigade of liberal or radical Ivy Leaguers. By 1973 I was a hardcore Marxist full of myself, and had no trouble getting into the Globe stories that insinuated my views of class warfare and capitalistic corruption. News and feature editors encouraged me, as long as my doctrines were not so explicit as to scare typical subscribers.
“Humility” would not have described me or my fellow new Globe reporters. They and I still insisted publicly that we were “objective,” but privately we agreed that we would give all sides what we felt they deserved, with we the reporters serving as judges and sometimes executioners. I was witnessing the beginnings of what Jay Rosen wrote about early this year in an aptly titled article published by New York University, “Journalism is itself a religion.”
Mr. Rosen describes “the priesthood of the journalism profession in the United States, especially those at top news organizations in New York and Washington.” He raises good questions: “How does this elite group create and maintain its authority over what counts as serious journalism? . . . What are the god terms and faith objects in journalism, and how are they derived? . . . What lessons do journalists at the top of the pyramid preach to others in the news tribe?”
Mr. Rosen describes the “high church in journalism, with high ceremonies, like the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize,” and quotes Bill Moyers’s praise of the Columbia University School of Journalism and the Columbia Journalism Review: “I think of CJR and the J-School as sort of the ‘high church’ of our craft, reminding us of the better angels of our nature and the demons, powers and principalities of power against which journalism is always wrestling.”
Demons? Former New York journalist William Proctor points out that New York Times editors condemn “the sin of religious certainty” yet have their own “set of absolute truths. [Editors are] absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals, and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right.”
I saw the beginnings of the dramatic journalistic surge to the left; Mr. Rosen and Mr. Proctor are seeing the culmination. The humility of the golden age, even if the problems of that kind of journalism are overlooked, is long gone. The question before us seems to be: Do we hold onto the shreds of “objectivity,” or do we embrace the reign of subjectivity that many journalists demand?
If we do, given the tilt of today’s mainstream media, will we be stuck with newspapers pushing leftist solutions, with talk radio and some blogs counterattacking from the right (and doing not much better at basing opinion on evidence)? In the process, what will happen to humility?
I don’t see the European model of ideological newspapers, often tied to political parties, as an improvement. That system tends to turn journalists into propagandists who must follow the party line. It also doesn’t bring us any closer to the goal of humility, unless it’s humility before political leaders or empowered ideologues. Given a choice between the ideological model and the traditional American model, I’d buy American—but is there a better way?
Robert Bartley, the late Wall Street Journal editor, wrote last year, “I think we’re coming to the end of the era of ‘objectivity’ that has dominated journalism over this time. We need to define a new ethic that lends legitimacy to opinion, honestly disclosed and disciplined by some sense of propriety.”
For Christians, what might that ethic be?
SOLA SCRIPTURA VS. “LEGANTIANS”
The humility of the “fly on the wall” approach represents a terrific ideal—but concepts of objectivity can be criticized both from secular perspectives and, at a far deeper level, from a biblical orientation. The biblical question is: Given man’s fallen nature and limited natural ability to apprehend reality accurately, can we—apart from God’s grace—truly be objective? Do claims that we can be exhibit a lack of humility?
Medieval teaching about natural law and Reformation teaching about common grace tell us that we can go part of the way to apprehending reality. Both doctrines have a biblical base in Psalm 19 (and much besides): “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
But once the glory of God is revealed by the heavens and by His coming to earth as a baby, what then? How do we glorify Him by helping more people to see God’s holiness, revealed most clearly through His compassionate communication to us, the Bible? How do we show the world that we value God’s counsel highly enough to live by it, even when it hurts, and to interpret the world in accordance with it?
To me a crucial phrase for developing intellectual humility is sola scriptura, Latin for “the Bible only.” The phrase first became widely disseminated during the Reformation, when Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others insisted that ordinary folks could read and apprehend the Bible. They taught that the Bible is perspicacious, “see-throughable,” which means that with careful Bible study almost all of it is clearly comprehensible.
They and others also explained the steps involved in careful Bible study. It’s important to ask about any Bible passage, “What does it say?” and then, “What does it mean?” In other words, we are to look first at what the passage itself says, and then examine the context and the way it fits with or against other passages, because Scripture (unlike, say, the Talmud) does not ultimately argue with itself. A key principle in the sola scriptura search for meaning is that Scripture interprets Scripture, which means that we use clearer passages to interpret murky ones, and that we don’t rest key doctrines on obscure passages or play “here a verse, there a verse.”
Furthermore, since the Bible is primarily a true story of how God saves sinners, we should not treat it as a textbook. We should distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive passages and acknowledge that in some areas, even after conscientious study, we still see through a glass darkly. Helps in this process include creeds of the early church and confessions developed by later church leaders who did careful biblical study along sola scriptura principles (for example, the Westminster and Heidelberg Confessions of Faith). Those creeds and confessions must always be checked against Scripture, but they still allow a third question—“How has the church applied a passage?”—to follow up the “What does it say?” and “What does it mean?” questions.
Sola scriptura, applied properly, helps us neither to overuse or underuse the Bible. If we overuse it by saying that the Bible says certain things that it does not say, we feed our human tendency to make up rules that purportedly will help us save ourselves, or at least allow us to think ourselves better than others. That error feeds into many others, including the legalism that has pushed many Christian students I’ve taught into animosity toward denominations of their youth.
On the other hand, if we turn areas where the Bible is clear into matters of personal interpretation, we fall into antinomianism, the belief (particularly familiar today) that we make up our own rules. Just as legalism is a plague among some conservative Christians, antinomianism is rampant among some liberal Christians.
And just as government-managed economies can fall into stagflation, a worst-of-both-worlds combination of stagnation plus inflation, some folks—call them legantians?—combine legalism and antinomianism. They demand particular moral rules that the Bible does not, but also say that it’s improper to state the biblical view of abortion or homosexuality because some Christians might read the scriptural admonitions differently. They say, “I read the Bible and decide what it says for me. No one has the right to tell me I’m wrong, and I don’t have the right to tell someone else—it’s between him and God.”
That’s not sola scriptura: that’s sola Dick or Jane or Marvin. If we accept the premise that the Bible does not have an objective meaning beyond what individuals may read into it, we cannot proclaim God’s glory in a way that consistently communicates His teaching. But if we do understand the sola scriptura principle, we have a way to bring humility back into journalism.
The “fly on the wall” school of humility emphasized the role of the journalist in giving the opinions of others rather than presenting his own. What World magazine calls “biblical objectivity” attempts to do the same: Biblical objectivity’s goal is to proclaim God’s opinion, as clearly communicated in Scripture, rather than our own subjective preferences.
In theory, if we value the sola scriptura principle with its emphasis on scriptural clarity concerning essential matters, biblical objectivity makes sense and other approaches have logical flaws. After all, if the Bible is God’s Word, can any other words trump His? Since only God knows the true, objective nature of things, doesn’t His book, the Bible, present the only completely objective and accurate view of the world? Shouldn’t our goal be to see the world as much in biblical terms as our fallen and sinful natures allow?
That understanding underlies World’s mission statement: “To report, interpret, and illustrate the news in a timely, accurate, enjoyable, and arresting fashion from a perspective committed to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.” We know that, given our human limitations, along with our fallenness and sinfulness, we can never achieve that perspective—but by following the Bible’s teachings we try to come closer than we otherwise would, showing humility before God.
That’s what we mean by biblical objectivity. We don’t merely cover all the sound and fury in the world, and then present people’s lives as tales told by idiots, signifying nothing. Nor do we cover only the good and uplifting parts of life so as to provide sugary stories. Biblical objectivity emphasizes, like Stephen’s historical speech in Acts 7, God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness. World stories over a typical month try to show how terrible man is, yet how wonderful, created in God’s image. Our articles, we hope, accurately describe the world God has made and reflect His view of how His creatures mess up and sometimes get things right.
In practice, the pursuit of biblical objectivity is filled with hazards. If we merely take our own opinions and ascribe them to God, we are moving not toward humility but toward extreme arrogance. At World we have a regular process that we hope helps us avoid that: We classify issues that arise using a shorthand derived from classification of whitewater rapids, which are rated on a scale of one to six. (A class one rapids is easy, a class six potentially fatal.)
A class one issue is one—say, adultery or homosexuality—on which the Bible takes an explicit position, so we do too. A class two involves an implicit biblical position—for example, the importance of God-centered education—so we know we’re reflecting God’s opinion, not our own, when we call for that. Certainty decreases, though, as we move through classes three, four, and five, so on such issues we are increasingly laid back, until by the time we arrive at a class six issue we are likely to report multiple sides without indicating a biblical preference.
Our goal of journalistic humility also pushes us to admit errors rapidly and work on ways to decrease them. When we goof we print corrections or let our readers take us to the woodshed, and we don’t talk back. We print in our Mailbag pro and con letters in about the ratio we receive them. We read all the letters sent to us.
We try to think through techniques to make what we do transparent. For example, we try to avoid journalistic ventriloquism, where a reporter instead of honestly presenting his own view picks an expert interviewee to say it for him. We also try to avoid sourcery, where unnamed sources spin the news their way. If we use an unnamed source, we explain why we’re doing that.
At the same time, our hope is to continue to hit hard on issues concerning which the Bible is clear. Good journalism emphasizes truth-telling, even when it hurts, and our goal is to tell the whole truth of how the heavens declare the glory of God but the streets proclaim the sinfulness of man. We don’t grasp God’s full glory in condescending to save us unless we understand how sinful those streets are. We thank God for His tender mercies, and plan to report in 2005 both mercy and sin.
We know that we’ll always fall short. Everyone on our staff needs both character (a commitment to hard work, honest treatment of allies and opponents, and humility) and the biblical worldview needed to apprehend reality accurately. That’s a tall order, and we are but small creatures in a great big world, singing with our readers, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’incarnate Deity, pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. Hark the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King.’”