Journalism is the first draft of history. On the printed page, on radio and TV are seized -- then frozen in time -- indelible images of the human drama. Lucid and hard-nosed renderings should discourage revisionists from tampering with fact. Alas, many see fact as calumny, reality as disgrace, and truth as scandal. For those whose only loyalty is to the truth, it’s a lonely world.
Used with discretion, the Internet -- an addictive would-be populist databank, is a wellspring of information. It can also be a cesspool of lies, gossip, partisan humbug and propaganda crafted not to enlighten but to skew reality -- or bury it -- in the pursuit of mischief or ideology. In its most decadent application, it has become a forum where imbeciles, scoffers and know-it-alls grant themselves the right to orate. Free speech, which does not include the obligation to tell the truth, has encouraged the dissemination of hair-raising falsehoods so subtly packaged as to render them alluringly plausible. Unrelated and irrelevant facts are elegantly woven to erect impressive but improbable monuments to absurdity. More often, the ideas purveyors of “revealed knowledge” put forward, the “facts” they present, the fears they inspire are so outlandish that they end up in the vast and ghostly realm of conspiracy theories.
Journalists face yet another challenge -- the distortions of uninformed amateur pundits who preach from ignorance, who miss the point; who take things out of context and who, all else failing, strike back by arguing that baring inconvenient facts in the defense of truth is tantamount to sedition. It is this degenerate sense of values that emboldens real journalists to keep the emperor naked for all to see.
To the enemies of truth, journalists make an especially appetizing quarry. If our accounts lack focus or detail, we’re dismissed as frivolous hacks. If our revelations are graphic, cheeky or too close for comfort, we're accused of needlessly giving readers palpitations. No matter what we say, we’re sure to be reviled by someone along the way.
Mercifully, some readers seek to be informed, not patronized. They possess the mental elasticity to assess a point of view on its merits. It is to them that scrupulous journalists devote their columns. Other readers see conspiracy in the truth. Others yet are so jarred by the message that they want it suppressed, obliterated, reduced to ashes -- along with the messenger.
Not all journalists rush in where angels fear to tread. Some are daunted by the truth. Others skirt it altogether. Political correctness -- the sacrifice of truth at the altar of hypocrisy -- they believe, keeps readers happy.
Despite claims to the contrary journalists do not get paid to generate solutions for the problems they unearth. Our job is to observe, chronicle and report the dynamics that cause or aggravate these problems -- not solve them.
The great frustration journalists experience is not with the carping of dogmatists and know-nothings but with the cowardice and perfidy of an audience that chooses to remain silent out of fear, political expediency or ideological sloth, or that engage in crypto-fascist babble designed to portray incorruptible and outspoken journalists as gadflies and muckrakers, busybodies, purveyors of social discontent, and blabbermouths who threaten the established order.
Being a whiner, a spoil-sport, a killjoy, a curmudgeon, as I have been called by some readers, has one notable advantage: Unlike myth peddlers and bearers of glad tidings, whiners are heard. Gripes get more attention than eulogies. Which is why journalism continues to be a perilous occupation.
For years I thought that one way of erring on the side of justice was to side unerringly with the victims of injustice -- the vanquished, the dispersed, the humiliated, the persecuted, the voiceless and the forgotten. Behind prison walls. At mass graves and hurriedly dug sepulchers. Wherever voices of dissent and cries for freedom had been hushed. Amid the anonymous bones scattered about the steaming earth. Political chicanery, xenophobia, racism, pogroms, torture, war, genocide, ethnic cleansing. They’d all become a blur in an unceasing tempest of human agony.
Telling inconvenient truths is risky business. I know. I’ve been in the trenches as tracer bullets whizzed over my head. I’ve been grazed once or twice. Had my reflexes failed me when I exposed political corruption, police brutality and military crimes, I might not be whining today.
Much still begs to be said, revealed, dissected. I’ve been tempted to veer away from the truths that rankle some readers and treat them instead to the kind of bland fiction that will spare them the hazards of hypertension. Tempted but never overcome.
Words survive briefly in the two-dimensional realm of an opinion piece, but they fail to generate change. Instead, they leave a wasteland of rhetoric that does nothing to alter human nature, chill passions, curb hatred. Some horrors are simply too shocking for words.
The truth is not a marketable commodity. I’ve abandoned all hope that my columns can ever stimulate a rational dialogue. Resorting to disinformation and out-of-context tangents, a phalanx of right-wing moralizers who hide behind the anonymity of their blogs is poised to strike, intent on rejecting facts or silencing them with puerile ad-hominem assaults.
Is truth-telling worth the wall of odium and discord it raises? I struggle with this question with every commentary I write. If it takes whining to ventilate inconvenient truths, so be it. I will whine. It helps clear my throat. (11/23/13) (photo courtesy Internet)
Note: W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and author. On assignment in Central America from 1994 to 2006, he covered politics, the military, human rights and other socio-economic issues. He lives in southern California. To view a list of his works, see W. E. Gutman