How Journalism Should Be Like a Religion

When I first started in journalism in the 1980s, a common conservative critique of the media (and of the left) was that it had embraced “moral relativism.”

They had a point. Good journalists find that each witness sees things a little bit differently; shades of gray are more common than blacks and whites. We also had been influenced by the rights revolution, with its emphasis on respecting the realities of different people’s lives. Maybe this was reinforced by attending a few too many support groups where all feelings were all equally valid.

To top it off, journalists on the coasts tended to be a fairly secular lot, associating religious language with intolerance, antagonism to science, and an aversion to facts.

The world has turned upside down. Donald Trump and his campaign have pushed the idea that each of us has our own truth, or “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway put it.

Suddenly I feel like journalists are the most religious people in America. I don’t mean that journalists are suddenly enamored with the supernatural, but rather that we’ve re-embraced the idea that there’s a thing called “truth” – an absolute value that lives above and apart from the world of framing and spin.

Until 2009, I ran a journalistically-oriented religion website. While some considered the combination to be oxymoronic, for me, at least, being a journalist had a spiritual element because we believed that Truth exists, and we aspired to find it. Even if we humans couldn’t always discern it, we knew it was there and had a duty to work toward it.  I always felt this deep down but never said it out loud, as it sounded romantic and, well, religious.

But recently we have become clearer that we are in the middle of a war on the concept of truth, accompanied by a rise in conservative moral relativism.

One could see it in the conservative defense of the tobacco industry, which undercut science by putting out alternative facts. More recently, we’ve seen the fossil fuels industry take the same approach on climate change.

The goal of such tactics is usually not to refute the evidence but move the debate from an area of absolutes to an area of relativity – from “this is true” to “who’s to say what’s true?”

The Russians apparently tried this too. By generating fictional articles, they created confusion about what stories were true and what sources were reliable. A former Ambassador to Russia, Michael A. McFaul, explained, “They don’t try to win the argument. It’s to make everything seem relative.”

The Trump campaign raised this to an art form. Defending Trump’s false claim that three million illegal immigrants voted in the election, surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes said:

“On one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts…. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

It is the ultimate triumph of relativism.  In addition to being bad for democracy, it’s also profoundly irreligious. If you believe in God, isn’t there also an absolute reality that He or She can see and judge?

Yes, the faithful of different flavors may argue over whether there can be moral absolutes. All faiths allow that some truths may be permanently obscured, with only God having the vantage point to see it clearly. But that doesn’t mean facts (and reality) don’t exist.

That leads me to three pieces of religious/journalistic advice:

1) We should get back to defending “objectivity.” Pure objectivity can probably never be achieved – but it is a process, not an end point. It’s like biologists using the scientific method. They do have a hypothesis; they do have biases; they do have conclusions that hopefully come from evidence.  But the best of them also follow a process that adapts to new facts, and they are fearless in stating what reality appears to be. We should re-commit to objectivity as a goal, along with the professionalism required to pursue it.

2) One’s effectiveness is crucial but perhaps it’s not ultimately what matters most. Perhaps it will become hard for some to get revved up to do accountability journalism when we see that so many people do not believe the reporting anyway. We should certainly look for ways to improve our impact but I find myself these days also drawn to the religious language of those who fight for seemingly lost causes: don’t do it because you’ll win; do it because you are called to it. Journalists need not be embarrassed to believe (even if they don’t say it out loud) that they have a moral calling. They do.

3) Embrace the spiritual nature of truth.  It’s exciting to see journalists flatly reject spin when it’s untrue. Chuck Todd did journalists proud when he responded to Kellyanne Conway by saying, “Alternative facts are not facts, they’re falsehoods.”

Preach it, Rev. Todd!

Perhaps the primary role of journalists is not being tough, adversarial or even “holding the President accountable.” It’s being religious zealots for the truth.

Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, a platform for online memorials and life milestones. He's a Washington Monthly contributing editor, journalist and author.