Former Newsweek Washington Correspondent Urges Media to Battle ‘Conservative Moral Relativism’

January 28th, 2017 8:37 PM

Should the mainstream media lead, to borrow a term from religion, a great awakening? Yes, in a sense, suggested longtime journalist Steven Waldman in a Thursday Washington Monthly piece. “Donald Trump and his campaign have pushed the idea that each of us has our own truth, or ‘alternative facts,’” wrote Waldman. “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.”

As Waldman sees it, the current “war on the concept of truth [is] 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?’”

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Waldman, a former Washington correspondent for Newsweek and the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the religion-centered website Beliefnet, noted that when he was a newbie reporter 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…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.” But that was long ago, and now, as a result of Trumpism, “the world has turned upside down.”

Waldman offered some “religious/journalistic advice,” including a focus on objectivity. “Pure objectivity can probably never be achieved,” he opined, “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…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.”

He also called on the media to “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.