Executive Privilege

Running a newspaper presents a number of interesting challenges. On a purely logistic level, a full issue has to be published every Monday. The Tartan has a staff approaching 100 students, so a strong and capable infrastructure is necessary to guarantee that their time is effectively used. We need to be ready for news to break at any time. As soon as the paper is published, we need to immediately begin planning for the next week?s issue.

Yet alongside all of these challenges there exist additional difficulties. One of these difficulties is being as objective and unbiased as possible in our coverage. Accusations of bias, of slant, and of distortion are serious charges to any journalist. While we all realize that you can?t please all the people all the time, that doesn?t mean we shouldn?t wonder about our own biases. Furthermore, The Tartan is often used by individuals to accuse others of bias (as in this issue), or even to accuse The Tartan itself of bias (as in last issue).

Yet there is an inherent danger in the accusation of bias. To claim an objective reality that is being distorted by a journalist ignores the complexities and complications that a true investigation into bias requires. At the same time, to claim that all reality is simply recounted narrative and that there can be no falsity to the journalist?s lived experience is to deny some of the responsibilities that a newspaper like The Tartan has to the community.

So how do we understand the relationship between our observations and some understanding of the truth? This is hardly a new question.

The ancient Greeks had a word, parrhesia, which described what we today might call ?free speech.? A speaker who employed parrhesia would describe the truth, even at great risk to himself. A frequently used example is that of Plato in Dionysius? Syracuse. Yet the relationship between the speaker of parrhesia and the truth is never truly brought into question. It is always assumed that the parrhesiastes is assured of the truth through his own moral qualities.

We cannot assume that because we speak with conviction or with good intentions that we are telling the truth. We cannot employ the same view of the truth that the Greeks did.

There is a temptation to claim that if a majority of readers believe the story to be objective and believable, then there is some truth to it. Yet we need to remember that bias can be so institutionalized that we all fall for it. Before the beginning of the most recent war in Iraq, it was almost universally accepted that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Even anti-war voices claimed as much, despite viewing the war as a bad idea. Over one year and over ten thousand deaths later, it is now a widely accepted fact that there were no WMDs. We shouldn?t let public acceptability be the last judge of truthfulness.

The notion of parrhesia is alive today in the notion of "speaking truth to power." This is a truth that is lived every day. We see it in the struggles and successes of billions of people. We see it in the elations, alienations, and oppressions of everyday life, at the micropolitical level of interpersonal interaction and at the macropolitical level of societal forces. We are biased when our stories conflict with the lived experience of the community, not when they conflict with the expectations of the community. We need to discover more ways to express these truths. It?s a challenge not only for journalists but for anyone who is interested in social change.