Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all Concerned? So begins the Rotary Club's Four Way Test. As we all know, sometimes the truth is not fair. Take the aftermath of the Gulf War. It's true that, although we supposedly won the war, our adversary Saddam Hussein is still in power, a threat to his own people and his neighbors, and a potential disruption to the world oil supply. Is that fair?
There is a tendency to apply the truth/fairness test to the news media with the unstated notion that journalists should be both right and righteous. Sadly, in the rush to be first, media outlets often sacrifice both accuracy and decency. Consider the case of scientist Wen Ho Lee.
Several recent stories from the presidential campaign trail are worth analysis along truth and fairness dimensions. Bear in mind that to Democrats, bad news about Bush is always true and fair while bad news about Gore is neither. Of course, Republicans feel just the opposite.
Is it true that Gore's mother-in-law pays three times as much for arthritis medicine as Al and Tipper do for the same pills for their dog? Apparently not. The price difference is more like twice as much. Is it fair for the media to report this exaggerated discrepancy? Of course it is.
Is it true that for one thirtieth of a second, TV viewers saw the word "rats" in a Republican commercial criticizing Gore's health plan? Someone with too much time on his hands looked at the spot frame by frame to show that this was the case. Is it fair to waste our time with accusations of ham-handed attempts at subliminal advertising, a practice never proven effective? You be the judge.
Is it true that in response to those accusations, Bush was unable to pronounce subliminal, a word that many of us would chew on? Yep. Was it fair to replay incessantly the tape of him trying to do so? I'm not sure. Just a few years ago, it was common practice for journalists to edit, paraphrase, or summarize comments from politicians who weren't top-notch wordsmiths. Now, in the era of voyeurism - journalism, the rules have changed.
In a similar vein, is it true that Bush called a New York Times reporter a vulgar name, and some enterprising snoop caught the comment on tape? Yes again. Was this practice fair? Privacy is an endangered species these days, and public figures have less of it than anyone. I'll answer this one with a bit of advice I got when I first stepped into a TV studio. Don't walk in front of the cameras, and don't talk around the microphones unless you want to be heard.
Is it true that the New York Times had no editorial response to this incident, but that within a week it was using adjectives like blundering and peevish on the front page to describe Bush? Absolutely. Even staunch conservative and Clinton-Gore basher William Safire found it hard to say anything nice about the Texas governor. Was this fair? Not really, but for most of our history, US newspapers have acted this way.
In demanding both objectivity and even-handedness, we are asking something from the media that they are poorly prepared for and indisposed to provide. Instead of fairness, we should look for significance. The proper questions should be "Is it true?" and "Is it trivial?"