[Viewpoint] The warehouse of truthThrough a thorough investigation that lasted months, The Washington Post’s Susan Schmidt found out that the lobbyist Jack Abramoff took an astronomical amount of money from casino business executives and spent it to bribe high officials in the federal government. In doing so, he successfully killed proposed legislation prohibiting gambling on the Internet and interfered in the process of approving casinos, Schmidt reported. For her reporting on the scandal, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2006.
What moved readers most, however, was not the reporter’s perseverance in digging up the truth, but The Washington Post’s humble attitude regarding a small mistake in its article. The newspaper confirmed that there was a mistake when the amount of money that Abramoff spent for lobbying was converted from the British pound to the U.S. dollar. Although no one else noticed the mistake in the calculation, the daily ran a correction.
The Post’s adherence to facts earned trust from its readers.
In September 2004, when the presidential election campaign was heating up in the United States, CBS news producer Mary Mapes produced a segment on “60 Minutes” based on documents from the files of George W. Bush’s National Guard commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian. The documents said that while the U.S. was at war in Vietnam, the Republican candidate served in the Guard but was not fully committed to his duties. Since the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, had served with distinction in the Vietnam War, the documents had the potential of significantly damaging Bush’s candidacy.
Bush’s camp fiercely objected to the report, of course. While CBS initially defended its report, it soon changed its position. The broadcaster asked former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press President Louis Boccardi to conduct an independent investigation to find out whether the documents were authentic. The two, unfortunately, failed to determine whether the Killian documents were genuine or not.
They did, however, conclude that it was wrong for the broadcaster to uncritically defend its report during the early stage of the scandal. Accepting the advisers’ words, CBS fired a senior vice president, an executive producer and Mapes.
The New York Times’ Judith Miller is a veteran journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for her report on Al Qaeda in 2002. She demonstrated unrivaled competence in investigating and reporting news in the national security field. In 2003, shortly before the United States attacked Iraq, she reported that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The U.S. government used this report as a justification for its pre-emptive attack against Iraq.
Later, Miller was dragged into a scandal over the leak of classified information. As a special investigation was conducted to find out who leaked the name of an undercover CIA agent to a newspaper columnist, Miller was questioned. She appeared at a grand jury where she refused to reveal her source. But as her source later allowed her to reveal the name, Miller was released after 85 days behind bars. It would seem that she would then be treated as a hero.
However, the 57-year-old journalist had to leave The New York Times because of the affair. That was because a committee consisting of the paper’s senior journalists submitted a report saying that Miller had lied about the case in the early phase to the editor in chief and the publisher and that her reports had not been accurate.
The U.S. press is noted for being more loyal to facts than to its self-interest. Its loyalty to facts creates trust in newspapers and that trust is the guarantee of a bright future for papers. Praising this trait, Max Weber called U.S. newspapers the warehouse of the truth. He believed that American journalism would make a bigger contribution to democracy than European journalism which is more obsessed with expressing their own opinions and criticizing the ideas of others.
The JoongAng Ilbo will implement a fact-checking system for the first time in Korea. The daily will get its own reporters to confirm facts and ask experts in various fields outside the newspaper to verify whether news reports are based on the truth or not.
We can be sure of one thing. Loyalty to the truth will save newspapers from a crisis.
*The writer is a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Min-hwan