Surely this is a troubling outcome for journalists who believe in empirical facts as the basis of reality. But for Manjoo, truthiness is only part of the problem. He cites the transformation of CNN’s Lou Dobbs: a man who once revered Big Business is now one of its great detractors, even as he conducts a one-man crusade against illegal immigrants. “When you investigate the roots of bias in the media,” Manjoo writes, “Lou Dobbs’s personal motivations begin to appear less important than the system in which he operates.” And according to the logic of that system, viewers will invariably consider stories on controversial topics “slanted away from their own views.” So why not throw in their collective lot with Dobbs (and Glenn Beck and Olbermann and O’Reilly)? The bottom line: in contemporary media, “objectivity doesn’t pay as well as taking a strong, mad-as-hell stance.”

Dobbs has shifted his approach, says the author, because audiences have bought into the notion that news is not, and cannot be, objective. If viewers outside Dobbs’s target demographic find many of his reports bizarre, so what? Attacks by critics may actually reinforce the broadcaster’s ties to his audience. “Dobbs is not a raving idiot,” Manjoo assures us. “He just plays one on TV. Given the circumstances, he’d be a fool not to.”

How, then, can the profession fight back? Just as sunlight is the best disinfectant for rotten government, so is skepticism the best and most reliable friend of journalists who care about truth and not just stories that are “true enough.” The old adage is more essential than ever: if your mother says she loves you, check it out. Repeated trips to the factual well remain the best way to distill reality and guard against hype. Check, cross check, and check again. Truth may be getting its shoes on while a lie reaches half way around the world, as Mark Twain observed. But truth still matters, and in the long run, it will prevail so long as a decent number of people push for it.

 

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ.