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Just The Facts

We did a search for “truth” on Google. We got 53,800,000 results, but there was no way to tell how much actual truth we stumbled onto. One of the first Web sites to come up in our search was one taking aim at Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, with a warning: “The camera changes everything. In video, there can be no truth or falsity.”

We disagree: In today’s media, there is both. The truth of unvarnished video was in evidence last week in the heartbreaking pictures from Indonesia. It is an irony that TV news often has its finest moments amid tragedy.

But knowing the difference between what is true and what is false has become tough in a world where news is delivered nonstop and mixed on the Web and elsewhere with increasing doses of rumor and opinion. Pictures can lie with the click of a mouse, and news can be spun like a top if the past campaign season is any yardstick.

Competition, consolidation, the Internet—all have played a role in driving broadcast and cable news toward more reactive reporting and a new and troubling place. Today we have a sort of political vanity press that winks at us to let us know it is on our side, whatever our side may be.

Fox News once boasted, “We Report. You Decide.” But while there are examples of good journalism on Fox, the network has overtaken CNN principally on the strength of its prime-time opinions. Fox has succeeded by satisfying unserved or underserved consumers and giving them what they want: respect for their world views.

The 24-hour news cycle, combined with the ubiquity of the Web and pressures to grab a larger audience with fewer staffers, has driven news organizations toward controversy. It’s easier and more fun. News is often dry, complex.

ABC News President David Westin warned recently that “a rush to present opinion is beginning to drown out our reporting of facts about our world.”

Geneva Overholser, columnist and also a professsor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, put it more ominously to the Hartford Courant: “This was the year when it finally became unmistakably clear that objectivity has outlived its usefulness as an ethical touchstone for journalism. The way it is currently construed, 'objectivity’ results in a media easily manipulated by an executive branch intent on and adept at controlling the message.

We’re afraid her troubling analysis is hardly hyperbole. Years ago, when Walter Cronkite ended his newscast by intoning, “That’s the way it is,” we knew he was explaining the world situation that particular evening, not his world view. In 2005, we need that back. We need to veer from shows where guests shout political slogans. We do need invigorating, informed, undisguised opinion. It moves people to action. But we need programs that are purely and unambiguously factual. The future of credible electronic journalism depends on separating the search for truth from the marketing of opinion. We’re done being spun.