There’s lots of anguish these days over journalists sidestepping facts in favor of their own views in reporting news. As I write in my book, without facts truth becomes ever more elusive. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about him, Robert Caro, LBJ’s biographer, had this to say:
“We live in an age where facts are somehow being denigrated, like there aren’t any facts,” he said. “What’s true is there isn’t one truth. But there are a hell of a lot facts, and the more time I spent in the Johnson library, the more facts I got. The more facts you get, the closer you come to whatever truth there is.”
Caro’s comments are worth pondering in our current fractured cultural and political landscape. Unfortunately, many journalists no longer make any claims of objectivity. Theirs is a subjective viewpoint, usually with a social or political purpose. When I was an active journalist, I always thought that “good getting” of facts was paramount in covering a story. Cable channels with their “breaking news” droning along through the hours certainly contributes to our dilemma, especially those darn talking heads who forever stray from facts.
Sometimes, even the way facts are presented may be frustrating. When I covered LBJ, he absorbed news and current events like a blotter. He had Associated Press and United Press teletypes in the Oval Office and he watched them closely. I recall one day when he held an impromptu press conference at his desk. Back then the pressroom, off of the public entrance to the West Wing Lobby, was small, and there wasn’t space for everybody. The United Press’s telephone was in a phone booth just inside the lobby entrance door. I watched with fascination as LBJ strode through the lobby to the booth within minutes after the press conference was over. He rapped his knuckles loudly on the folding glass door to get the attention of Al Spivak as he dictated to his office.
“You’ve got the wrong lead, Al.” the president shouted. “Your lead is all wrong.”
Obviously, he’d seen the first few paragraphs of Spivak’s copy move on the United Press wire. He wasn’t disputing the facts in the story, they were his own facts, but the president disagreed with how they were being presented. Now, that’s perplexing! How did Spivak handle it? He turned his head away and continued his dictation. When he finished, Spivak unfolded the booth door and spoke:
“Yes, Mr. President?”
“Never Mind,” Johnson replied.
And that’s a fact.