Alan Murray on Journalism and the Facts

February 27, Roger Bolton

Last week, I had the honor of presenting to Fortune Editor Alan Murray the first Larry Foster Award for Integrity in Public Communication from the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State. I posted my introductory remarks on Thursday. Here are his acceptance remarks:

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Thank you for this magnificent award. It's such an honor to receive it, and to receive it here among friends.

And I do consider you friends. Some of my journalist colleagues think those of you in public relations are the enemy. But I've always felt that you and we are trading in the same currency—facts. You may withhold a fact every now and then, or pile up the facts so they tilt toward the storyline you are paid to present. And I may assemble the facts in a way that suits my notion of the perfect narrative—which may be no closer to reality. But at the end of the day, we both deal in facts. And the facts are the facts.

Funny how a simple truism like that—the facts are the facts—sounds almost old fashioned these days, like "dialing a telephone," or "checking the dictionary." Some even contend we live in a "post-fact" society.

Clearly, changes in the press have something to do with that. I trained in an organization that had standards of verification, fact checking, and fairness. But in the Internet age, everyone is a journalist, and common standards of the profession have declined.

Speed also has something to do with it. Our readers want news the instant it happens, not 24 hours later, and certainly not five days later. That leaves less time for checking the facts, making sure you have the story right.

Bias is an issue, too. The people who go into journalism are, as a group, generally to the left of the people who go into banking. It's hard to escape that reality.

Then there is the fact that we editors no longer control your front page—your social media contacts do that. And guess what? Your friends tend to pass along headlines that have edge and bite to them, and are more likely to ignore traditional, straight headlines and stories.

All that had happened before we entered the era of Trump. Now, we have a president who has an exceedingly loose relationship with facts—like whether President Obama was born in Kenya, or Muslims danced on the tops of buildings in New Jersey after 9-11, or he won more electoral votes than any president since Ronald Reagan.

Trump also has decided to make the press his enemy—"disgusting," "corrupt," "fake news," he calls us. And he makes no distinction between those who have standards of verification and fairness, and those who don't. He baits us by throwing out incorrect facts and misguided notions several times a day, knowing we will take the bait and thus prove his point, over and over, that we are against him.

The result is that the great divide between those in this country who voted for Donald Trump and cheer now that he is doing exactly what he said he would do, and those who didn't, is getting wider and deeper. And there is no common currency of facts to form the basis for civil discourse, much less civil action, on any of the very real problems or issues that face our society.

Now, I'm not sure I know what to do about this. If I did, I suspect it would take more than the six minutes I've been allotted tonight to address it.

But I do know this: we need institutions like the Arthur Page Center, that are dedicated to the truth and to the currency of facts, more than ever before. So I thank you for this, and I encourage you to keep it up.

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