Saturday, May 12, 2007

How skeptical is too skeptical?

If you've played the card game "BS", you know that calling someone's bluff can cost you when you're wrong.

Journalism seems similar in some ways. Sometimes you have proof that someone is lying. When you call it, you win. Other times you just have a hunch. You can either call the supposed lie and face the consequences, or remain silent and play it safe. It's a tough decision.

It all boils down to skepticism. How much is too much?

This week Jim Lehrer talked about journalistic cynicism on ABC Australia's Media Report, a half-hour analysis of the mass communication industry.

Lehrer is a veteran PBS reporter who has covered major stories, including John F. Kennedy's assasination and Watergate. He said reporters need to be wary of officials, but they should avoid becoming obsessed with the "gotcha" game.

"If somebody in the media just assumes everybody in the government is a liar, that's no way to operate," Lehrer said. "You have to have a healthy scepticism, you have to be alert, but you also have to try as a reporter, to understand these decisions, and understand what's in the minds of the people who are making these decisions on behalf of the public, particularly when it comes to war and peace."

A question about the media's handling of the Iraq War prompted Lehrer's comment. He said the media shouldn't solely bear the blame for the nation being complicit with the White House's agenda in Iraq. Lehrer said a lack of information was also responsible for the lack of oversight.

Clearly, United States media were not skeptical enough when the Bush administration invaded Iraq. Few reporters questioned the White House claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

What would have happened if a maverick columnist challenged the WMD allegations? Very few experts and officials were casting doubt on President Bush's accusations at the time. Would that rebel reporter sound like a leftist hack, confirming the consertive wing's view of the liberal media? Would she have successfully turned the tide of our zeitgeist, preventing the present problems in Iraq?

I guess it's too late to mull over the hypotheticals. But I do think reporters were pulsing to the administration's drum beat -- and I think some of them still do. Injecting personal skepticism into a story without attributing the cynicims to someone else is always dangerous territory. Sometimes it takes a outsider like Bob Woodward in Watergate. His lack of experience helped him to question the political machine.

When I learned that Carol Lam, former United States attorney for San Diego, was dismissed, I remember thinking, "What in the world? This sounds fishy." On the morning the news broke, I told a Medill grad student who was in the legal RPA that he should check it out. I lived in San Diego when Lam successfully prosecuted disgraced ex-Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. I remember her intellect, her dedication and her blue-ribbon reputation among the media.

Still, I thought I might have I missed something. Immediately after I spoke with my class mate, I wondered if I had sent him on a wild goose chase. I knew nothing about the federal justice system, and I almost felt embarassed to raise a red flag. I first heard about the story on NPR on the "L" -- maybe I tuned in after the reporter explained the reason for her dismissal.

Turns out, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she thought the firings were politically charged immediately after the dismissals were announced. That legitimized my conspiracy theory. If she and other Democratic lawmakers hadn't spoken up, I know I would have discounted my intuition.

When do we dismiss a hunch because of our ignorance? And when do we confidently call BS?