I started at The Post in 1959 as a kid reporter, aching for page one. Hence my excitement at being assigned to cover a then-rare purse-change murder of a woman on her way home from the bus. I phoned in the details to one of our old-school rewrite men, and a story duly appeared on the front page under my byline. I was thrilled.
Then came the twinge. Something was there that I hadn't put in -- a quotation from the deceased. "Mercy, no," she was quoted as telling someone who'd asked if she was afraid of walking home alone at night, "who would want to hurt little old me?" The phone rang: a family member thanked me for the story and volunteered that the quotation was "just like her." Harry the rewrite man later explained to me in his broken, confidential drawl, "I suppose . . . you think that . . . to quote someone . . . the person has to say it."
Well, yes. Getting it straight remains at the heart of our business. But notwithstanding the resources and technologies now available, we are still struggling. Truth -- even the literal, factual, easier kinds of truth -- does not always come easily. The 24-hour speed-up technologies now available to journalists may invite more error than they prevent. Ethics has become -- has had to become -- a standard part of the study and practice of journalism. There are many honorable individual exceptions, but collectively we of the media are on the defensive.
Still, the great stories of my time like Watergate and Vietnam saw journalists become participants and even heroes of the piece. "The story" for many of us became the perceived assault of the authorities on the liberties and visions of the press, and the press's sometimes defiant defense.
As a producer of commentary, I shared in these excitements. But I also discovered a full set of hesitations bearing on the basic intellectual integrity of American opinion journalism. I came to see the problem with our work as whether commentators were examining their own premises and conclusions, not just the other guy's. A failure to achieve mature self-awareness, or to acknowledge the obligation to do so, goes a long way to explaining why journalists become political causists, play favorites, tilt, rant and thereby forfeit some of the writing class's claim to public credibility. It is the difference between skeptically questioning established authority and showing that authority instinctive contempt by failing to consult it at all.
Eventually I stumbled upon a colleague who became for me a kind of model for my doubting ilk. There are plenty of opinion writers from whom one can learn a great deal. But the distinction of the British journalist William Shawcross is that he examined honestly the story that had made his career, and on the evidence he changed some part of his mind.
The story was Vietnam. Shawcross was bitterly and brilliantly "against the war," as people of the period put it. But he kept thinking about it:
"[T]hose of us who opposed the American war in Indochina should be extremely humble in the face of the appalling aftermath: a form of genocide in Cambodia and horrific tyranny in both Vietnam and Laos. Looking back on my own coverage for The [London] Sunday Times of the South Vietnamese war effort of 1970-75, I think I concentrated too easily on the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese and their American allies, was too ignorant of the inhuman Hanoi regime, and far too willing to believe that a victory by the communists would provide a better future. But after the Communist victory came the refugees to Thailand and the floods of boat people desperately seeking to escape the Cambodian killing fields and the Vietnamese gulags. Their eloquent testimony should have put paid to all illusions."
Anyone who resonates to those words, as I did, was not necessarily "for the war." At the least Shawcross was saying that the human costs, all costs, needed to be weighed in any summary judgment of the war, that in Vietnam these costs compelled a close consideration of the benefits and necessities supposedly being purchased by them. Different answers were possible.
Something else is important to me now as I close out my 40 Post years. Journalism wears many guises. I think its ultimate justification is not to solve problems and set policies but to look truth in the eye, as much as one can, clearly and fairly, even when it hurts. This in turn poses a requirement to purge the mind of workaday vanity and political excuses. I am working on it.