Pulitzer, Muggeridge and the Responsibility of the Journalist

COMMENTARY: ‘All my words for the Word…’

BBC broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge.
BBC broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge. (photo: PA Wire / AP)

The journalist is positioned between an editor and an audience. What happens when one’s responsibility to his editor and to his audience clash?

Eddie Doherty (1890-1975), who, in his time, was the highest paid journalist in the United States, writing for the Chicago Examiner and other newspapers, had a simple resolution for this problem. Inscribed on a cross that marks his grave in Combermere, Ontario, are the words, “All my words for the Word.” It was his working motto and one that is appropriate for all Catholic writers.

The Truth, however, is not always palatable with either editors or readers. The former, quite often, is more interested in forming opinion, while the latter are typically interested in having their prejudices reinforced. A newspaper may have a slant, and its reading audience may have a preference.

A conscientious journalist may risk losing his job if he stubbornly clings to the truth. A responsible journalist, then, must be a person of uncompromisible integrity. His love for truth must be greater than his love for employment, money or fame. It is small wonder, then, why the journalist who serves the truth is a rare commodity.

Joseph Pulitzer, a newspaper tycoon who established the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for excellence in journalism, stood firmly for what his prize represents.

Every issue of the paper,” he stated, “presents an opportunity and a duty to say something courageous and true; to rise above the mediocre and conventional; to say something that will command the respect of the intelligent, the educated, the independent part of the community; to rise above fear of partisanship and fear of popular prejudice.” His words, “Our republic and its press will rise and fall together,” appear on a 1947 postage stamp. His ideals, nonetheless, are seldom put into practice. Ideology, especially in today’s society, persistently supplants truth.

St. Augustine was filled with self-reproach when he realized that he was acting as a mere “vendor of words.”

“How miserable was I then,” he confessed, “and how didst thou deal with me, to make me feel my misery that day, when I was preparing to recite a panegyric of the emperor wherein I was to utter many a lie, and lying was to be applauded by those who knew I lied.”

Malcolm Muggeridge, whose life span nearly coincided with the 20th century (1903-1990), was a world-class journalist. In the years 1932-33, he was living in Moscow reporting for England’s Manchester Guardian. Although he had been raised in socialist ideology and longed for a government that truly met the needs of the people, he quickly became disillusioned by what he saw. He reported how the peasant population was subjected to starvation and ill-treated by Stalin's regime. Though accurate, Muggeridge’s reports were rejected; both by leaders in Moscow and also by Western journalists who chose to believe Soviet propaganda.

Looking back on his career as a journalist with the Guardian, a chastened Muggeridge confesses in a tone reminiscent of St. Augustine’s Confessions that it is “painful to me now to reflect the ease with which I got into the way of using this non-language; these drooling non-sentences conveying non-thought, propounding non-fears and offering non-hopes. Words are as beautiful as love, and as easily betrayed. I am more penitent for my false words — for the most part, mercifully lost forever in the Media’s great slag heaps — than for my false deeds” (Chronicles of Wasted Time). It is the integrity of the Catholic Church, for one important reason, that led Muggeridge to his conversion to Catholicism.

Using words that cannot be lost, St. Matthew tells us that “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (12:36). Former general secretary of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, has remarked that “Respect for the word is the first commandment in the discipline by which a man can be educated to maturity — intellectual, emotional, and moral” (Markings). According to a Confucian maxim, “If language is incorrect, then what is said is not meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.”

A journalist’s dedication to the truth of what he writes, helps to put things in their right order. The journalist assumes a most important role.

Fake news is a much discussed phrase in social media. It dances away from truth and into the arms of what happens to be fashionable. It is as easy to accomplish as getting the wrong answer in arithmetic.

Truth and accuracy demand a great deal of thought and their rewards are well worth the price. At the same time, the pressures of time can be a formidable enemy to careful journalism. We live by the clock and seldom have the time to do things right.

Journalism is a noble profession, but not the most noble. In Part II, Question 42, of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas asks why Christ never wrote anything, which is tantamount to asking why he was not a journalist. The Angelic Doctor reasoned that the more excellent the teacher, the more excellent should be his manner of teaching. Therefore, “his doctrine would be imprinted on the hearts of his hearers.” It is more difficult to lie face-to-face.

A journalist does not confront his audience face to face. Therefore, it is far easier to lie, as it is in commercial advertising. His audience is far removed from him at the moment he practices his trade.

The true journalist, however, must have love for his readers even though he is not in direct contact with them. But God is in direct contact with them and this is why the Catholic journalist must dedicate all his work to the Word.

Diane and James (Jim) Foley; Diane runs the foundation named for her late son that advocates for the safe return of all Americans held hostage or unjustly detained abroad.

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