News Values: Ideas for an Information Age
By Jack Fuller
University of Chicago Press
251 pp., $22.95
Jack Fuller started beating the streets for news as a police reporter when he was still a teenager. He learned early (actually, his father had told him) that it was hard to get information from the bereaved about someone who had just died by identifying himself over the phone as a reporter. It was much easier to impersonate a deputy coroner.
His moral and intellectual education evidently went up a lot from there. His book, "News Values," has the touch and feel of knowledgeable, authentic caring about the kind of journalism that can help make society more cohesive, even humane.
In fact, the publisher and editor of one of the nation's top newspapers (the Chicago Tribune) now tells us, in his more mature years, that the Golden Rule is "a useful way to look at the requirement of intellectual honesty" in journalism.
The coroner bit is in an early chapter on confidence games reporters play, and it will pull readers in quickly. There's a story of a tavern the Chicago Sun Times set up in 1977 to lure thirsty city inspectors, who might then come in to shake down the tavern owners - and get photographed by hidden cameras. The resulting reports made the Pulitzer finals, but Ben Bradlee got the Pulitzer Board to throw them out. Truth-tellers should not be deceptive, Bradlee said.
Fuller touches expertly on most of the basics in modern journalism - what is news, accuracy, objectivity, bias, the "observer theory" (the belief that there is absolute independence between the observer and the observed), the problem of authority, the adversarial approach, fairness.
He moves on to "prior restraint" (when government prevents publication of material), resisting subpoenas, privacy. He then steps directly into the important area of how the news can help keep the wider community healthy.
Here's where a good journalist, enriched with enough experience, breadth of outlook, intellectual power, and depth of reading can offer insights more effectively than most others. Fuller does so. He leads convincingly to the conclusion that the basis of free expression and a cohesive society is truth-telling, with all the risks, labor, and resistance that truth-telling so frequently encounters.
Fuller warns that journalists and others must affirm that one individual can communicate a thought to another through language, and that some assertions have higher value, or truth, than others. He is countering modern skepticism, which he identifies as an "underlying intellectual attack upon the ability of texts to communicate coherent meaning."
Later, he warns that opposites frame the rhetorical landscape of today: "Unity and multiplicity, coherence and complexity, clarity and ambiguity, simple-mindedness and muddle-headedness, belief in perfectibility and cynicism, control and chaos, the idea of progress and the fear of the future."
Without a system of thought to explain competing assertions, he says, experts-for-hire duel, the crowd looks for blood, people buy the journalist's version of Original Sin and think the worst of everybody - and such cynicism causes people eventually just to tune out.
He is talking about something as fundamental as how the printed word is needed to preserve self-government.
His own newspaper has come up with what he calls a simple way to describe "our fundamental purpose": "Helping people master their world through knowledge."
He doesn't say it, but this phrase applies the Golden Rule to our fragmented times. Appropriately, he includes in the book a recounting of how the Chicago Tribune detailed, in a 16-page section, how an American lab appropriated from the Pasteur Institute in Paris the discovery of the virus thought to cause AIDS.
The book ends with a discussion of how the written word, and the reading of it, fosters "the development of humans as free, individual beings."
Fuller notes how intellectually passive it is to watch TV and cites Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa on this point.
If enough people read newspapers, even in our increasingly segmented society, he argues, we will find what we have in common - our need for and our actual hard-won possession of individual freedom.
The Dark Ages came, he warns us, when the illiterate conquered the literate.
Convincing and understated, the book should appeal to a wide audience, including journalists and journalism teachers.
Journalists, he concludes, "if we keep our news values straight, ... can continue to make a profit helping society remain open and strong."
*David Mutch is a Monitor staff writer.